Fostering Values to Protect Cultural Heritage in Syria By Hiba Qassar

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Since the beginning of the armed conflict in Syria, cultural heritage has been one of the victims of this conflict. A cultural patrimony that covers thousands of years was and still is suffering looting and destruction. Many national and international organisations such as UNESCO expressed their concerns at the level of destruction that has become catastrophic and “irreversible”. While the current direct causes of the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria are shelling, bombing and looting, this paper will discuss a lack of knowledge about the cultural heritage which is leading to the lack of value. This article argues that a public deficiency of knowledge is an “indirect motive” of the destruction and the constant danger of the cultural heritage, even after the end of the armed conflict.

Establishing significance and fostering value
Many discussions in the archaeological community are about the value in protecting cultural heritage. However, this usually refers to the role of conservation (special treatment for what is more valuable) or in heritage management. The need to protect a site, monument or object is based on a shared perception of their value which we label “cultural heritage”.
What happens when people don’t know the value of archaeological sites or ancient monuments? These things are no longer understood as cultural heritage and as being in need of protection.
Cultural values are subjective, and rely on people’s perceptions which are built through their understanding of the role of heritage in society. Therefore the international community and specialists seeking the protection of the cultural heritage in Syria should first understand the local people’s perception of their own cultural heritage.
Many recent studies have shown that the low level of development in many poor countries inhibits culture and historical knowledge which blocks the development of cultural based development strategies. In many developing countries, like Syria, locals’ connection with their own culturally heritage is through tourism which is unaffordable for most of them. Visiting museums or famous sites is often seen as a touristic or elite activity. Average people are not interested in these activities since they can’t afford them and don’t understand its value. Unless a place is visually attractive (a beautiful landscape for instance) the majority of the people wouldn’t visit it even if it was of a great
historical value and easily accessible to them. Museums are a good example of this. The entrance fee to Syrian museums is cheap for Syrians and many museums are easily accessible for people living nearby. However if you visit
most Syrian museums you would find them almost empty of Syrian visitors. Museums or archaeological sites are not a source of information and history for the local population.
The only source for historical and cultural information for most Syrians comes from school text books. However, these text books teach very little about the pre-Islamic civilization of Syrian, much of which constitutes the cultural heritage of the country. Moreover, when ancient archaeological sites are mentioned they try to connect them to Arab ethnic identity.
The history curriculum, taught to students from age ten to eighteen, mentions the ancient civilizations in Syria briefly only twice, and instead focuses on Arabic Islamic history and the political history of the Arab world in order to support the government-backed narrative of the Syrian Arab identity.

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Syrians lack of knowledge about their pre-Arab and pre-Islamic history means that they don’t feel a sense of ownership to this past. As a result they do not appreciate the value of much of their own cultural heritage and when cultural heritage is not valued it is not protected.
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Since the beginning of the current conflict many organisations have expressed their concerns about the destruction of Syrian cultural heritage and called on the international community to help stop the destruction not only for Syrians but for all of humanity. As for now, there is no plan to stop the destruction of cultural sites unless the armed conflict stopped. However, even if the conflict Syria would be over tomorrow, the cultural heritage will not be safe. In fact, the lack of order that follows, will probably cause more damaged to the archaeological sites and monuments, as seen in Iraq.
In this case what should the people working in heritage do? One idea might come from Iraq. Military operations in Iraq allowed the looting of many cultural institutions, the destruction and vandalising of countless sites. The only cultural objects which were protected by the population were Islamic manuscripts. This is because these manuscripts were considered by the local population as their own heritage. This inspiring example from Iraq shows that when the locals connect to their heritage they can act to protect it.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees the number of Syrian refugees has reached 3,807,435. Distributed between Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan, they are waiting for the conflict to stop to return to their homes. Obviously access to conflict zones in Syria to protect cultural heritage is impossible under current circumstances. However, Syrian refugees represent an opportunity to protect this heritage when they finally return. This can be achieved by teaching them about the value of the cultural heritage of their own country and how important it is for their future prosperity to protect it.
Unfortunately refugees are supposed to learn the same curriculum as the one in the host countries. As a result, it is the ethical duty of cultural organisation to put the needed pressure on the decision makers to allow Syrian refugees to learn about cultural heritage of their home country. By doing this they will learn to own their past and understand how protecting their cultural heritage is necessary for their future.