Spotlights on Syria - NiC’s interview with Dr Prof Maamoun Abdulkarim

Copyright DGAM

News in Conservation was granted an exclusive interview with Prof. Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Director General, Directorate General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM), Syria. Together with the questions that NiC wanted to ask, Prof Maamoun Abdulkarim also answered questions from a panel composed of three authors who contributed to this issue of News in Conservation.

With a capital city among the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world, Syria has been home to some of the most ancient civilisations in history. Four years ago, in the early spring of 2011, civil unrest began within the context of the Arab Spring, with nationwide protests against President Bashar al-Assad's government, whose forces responded with violent crackdowns. The conflict gradually grew from popular protests to an armed rebellion after months of military sieges. The civil war has caused a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions as outlined by the UN and many international organisations. Statistics cite more than 6.5 million Syrians as having been displaced, more than 3 million have fled the country to neighboring states such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq. Others have been left in poor living conditions with shortages of food and drinking water.
Inevitably within such a context, Syria’s rich cultural and artistic heritage spanning millennia, has suffered irreparable damage. As a direct impact of war, some archaeological sites have been transformed into battlefields whereas other are witnessing increases of illegal excavation carried out by armed gangs of looters with the cooperation of people hired within Syria and from neighboring countries.
The country’s six World Heritage sites were officially listed as being in danger of damage or destruction in June 2013 although a clear assessment of damage is still unclear because of limited access to these sites which are all located in the conflict areas.
Museums have also suffered greatly, particularly those in Deir Atieh and Raqqa; looting has been reported in the Maarat al-Numan Museum and the Folk Museum at Aleppo, as well as the museums in Hama. The Apamia Museum witnessed the theft of only one object.

NiC: Can you tell us more about the National Campaign to Rescue Syrian Antiquities and is there a specific strategy to achieve this locally? M. A.: A series of steps has been taken to involve all Syrians in defending the archaeological heritage representing their history, the common memory that was brought them together throughout history.

In the summer of 2012, the staff of the Directorate General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM) started a tremendous effort of cooperation with members of local communities, social, religious and intellectual leaders, to protect hundreds of archaeological sites and safeguard them from the repercussions of the current events. Success rates varied from one place to another based on people's support, which makes hope the dominant factor more often than not!
A National Campaign to Rescue Syrian Antiquities is held frequently in safe cities and takes a variety forms as, for example, a Heritage Day highlighting the diversity and richness in the field of art, music and folklore. Accompanying the campaign is a photo gallery containing images documenting damage to Syrian cultural and archaeological heritage. Exhibitions and poster campaigns have been held in major cities; lectures on cultural heritage were presented to local communities; the efforts of non-governmental organisations have been encouraged in the cultural heritage field.
Cultural Heritage is the shared memory of the Syrian people. We have appealed more than once to keep cultural heritage out of any dispute because it belongs to the Syrian. Hopefully once the war ends, heritage can represent a common focus of peace for all Syrians.
We are always reminded of the importance of the defense of the rich and extraordinary heritage that belongs to the people. Political crises ends and everything can be repaired spite of the losses, but the destruction of cultural heritage will be irreplaceable.
From this point, we call on the Syrian people to protect their heritage, so as not to regret that our generation will be accused of failing to protect its heritage, which belongs to all Syrians, without exception.

NiC: In terms of damage prevention and control, what measures are currently in place to protect sites and museums?

When the crisis intensified during the summer of 2012, all museums were emptied of their holdings, and all archaeological artifacts were stored in safe and secure places. In addition, burglar alarms were installed in some museums and fortresses, and the number of guards and patrols was increased.
The Museum in Raqqa and the Folk Museum in Deir Atieh have suffered greatly from looting; a few objects were stolen from the Maarat al-Numan Museum and the Folk Museum at Aleppo. Otherwise, 99% of museum collections have been brought to safety before any damage could be done to them.
In contrast, the massive looting that has happened to the archaeological sites has been difficult to prevent because of the absence of authorities and the increasing of the violence in the area. Wherever possible, we have intervened to mitigate damage once it has occurred. In this case, local communities play a fundamental positive role in protecting archaeological sites through mediators within the social, religious, and intellectual parties. But this strategy did not always succeed. Archaeological sites are often located in remote areas, away from residential areas and armed gangs have threatened the locals with violence and other repercussions. Moreover, locals have sometimes cooperated in looting due to the difficult economic situation. Examples of this can be found at Dura Europos, Mari, Wadi Yarmuk, Apamia, Tell Ajjajah etc.
Measures to electronically document the holdings of all Syrian museums have been gradually put in place. An IT team is digitally archiving the DGAM's information on the status of the archaeological sites prior to the crisis and updating their current situation and the damage affecting them. The team is using, among other resources, images and videos available on the Internet, provided by the regional departments of antiquities in the governorates or sent by members of the local community from the affected areas.
As calm returned to several sites and cities previously affected by clashes, in particular, Homs, Crac des chevaliers and Palmyra, the staff began a field damage assessments and is in the process of defining a recovery action plans.

NiC: Are funds available for the scope?

The Syrian Government budget provides the core funding for all the DGAM needs according to priorities of conservation and intervention established by the Department.
Throughout the time of the crisis all employees’ salaries have been paid in all the Syrian cities including the ones that have experienced the worst clashes. Part of the funding still pays for excavation works in safe cities such as Damascus, Tartus and Sweida.
DGAM succeeded in providing extra budget support to help our most exposed personnel living in dangerous areas; we have provided support including new personal accommodation, new means of transport, including new offices in safer areas.
NiC: In late September, dramatic footage from Aleppo showed the burning of parts of the city’s ancient souk, considered a national treasure and defining landmark. Are there any plans in place for the reconstruction of the souk? As a direct impact of war, some archaeological sites have been transformed into battlefields. Aleppo’s old city with its souk suffered greatly during the crises with many of its historical buildings destroyed during the clashes. What happened in Old Aleppo is nothing short of a crime against humanity and history. The targeting of the site has resulted in great damage that can be added to a long list of painful and irreplaceable losses.
In response to this cultural disaster immediate efforts were mounted to seek the establishment of supportive relationships between DGAM, UNESCO, the Arabic Regional Center for World Heritage Sites (ARC-WH) and ICOMOS. The emergency response to provide for planning the conservation and rehabilitation of the old city will include including getting professional help, assessing damage, finding funding, and salvaging collections. In cooperation with the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) issues concerning documentation and a database for the Aleppo old city built heritage were also addressed.

NiC: I realise that a complete survey of the losses suffered by the country’s heritage may be difficult to obtain due to the situation; am I correct in assuming that the extent of the losses is unknown?

Estimates put the losses at roughly 700 historical buildings and archaeological sites (damaged or looted). Early reports claimed near-total destruction of 200 historical buildings in Old Aleppo; this number does not include the Souq area that consists of hundreds of shops.
Untill now the surveys carried out have been incomplete; the development of current events have prevented archaeological authorities from visiting all of the sites interested by attacks so a complete assessment has not yet been possible. Nevertheless, the team of experts is currently designing a digital map of the damaged sites, some well-known and others discovered along the way, based on a geographic information system. This will allow specialists to identify their priorities regarding the maintenance and restoration operations in the post-crisis period.
NiC: On Change.org, you started a petition titled ‘Help Ensure the Survival of Syria’s Cultural Heritage’ (https://www.change.org/p/help-ensure-the-survival-of-syria-s-cultural-he...). Was the petition successful? This petition was used to encourage the international community to move forward on safeguarding and raise awareness about the importance of our cultural heritage. The idea for this petition came from World Monuments Fund (http://www.wmf.org/).This initiative offered a unique opportunity to recognise, support and preserve the work of DGAM at an international level after two years of isolation.
We need the international community to recognize the validity of our effort and to provide assistance and support for our work; indeed, the whole world should bear in mind that the Syrian archaeological heritage is part of the world’s cultural heritage and that the loss of any of its components is a loss to all mankind.

From Hiba Qassar: Is the DGAM developing any methods to reach the local communities and foster awareness (even after the conflict) based on the feedback received from last campaign promoted to raise awareness in Syria (the first ever of this kind in the country)?

As I mentioned above, the National Campaign provided a great chance to reach the local community and work with them; we obtained very positive results from the campaign including the creation of volunteer networks. Local communities all over the country have mobilised and come together with the common objective of protecting their cultural heritage. These networks provide additional security in protecting some of the archaeological sites from illegal excavations, and safeguarding museums from looters.
Also as mentioned, success rates vary from one place to another based on people’s support. For example, the joint efforts of authorities and local communities helped in the protection of the Maarrat Nu’man Museum. I would like to highlight one particular example: the local community in the village of Brhlia in the region of Barada Valley, accidentally found a mosaic dating back to the middle of the 4th century (during the late Roman Era and the beginning of the Byzantine Period). They informed the Antiquities Authority and helped them to transfer the mosaic to the Damascus National Museum in order to restore it.
Co-operation between the residents and members of the local community in some area, has helped in reducing the extent of the damage affecting some of the archaeological sites as compared to the damage befalling other archaeological regions and sites.
We also have actively cooperated with non-governmental organisations, universities and with various private associations, such as the Engineering Union, the Heritage Commissions, the Departments of Architecture and of Archaeology in the university. In particular, we have organised training for university students on the protection of cultural heritage in critical areas. Also, as a part of the DGAM vision to put in place more protection for Syria's cultural heritage after the crises, a request to update the antiquities law 222 of 1963, which had last been updated in 1999 has been formalised. The new amendments would govern reproduction of antiquities, impose harsher sentences on those who smuggled antiquities, implement site management plans for ancient monuments and give a greater role for the local community in conservation and management plans.
The DGAM sponsored Awareness Project will provide a broad overview of damages suffered by cultural heritage; this will include cultural as well as scientific information that could be used to study, promote and highlight the danger that Syrian cultural heritage is facing. The project has been developed in conjunction with the Archaeology Department at Damascus University and the Ministry of Information. It is a ‘living document' that will be updated on an on-going basis.

NiC: From Diana Miznazi: Media reports have talked about widespread looting in Syrian museums, can you clarify what is the situation at the National Museum of Aleppo?

99% of the museum’s artifacts were secured in safe places, including those from the Aleppo Museum. Repeated damage to the museum building was caused by clashes in the nearby areas. Unfortunately the Folk Museum in Old Aleppo suffered from looting, although the Directorate of Aleppo Antiquities was successful in removing the rest of the museum’s collections to safe places.

NiC: From Rim Labadidi: According to the first protocol of 1954 Hague Convention, which is ratified by the Syrian Government, cultural monuments must not be used as military barracks. We have heard reports from the international media that forces of the Syrian Government have been using heritage sites for this purpose. What is the position of the DGAM in relation to this?

Syria signed the first protocol of the 1954 Hague Convention, and in all our public appeals and statements released on the subjects we appealed to all parties to protect our cultural heritage and specifically not to use heritage sites as military bases.
But what happened surpassed our predictions, the occupation of archaeological sites by gunmen during the crises as was the case in the Omayyad Mosque in old Aleppo, led government forces to take positions within Aleppo's citadel to avoid the expansion of the fighting to the whole of Aleppo city. A similar situation happened with Crac des Chevaliers although in this case, when the castle was recovered by the government, it was immediately released to DGAM and we immediately started putting in place urgent intervention measures.