Mourning for Syria's Cultural Heritage

Mourning for Syria's Cultural Heritage
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Written by Dr. Sandra Lorena Lopez Varela

Last week, I watched the The Square, nominated to this year's 86th Academy Award for Best Documentary. Back in January 2011, when millions of Egyptians gathered at Tahir Square to demand the fall of President Hosnik Mubarak's regime, and violent clashes erupted, I was drafting a message to international authorities and organizations to protect Egypt's invaluable and irreplaceable archaeological history. The film brought back my thoughts about legitimizing our prerogatives as presidents of archaeological societies, when bullets were claiming people's lives.

How morally difficult is our job in claiming the protection of a country's heritage. As the Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference approached, the Cultural Heritage Task Force (CHT) of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) received news of the efforts of a recently founded NGO to convince the more than 30 nation participants to accept a resolution to stop the destruction of Syrian rich heritage and to adhere to international law that prohibits the willful destruction of cultural heritage in times of war.

Over the last couple of years, the AAA voices concerns about the destruction of heritage resources in times of intense conflict. Our silence regarding Syria, so far, has recalled my attention and shaken my naiveté about the close relationship between archaeology and international politics. Aren't we too late? Auf immer zerstört, "forever destroyed", say the powerful photographs of the destruction of Aleppo by Mamoun Fansa, who was for many years, Director of the Landesmuseums Natur und Mensch in Oldenburg, Germany. Better later than never, is a statement that causes me conflict after reading a recent summary by Dr. Cunliffe on the sustained damage to Syria's heritage in 2014. While some claim "heritage for peace", Fansa says in his 3sat interview, "historic objects against human lives," as the plundering and selling of antiquities apparently is financing the rebels' guns. It is estimated that 130,000 Syrian people are now dead and that the refugee population will reach 5.3 million people at the end of 2014, according to Dr. Cunliffe. "The Syrian problem exposed the weakness of the international system to deal effectively with war zones, and demonstrated the limitations of the United States in shaping global events", expressed the Aljazeera Center for Studies, but also, our own limitations as archaeologists, and those of our professional associations.

How can archaeologists contribute effectively to stop the destruction of Syria's heritage? Are we being insensitive by making such claim, when we know about the suffering that this tragedy has provoked? Is our claim the way of restoring peace and stability in Syria? Is our concern, being shared by those that are suffering this tragedy? From an academic point of view, it is our moral and ethical responsibility to bring the destruction of Syria's heritage to international authorities. Really?

How can one ignore the inflicted pain brought through watching and hearing the sounds of powerful machines putting a definite end to those battling injustice or fighting for peace, and continue writing about saving the past? These are the times that I question our scientific iciness of just doing your job kind of argument, as it is easier to fight foreign battles through one's cowardly pen -- keyboard now -- instead of following these brave examples of fighting for what is right at home. Yes, I question the empowering thoughts of science that we are trying to help those that are living under heavy shelling, through our mandated principles for heritage preservation, because their worries are about survival, not about saving the past. Is this really enough to show concern for those that are mourning their dead, and for the thousands of children deprived now of a smile, and who are now staring in emptiness to their new surroundings? Finding comfort in my academic thoughts that our claims are the profession's particular ways of expressing concern and support for all those living in times of great suffering, is something; I am personally struggling to believe it makes sense.


Sandra Lorena Lopez Varela PhD (University of London), RPA, is a Professor at the Nacional Autónoma de México and Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung. She is the Archaeology Chair of the Executive Board and the Executive Board Liaison to the Heritage Task Force of the American Anthropological Association. Her research concentrates on studying the effects of social development policies through the application of archaeological and social sciences; promoting applied archaeology to protect Mexico's heritage and to create innovative career opportunities for students-in-training through Business and Marketing Heritage. She is the author of Sustainable Heritage in Mexico: Archaeological Solutions for Infrastructure Planning and Building, Open Journal of Archaeometry.

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