Photo: Wessel de Groot
Cradle of humanity
Eritrean Dawit Tesfay is the first speaker of the evening. He worked as an archaeological curator in one of the two Eritrean museums, specialized in the palaeohistory the African Rift Valley. It is believed that this area was the route out of Africa that was used by early humans to colonize the rest of the old world, the first known homo erectus culture. The Eritrean land is crucial for our understanding of pre-Roman culture. The next presenter, Adhan Al-Hamwi from Damascus, explains that Syria, as the cradle of all monotheistic religions, contributed much to European culture. Syria harbors the Fertile Crescent, that part of the world where agriculture and cattle breeding first appeared in the Neolithic. Since then people have lived in Syria, so there is a very long cultural history indeed. Most European heritage leads directly or indirectly back to Syria.
The power of destruction
Hossam Alqalqeely, also from Syria, explains about the different parties involved in the war in his home country. Firstly, there is Assad’s army, which safeguards the heritage, but in a very selective way. And by protecting Syria’s heritage openly, Assad unwillingly made it a target for his enemies. Secondly, there is Isis or Daesh, who wants to destroy Syrian heritage. The focus of the third major party, the rebels, is not on heritage. They are not deliberately destroying it, but they have no interest in protecting it either. Finally, as in every war, the citizens are the most vulnerable group. Alqalqeely claims that in this war, by destroying Syrian heritage, more is destroyed than just the heritage itself. People aren’t able to live their lives and therefore the culture of everyday life vanishes as well. After the war, Alqalqeely asks, what will be left of this contemporary culture? For now, he adds, we can’t do anything.
The next guest is Dr. Ghazwan Yaghi, a Syrian archaeologist focusing on Islamic archaeology, architecture and art. He tells about how damaging Syrian heritage became a critical part of the Syrian war crisis. Daesh profits from looting ancient objects and antiquities, by selling them to people from outside Syria. Furthermore, Daesh (fighting against both the rebels and Assad) tries to eliminate all heritage and culture that is not according to its beliefs. This includes everything that portrays non-islamic religious symbols, especially in situ heritage in the ancient cities. Ninety per cent of the heritage in Allepo was destroyed. Fortunately, many collections in museums were saved, due to lessons learned from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: important pieces removed in time and stored away or moved to neighboring countries.
Khaled Hiatlih adds to this that Daesh does not just destroy historic sites, but is trying to destroy all non-islamic culture, including non-islamic books and the religious icons in Palmyra. They didn’t have enough time to steal the icons, so they destroyed them before they fled the city. Specifically, Daesh aimed their destruction on the heads and bodily parts, so every sign of polytheistic or non-islamic religion was made unrecognizable.
Most museum collections have been saved thanks to lessons learned from earlier wars, like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, archaeological sites haven’t done as well, since they obviously cannot be moved elsewhere. It is important to make all the necessary preparations, so that, as soon as the war is over, the international community and the Syrian people can start trying to restore the damage that has been inflicted on archeological sites.
What can be done?
In Europe, the destruction of the Syrian heritage received quite some media coverage. Refugees have begun to raise more awareness about the destruction of their heritage. Most recently, on Trafalgar Square in London a replica of the arched gate from the market place of Palmyra was put up. And also the destruction of the temple in Bell in Palmyra headlined the European news broadcasts.
Rasha Haqi from Damascus, the only woman of the group of experts, talks passionately about her love for Syria and the things that can be done to improve the current situation. A Palestinian archaeologist refugee in Syria, she was mainly occupied with communities around archeological sites, whom she tried to empower as co-owners of this historical land. She explains that in the beginning of the war, she organized workshops for kids about mosaic and botany; both are popular and vital parts of Syrian culture. Thanks to these workshops, the kids could stay in touch with their own heritage. Haqi describes Syrian heritage not just as national heritage, but, due to its origin, as the world’s or universal human heritage. She is convinced that by sharing our heritage something can be done for Syria, even from a distance. “By showing the children and telling them what they still have we given them hope – faith is important”.
Khaled Hiatlih, a Palestinian Syrian, agrees with his wife Haqi that the Syrian heritage is actually world heritage. He stresses that Syria can’t restore Syrian heritage alone, and that the world has to cooperate in order to save and restore it. The majority of the collections of three hundred Syrian museums have been hidden safely. After the war it is the intention to re-collect them and to start renovations. But what can be done right now? The war will end eventually, so how can as much heritage as possible be preserved from a distance? The solution lies in modern innovation, by making 3d scans of the historic debris, remodeling missing parts and finally recreating the ancient objects that are now debris. The more preparations we make now, the more we can actually do as soon as the war is finally over, Hiatlih argues.
Reconnecting history to today
Hiatlih is also involved in the creation of an exhibition in the Netherlands about what Syrian heritage is and was. To teach people about what is destroyed; that it is not just Syrian heritage, but also Christian heritage, Jewish heritage, famous mosaics and Roman heritage. His aim is to build bridges between cultures, to make people outside Syria feel the urgency of this problem, in order to, finally, find appropriate patrons for Syrian heritage. He sums up by giving more information about the exhibition Left behind in Syria, that will travel around the Netherlands soon. It shows which heritage is lost, which heritage is still there and to show and share Syrian culture. The audience responds that being an ambassador for your culture is perhaps not enough, that ownership is needed, by creating stakeholders.
Murhaf Alkurdi, from Aleppo, stresses that good knowledge of Syrian heritage is at the basis of developing plans for the post-war situation. By sharing our culture, he explains, we can support Syrian identity. Alkurdi states that heritage is not just about stones. It is about the people who build and created these sites. He holds precious memories of his own visits to Palmyra and suchlike places. Heritage is also linked to the future of the children, who should be enabled to touch these stones as well and thus learn about Syrian culture.
Shared history, shared responsibility?
The contributions of the Syrian heritage professionals show that there are several issues that need to be addressed, some immediately and some after the war. For now, it is important to remember Syrian identity and culture in order not only to not forget, but also to connect Syrian heritage to other cultures, to increase the feeling of shared ownership and responsibility. Furthermore, even though we cannot save all heritage that is threatened by the war, we can prepare a response on what has been, or will be lost. The more information that is collected about historical sites and objects at risk, the more can be restored using 3d remodeling techniques later on.
The event shows how much hope these heritage professionals have, and how hard they are working and advocating for the survival of their heritage. All professionals showed much optimism and hope about a future for their heritage, and about the revival of their country.
Moreover, as heritage professionals we should take the destruction of this truly international heritage as an opportunity to show what the definition of international heritage can mean as well. What if we can redefine our common identity by rebuilding this heritage? Instead of taking responsibility for international heritage in our own country alone, why can’t we take responsibility for international heritage in another country? Let’s prove that global heritage isn’t a fight over legendary antiquities, but that we can serve a selfless goal.