An Archaeologist’s Fight to Save Syria’s Cultural Heritage

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Salam Al Kuntar, Archaeologist
An Archaeologist’s Fight to Save Syria’s Cultural Heritage

Why is cultural heritage important? What can be done to save archaeological sites from destruction by war? These questions took on a new urgency when Syrian-born archaeologist Salam Al Kuntar came to the United States to escape the civil war in her home country. It would have been easy to walk away and simply enjoy the advantages of life in the West. But the plight of her colleagues back home and the desire to preserve the culture that had shaped her motivated her to become one of the leading advocates for the protection of Syria’s historical treasures.

Talking from the Penn Cultural Heritage Center in Philadelphia, Al Kuntar explains why voicing outrage at the destruction of archaeological sites by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) can be counterproductive; what the ancirent city of Hamoukar in Syria can teach us about warfare and conservation; how she has helped create a training program for the emergency preservation of Syrian museum collections; and why cultural heritage is a universal human right. —Simon Worrall  

Recently, ISIS released a video showing destruction of antiquities at the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq. How can these priceless artifacts be protected?

I am one of the people who advocates not talking to the media about this. ISIS said in [a] recent video that what they’re doing is to outrage the media. The outrage only provokes more destruction of other sites where I work, so that is very painful. But it’s not going to help to just express outrage.

That’s a good answer. Perhaps you can explain how your work is connected to preservation of antiquities.

I am an archaeologist. We used to dig sites and care for museum collections and were involved in various preservation projects. All of a sudden, my country was plunged into civil war. The ordinary life of people was shattered and their cultural heritage came under destruction. I thought I needed to do something. I cannot, as some other archaeologists did, just go and find another country to work in. I cannot disengage like that from a country where I grew up and lived my life and made my career. So I started asking questions that I had never thought about before. What is the meaning of cultural heritage? Why do we care about the past? What do these monuments mean for ordinary Syrians?

Photograph by Jon Betz, National Geographic
Photograph by Jon Betz, National Geographic

Part of my efforts are connected to the people from the antiquities sector, who stayed behind in Syria. These people were traumatized by the war and the killing and everyday suffering. They were also traumatized by seeing these monuments being destroyed, particularly in the neighborhoods where they lived, which were part of their historical consciousness.

Doctors, lawyers, or teachers were all trying to do something and those who used to work in museums and excavations thought they needed to do something, too. So they reached out to us, their Syrian colleagues, who are abroad and lucky enough to be connected to major institutions. The first thing we did was to document archaeological sites. We started a Facebook page with Syrian archaeologists living in France. We also organized training for the emergency conservation of museums and artifacts with people from different parts of Syria, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution. We have three projects going on at the moment involving the documentation of destruction and looting, and the emergency preservation of monuments. We are also working with refugee populations that have taken refuge in a World Heritage site, trying to help these refugee communities respect the ruins.

Your home country is in the fifth year of a brutal civil war. You have urged the West to get involved in the conflict. Do you mean militarily?

Syrians felt they were left alone to suffer this awful war and the oppression of the regime. But they don’t all have one vision for a solution to the war. The only thing they want is to be protected from the constant bombing and random shelling. I have no answer as to what is the best way to help, either. But when you are desperate you ask for help, and this is why Syrians are asking for intervention. But, as I said, they vary in their views as to how the West can best intervene.

Your work at the Bronze Age site of Hamoukar suggests war is as old as mankind. What can these ruins teach us today?

War is as ancient as humans on this planet. Hamoukar was founded in the fourth millennium B.C. as a manufacturing community engaged in long-distance exchange networks. It was very prosperous at some point, which attracted people from southern Mesopotamia (Iraq). The warfare probably occurred between them and the local, northern Mesopotamian inhabitants. Later, it developed into a walled city in the third millennium B.C.—a wealthy city with public lands, public buildings, and interesting art and architecture.

Today, in the 21st century, with all the advances in technology we have, we cannot stand by and let these monuments that have survived for thousands of years be destroyed. Cultural heritage is a human right.

hat inspires you to dedicate your life to this work?

It is about who we are, about our cultures and the multilayered identities that we carry as people, especially in the Middle East—the contested heritage, our affinity to that place, and the different ethnic groups, religions, and stories of mankind. My dedication is to preserve that heritage, which has influenced who we are as Middle Easterners and human beings, in general.

Source: National Geographic

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