The Ministry of Culture and Family Affairs for the Syrian Interim Government today announced the creation of a Heritage Task Force to help protect Syrian cultural heritage in the present crisis. Damage to museums, archaeological sites, religious buildings, and historic structures is known to be widespread. Just in recent weeks, a new wave of organized archaeological looting began at Dura-Europos, the Ottoman period gate at Deir Ez-Zor was bombed, the desecration of a medieval Christian graveyard, and the destruction of the Jewish Synagogue in Jobar and the Omayyad mosque in Aleppo. The Heritage Task Force was established in order to address these and other heritage preservation concerns.
The Heritage Task Force will coordinate its efforts with UNESCO and other international heritage organizations, such as ICOMOS, ICCROM, and ICOM. It will also work with the community groups and non-governmental organizations that are working diligently to protect heritage inside Syria. The Heritage Task Force will be chaired by Dr. Amr Al Azm, an associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University (Ohio, USA) and will consist of other internationally recognized Syrian technical experts.
“Many of Syria’s most significant cultural heritage sites are in parts of the country outside of regime control,” explained Dr. Al Azm at a May 2014 meeting convened by UNESCO about the current crisis to Syrian cultural heritage. “The Heritage Task Force will provide a structure for protecting heritage sites in these areas.”
As a first practical step, an emergency training program for museum curators and other civil society representatives will be held in the coming month. This training will focus on safeguarding museum, library, and archaeological site collections that are at extreme risk. An emphasis will be placed upon how collections can be safely sheltered in place. This training will be facilitated by representatives from the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC, USA) and the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center (Pennsylvania, USA). Further technical assistance has been provided by the U.S. Institute of Peace (Washington, DC, USA) and The Day After Association (Brussels, Belgium). The training has been financially supported, in part, by the J. M. Kaplan Fund (New York, USA).
The Heritage Task Force will support efforts to document the current conditions and future preservation needs. In the coming months, it will work in conjunction with a new project to be undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that will track intentional damage and destruction to cultural heritage sites in Syria.