UNESCO will establish an observatory in Beirut (Lebanon) to monitor and assess the state of Syria’s cultural heritage. The decision was made during an international meeting of experts held at UNESCO from 26 - 28 May. The Observatory will monitor the state of buildings, artefacts and intangible cultural heritage to combat illicit trafficking and collect information to restore heritage once the fighting is over.
Based at UNESCO’s Office in Beirut, the Observatory will maintain an online platform where national and international stakeholders will share information on damaged structures, looted artefacts and all forms of endangered intangible heritage.
The meeting entitled Rallying the International Community to Safeguard Syria’s Cultural Heritage brought together more than 120 experts from 22 countries to share information, devise policies and improve international cooperation during the conflict and beyond. They included cultural heritage specialists from Syria and the Syrian diaspora, representatives of Syrian NGOs, archeologists, and members of UNESCO institutional partners,* as well as academics from universities in the Middle East and beyond. Representatives of major international auction houses also took part in the meeting. .
The participants also called on the UN Security Council to consider a resolution to facilitate the restitution of stolen and illegally exported cultural objects from Syria and ban their sale and transfer. They also underlined the need to “demilitarize cultural sites,” preventing their use as military bases or targets in keeping with existing international law, notably the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954), ratified by Syria.
In addition, participants emphasized the need to train and raise awareness of police and customs officers in the region and beyond on their role in fighting illicit trafficking in cultural objects.
“In some areas we are reaching the point of no return where Syria’s cultural heritage is concerned,” cautioned Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO. “The destruction of heritage represents a cultural haemorrhage in addition to the tragic humanitarian crisis and suffering experienced by the people of Syria,” she added.
The Director-General was particularly concerned about the recent extensive damage to the historical synagogue of Eliyahu Hanabi in Damascus.
“The destruction of one of the oldest synagogues in Syria is a new blow against its religious and cultural heritage, which has already suffered tremendous damage,” declared the Director-General, referring in particular to the fact that Syria is host to highly significant monuments of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.
“This synagogue bears witness to the cultural diversity of Syria’s history and to the potential of peaceful coexistence among all communities in the country,” she concluded.
In the face of the tragedy unfolding in Syria, the Director-General welcomed the solidarity and support displayed by the different Syrian participants and international representatives at the meeting.
Syria’s inestimable archaeological sites, historic towns and monuments have been devastated since the start of the conflict in March 2011. The conflict has affected all six World Heritage sites in Syria, notably the Ancient City of Aleppo and the Crac des Chevaliers, and there is evidence that they have been used for military purposes, subjected to direct shelling and targeted explosions.
World Heritage and numerous other ancient remains have been exposed to illicit excavation, intentional destruction, illegal and damaging construction, and the stress of temporary human occupation. Intangible cultural heritage - including cultural practices, performing arts and more - is also exposed to serious damage due to social fragmentation, displacement and migration. In the seriously damaged Ancient City of Aleppo, artisans have seen a considerable number of their workshops, tools and materials destroyed. Training in these skills has been suspended. In areas around and in Damascus, whose old city has been relatively spared, traditional Qishani ceramics and garment production have been severely affected.
“It is vital that the media raise public awareness about the crisis of Syria’s cultural heritage,” said Francesco Bandarin, Assistant UNESCO Director-General for Culture. “Art traders and buyers must be made aware of the risk of illicit trafficking and that international mafia organizations are using the crisis to sell both genuine and fake artefacts from the country.”
The meeting was held with the financial support of Government of Flanders as part of a 2.5 millоn euro Project “Emergency Safeguarding of Syrian Cultural Heritage” of the European Union, which UNESCO’s Office in Beirut has been implementing since early March this year.
* Interpol, the International Council of Monuments and sites (ICOMOS), the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the World Customs Organization or the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT).