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Conflict and Cultural Heritage in Syria

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On September 25, at an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) announced the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects to fight against illicit traffic in cultural goods. World Monuments Fund President Bonnie Burnham was one of the speakers at the event, and below is an edited version of her remarks.

Protecting cultural heritage in times of conflict is one of the biggest challenges facing our field. It is a challenge precisely because it is dwarfed in the public's perception by the magnitude of human suffering and civil disruption caused by these conflicts. Contrary to this perception, the loss of heritage is a critical issue, for many reasons, in the context of how to emerge from these disastrous events.

At World Monuments Fund we say that cultural heritage is the DNA of civilization. It is the bridge of traditions, objects, and structures that links us to our history. Heritage provides the precedents that shape our world, gives places their meaning, and shows us the way ahead through references to the past. Cultural heritage shapes the environment, contributes to moral and economic well-being, and is one of the fundamental cornerstones of a peaceful and prosperous society. The values of our heritage are well recognized and universally esteemed -- hence the very notion of World Heritage, recognizing places of outstanding universal value and their relevance to all of society, as a common legacy.

People in places under siege care no less about their heritage than we do as we watch with concern from the outside. But conflict brings destruction, often on a massive scale, and people caught in these circumstances are both immediately affected and powerless to intervene.

In the two years since the Syrian conflict began, we have seen major destruction of heritage sites caused by shelling, bombing, fire, and looting. Rebels took refuge in famous sites, such as the crusader castles of Crac de Chevalier and Shayzar. The ancient Roman city of Apamea was the site of heavy fighting, and was badly damaged afterwards by looters using bulldozers. The citadel of Aleppo was fired upon by a government tank, and its medieval iron gate was destroyed. We watched the heartbreaking footage of the city's famous souk and the beautiful, medieval mosque and minaret shattered by fire and shells. iPhones and YouTube allowed these events to be shared around the world as they happened. It was agonizing to watch.

The information generated through these informal reports is a valuable tool. Analyzing it will enhance our ability to act effectively in the aftermath of this terrible conflict. That is the good news.

What we can do to protect our cultural treasures begins with identifying important heritage sites and materials before the conflict occurs and doing whatever it is possible to do to protect them. The next step is training people to provide local care to the extent that this is possible during the conflict, and prepare for post-conflict work. Today this kind of training is taking place through long-distance, virtual courses. Both the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the sister organization to ICOM, and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), a heritage training center based in Rome, have been providing training for Syrian colleagues. The Syrian Department of Antiquities is doing a great deal to document damage, carry out repairs, and strengthen protection for heritage sites as we speak. Information on these actions is widely circulated throughout the heritage community. This in itself is the start of a recovery process.

As much damage can occur afterward as during conflict. We need to ensure that professionals trained in heritage management are part of civil affairs units when peacekeeping work begins. The example of the famed Monuments Men has not been seen on any scale in military and peacekeeping operations since World War II. It should be reinstated as part of our contribution to global peacekeeping. The outrage following the sack of the Baghdad Museum and the military occupation of Babylon should make it clear just how important these gestures are.

There needs to be more public recognition now and an expression of worldwide concern about the threat to Syria's heritage. UNESCO has put all six of the World Heritage sites in Syria on the list of World Heritage in Danger. WMF has received an appeal from the Syrian authorities to help preserve three key sites: Aleppo's historic center, Krak des Chevaliers, and the medieval fortified city of Qal'at al-Mudiq. These sites will be our priority. The first step will be planning, documentation and analysis of damage. We can do a great deal of this work offsite thanks to the powerful resource of satellite imagery, radar scanning, and the monitoring that many people inside Syria are doing on the ground.

From 2000 to 2010 WMF and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture worked extensively on the restoration of Aleppo Citadel, completing the throne room, the gate pavilion, the Ayyubid cistern, and the spectacular newly discovered Hittite temple. We will use the knowledge and experience we gained through this work to create a virtual record that will guide our eventual mobilization sometime in the future.

Although human well-being is paramount, we know that we have an important role to play in helping to rebuild the lives of people whose homeland has been shattered by these terrible events.

We will be calling on concerned citizens here in the US and around the world to help us. We will need resources -- both technical and monetary. Even now, when the outcome is still unclear, the international public can help by showing concern. We hope to show the people of Syria that we recognize that their heritage is critical to the future, and we stand with them in its defense.