Protecting cultural heritage during crises and wars is a great challenge, especially if a conflict suddenly erupts and devours a country with violence.
As head of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums of Syria during the worst period in my country’s history, I have faced this challenge firsthand. This is why I know that at this time it is essential that Ukraine chooses the right strategy to protect its threatened cultural heritage. Not everything can be saved in such circumstances, but we have a scientific, moral and humanitarian responsibility to provide all forms of support to help ensure the protection of our world heritage.
My term as leader has been the most difficult time of my life. For five years, from 2012 to 2017, I took on the work of supervising the preservation of cultural heritage during war. But those years were also the most important of my life. I served with pleasure as a volunteer, without monthly salary or any compensation, for the honor of helping to preserve Syrian cultural heritage, saving artefacts that serve as markers of identity and collective memory for the people Syrian.
When I was appointed director in August 2012, it was clear that Syria was headed for tragedy. As violence escalated across the country that summer, the Syrian prime minister fled Syria and the defense minister and four army generals were killed in a bomb attack.
Starting from the idea that the protection of cultural heritage unites us all, my colleagues and I drew up a plan describing how to save what could be saved, in particular of the 34 museums spread throughout Syria. This was in accordance with our charter – the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums was founded in 1946 as a government agency responsible for protection, promotion and excavation activities in all national heritage sites in Syria. Because we are not affiliated with political parties, we could put ideology aside to come together around this common vision.
Our cohort of scholars and artists were determined not to repeat the tragic experiences of other countries like Iraq, when the National Museum in Baghdad was looted in 2003. To this end, we set out to work with frameworks in all provinces, seeking cooperation with local community members in areas where institutions were absent, to mitigate damage to archaeological sites.
At the end of the summer of 2012, when we concluded that the general situation in the country was heading towards destruction, we took the decision to empty all the museums of antiquities and transfer them to safe places, such as underground warehouses equipped with surveillance cameras and resistance to explosions, fires and theft. We transferred important historical documents, especially from the Ottoman period, to similar fortified spaces, which were also equipped with devices that helped provide the right humidity and heat to protect them from damage. We have reinforced the museums themselves with strong iron doors, alarms and surveillance cameras.
When violence escalated and spread across the country in 2015, we realized we needed a new strategy. At that time, the security situation in Damascus had improved somewhat, so we decided to transfer the archaeological collections of Syrian museums from all over the country to the capital. Still, the decision carried its own risks due to threats on the roads between Damascus and other cities.
It is with great pride that I look back on the priceless heritage that we have safeguarded, but I do not wish that specialists in archeology and the preservation of cultural heritage in countries beset by wars and violent conflicts will one day find themselves in such a position.
Take Palmyra. On the evening of May 21, 2015, when the city fell to ISIS terrorists, we had no choice but to act quickly. Palmyra is one of the most important World Heritage cities due to its historical importance, its thousand-year-old archaeological sites and the diversity of its ancient buildings, many of which are exceptionally well preserved. So, in coordination with the Syrian military police, colleagues from the National Museum of Palmyra transported three trucks filled with hundreds of statues and artifacts across the desert in the middle of the night.
The mission ended up being one of our most successful operations in violent conditions. Once Palmyra was liberated in March 2016, we no longer took any risks: we started to move the remaining possessions that we had not been able to evacuate during the first mission to Damascus. After two months of hard work, with the participation of about 60 employees of the National Museum of Palmyra, we managed to empty the museum, saving hundreds of ancient statues that represent the art of Palmyra as well as the huge statue of the Lion of Al-Lat (Athena), which weighs around 15 tons, before ISIS occupied the city for the second time, in December 2016.
We followed this strategy in the rest of the Syrian museums during the same period and under the same difficult circumstances. Whether saving the clay tablets of the Deir ez-Zor museum, the precious statues and jewels of the Aleppo museum, or the treasures of the Homs museum at the Qatana site, which dates back to the second millennium BC, we have always been careful to choose the most important artifacts. that can be transported, to document them and to photograph them before and after each mission.
Since the spread of armed groups throughout Syria threatened the roads, one of the most important precautions we took before each transport was to ensure that our routes were safe. When we couldn’t safely remove the artifacts overland, we were forced to get creative. In Raqqa, for example, which fell under the occupation of the Islamic State and turned into the capital, we hid a large part of the Raqqa museum funds in one of the rooms on the second floor of the museum that we secretly turned into a warehouse. By removing the door to the room and building a wall in its place, we were able to keep around 1,097 artifacts hidden during the three years of ISIS rule, despite the destruction the museum building had to face.
By following this strategy, we were able to save the vast majority of Syrian museum antiquities. It is with great pride that I look back on the priceless heritage that we have safeguarded, but I do not wish that specialists in archeology and the preservation of cultural heritage in countries beset by wars and violent conflicts will one day find themselves in such a position. With the exception of a few loyal friends from international cultural institutions, who helped us in Syria during these difficult years that we lived through, we were alone.
This is why we need cooperation between all specialists around the world to help countries suffering from crises and wars to save their cultural heritage from vandalism and theft. Such work need not wait for conflicts to begin. In 2019, for example, I was an expert in the UNESCO team that developed a contingency plan for the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum and the World Heritage Site in Sudan. It was an opportunity to pass on the Syrian experience to my international colleagues and to plan during peace rather than waiting for conflict to break out first.
But this is not enough. We must continue to press for a world where the protection of cultural heritage is not a matter of political disputes when they arise. As we have seen time and time again, global treasures must be kept out of wars and conflicts between different countries, so that when they arise in a particular country or between two countries, each abides by the international conventions that provide for the protection of cultural heritage.
Protecting cultural heritage should be seen as a way to bring us together. Over time, political differences stop and change according to interests, but the loss of cultural heritage will be eternal for us as peoples and civilizations everywhere.