Syrians are losing their cultural heritage...why does it matter to all of us?

By Sarah Sharp

Sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center, Dr. Amr Al-Azm, a professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio, spoke through Zoom on November 1st, on “Non-State Actors and the Preservation of Threatened Heritage in Syria.”

Al-Azm explained the cultural, human, and physical devastation that his fellow Syrians have experienced especially during the past ten years, as well as responses to this destruction. “Cultural heritage is a casualty” of the country’s conflicts, he said as he described the airstrikes, bombing, looting, and other attacks on World Heritage Sites including Aleppo, Apamea, Bosra, Crac des Chevaliers, Damascus, and Palmyra, as well as World Heritage Cities Aleppo and Damascus.  Al-Azm singled out ISIS’s deliberate destruction of Islamic shrines and other actions for special comment, explaining the “industrializing” of the looting process through a significant investment in time, effort, and money for removal and sale of artifacts.  He explained the artifacts’ trafficking as it has developed on Facebook and WhatsApp, but also the ATHAR Project’s mapping of the connectivity and distribution of the buying and selling process.  

The international community’s response to the alarming cultural destruction across the Middle East has been far too limited.  Various efforts have developed, including those sponsored by UNESCO, the Prince Claus Fund, the Smithsonian’s SHOSI consortium (which has connections with the University of Pennsylvania), and the SmartWater Foundation.  Al-Azm emphasized that the burden for remedies falls primarily on local communities, and activists, councils, ngo’s, and museum workers have mobilized to protect against looters. 

While some people argue that a choice between assisting the people or saving the cultural sites artifacts is necessary, Al-Azm argues that both types of actions are essential.  The millions of Syrian refugees, displaced internally or who have fled their country are losing their heritage along with their other more immediate concerns.  After the conflict ends, Syrians will need to rely on their common history as a foundation for moving into the future.  As part of this effort, Al-Azm’s The Day After works “to empower Syrian civil society and to influence policy-making to serve democratic transition and justice in Syria.”

Al-Azm’s presentation also raises questions for all of us about our cultural heritages and what it means to see their destruction, especially through civil conflict.  In Philadelphia, as a World Heritage City, we experience the richness of many heritages through the historical sites and landmarks, institutions, neighborhoods, and organizations.  What would it mean to us if someone destroyed Independence Hall or the Liberty Bell, Johnson House or Mother Bethel A. M. E. Church?  More broadly, how does the current conflict over removal of statues of Confederate soldiers affect our understanding of Southern heritage?  What are the major features of our shared American past?  

Further, if historical artifacts and sites that belong to the Middle East are no longer there for the populations who live there, or ourselves who live elsewhere, to see, experience, and use for future understanding, what are the losses, and for whom?  We seek ways to know the world, its countries and cultures around us, both past and present, maybe now more than ever.  Archaeological investigations across the Middle East and globally have provided materials for exhibitions and educational activities for generations.  Yet, their access and acquisition have sometimes raised questions.  Recognizing and supporting countries’ efforts to maintain their historical collections and sites can strengthen our global understanding.

Here are a few additional resources for readers’ interest: SmartWater applied to Roman mosaics in Syria (YouTube), Michael Rakowitz's Art of Return (about Iraq), Penn Museum at home, Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, and The Parthenon: the Case of the Controversial "Elgin Marbles".