By Naomi Friedman, Staff Writer
Endangered cultural heritage in the Middle East has been brought to international attention. A replica of World War II’s “Monuments Men”—a small group of academics that helped save Europe’s cultural heritage from the Nazis and became the subject of a 2014 Hollywood film starring George Clooney—operation is currently in action in Syria to save ancient art.
Over 200,000 people have been killed in the ongoing Syrian war since the uprising began in March 2011; 3.3 million have fled to neighboring countries, according to the United Nation’s (U.N.) data.
While lives are directly affected by the conflict, culture is as well.
In a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article, art historians and intelligence officials say antiquities smuggling by the Islamic State has exploded in recent months, aggravating the pillaging by government forces and opposition factions.
In fact, looting is now the militant group’s second-largest source of financing after oil, Western officials say in the WSJ. The article says that according to an Iraqi intelligence official, the Islamic State had made as much as $36 million last year from looting an area containing many early Christian sites known for their icons and wall mosaics.
“What started as opportunistic theft by some has turned into an organized transnational business that is helping fund terror,” said Michael Danti, an archeologist at Boston University who is advising the U.S State Department on how to confront the problem, to the WSJ. “It’s the greatest cultural emergency I’ve seen.”
A national campaign entitled “Saving Syria’s History” sponsored by UNESCO was launched to raise awareness about the current issue of looted museums and illicit digs of archeological sites. This has been an opportunity to remind the Syrians of the importance of preserving their rich cultural heritage for future generations.
This apolitical sensitization has aimed to involve the Syrians in actively safeguarding their cultural heritage by forming networks of volunteers in local communities across the country. Alongside local authorities and museum personnel, these networks help protect Syrian museums from looting, safeguard several archeological pieces by recording their GPS information and provide help securing sites from clandestine excavations.
The U.N. Security Counsel circulated a resolution to ban all trade in antiquities from Syria on Feb. 6. The counsel expressed concern that the Islamic State and other groups are generating funds from the trafficking of art. A decade ago, the U.N. banned trade in artifacts from Iraq.
A group of Damascus University-trained archeologists in Syria have united to preserve the ancient culture since 2012 and have recently been trained more intensively for three days near the Turkey-Syria border on how to catalog and preserve ancient sites.
Rene Teijgeler, a Dutch archeologist and former lieutenant colonel in the Dutch army who ran heritage preservation operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his partner, Isber Sabrine, a Syrian-born archeologist based in Barcelona, led the training run by a Barcelona-based NGO, Heritage for Peace.
These archeologists have been investigating and recording the presence and absence of artifacts, sometimes needing to use disguises: posing as antiques dealers to photograph looted items.
“It’s dangerous work,” said an archaeologist trained at Damascus University. “We have to get in and out of a site very quickly.” Many of his colleagues operate in secrecy because of the dangerous nature of the work.
Last December, UNESCO held an international conference about the cultural tragedy of art-looting in the Middle East. Irina Bokova, the UNESCO director-general, said, “Protecting culture today is essential for building peace tomorrow.”