April 1, 2012

Palmyra and other Syrian Cultural Heritage at Risk During Armed Conflict; UNESCO asks Syrian authorities to respect international cultural property protection conventions they have signed since 1954

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Since early March, archaeologists, government officials and Syrian expatriates have been alarmed at the threat to cultural property sites in Syria after more than a year of civil conflict.  UNESCO has issued a request to the Syrian authorities to protect their cultural heritage in accordance with the international cultural property protection conventions they have signed since 1954.

Global Heritage Fund blogged on March 5, 2012 that the Syrian army was attacking Palmyra's Roman Ruins.  According to the report, the Syrian army has set itself up in a hilltop citadel and firing into the ancient ruins. 

Palmyra, located about 200 kilometers northeast of Damascus, an ancient Roman trading center accommodating caravans between Persia and the Mediterranean countries flourished in the 1st through the 3rd centuries.  It was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world.  It is a national monument and since 1980 included on UNESCO's World Heritage list.

According to the Global Heritage Network, "Protestors have made use of this UNESCO World Heritage Site during recent protests on December 30th of 2011.

On March 24, Popular Archaeology wrote in "Leaked Government Memo Warns of Organized Looting in Syria" that government is concerned that the current civil conflict in Syria will increase damage and theft from archaeological sites.  Syria has 25 antiquities museums throughout the country near the original excavation sites.

Kate Deimling for ARTINFO France reported March 27th that Syrian activists had appealed to UNESCO for financial aid to protect the country's ancient sites. One archaeologist reported that looting "takes place in the form of direct attacks on specific sites or clandestine searches of in storehouses holding historic pieces."

"The Syrian Expatriates Organization (SEO) is disturbed by the Assad regime's deliberate destruction and failure to preserve Syria's great archaeological sites and ancient antiquities," according to a press release dated March 28.  SEO asked that UNESCO issue a statement "condemning the Syrian government's actions regarding the potential loss of cultural property and for help in assessing the damage "as soon as the situation allows".

On March 30, the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, appealed for protection of Syria's cultural heritage:
Earlier this year, UNESCO alerted the Syrian authorities, through their representative at UNESCO, about their responsibility to ensure the protection of cultural heritage.  'This situation is becoming more crucial by the hour,' stated the Director-General. 'I urge the Syrian authorities to respect the international conventions they have signed, in particular the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Properties in the Event of Armed Conflict, the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970), and the 1972 World Heritage Convention. 
In the framework of the 1970 Convention, the Director-General has already contacted the World Customs Organization, INTERPOL, and the specialized heritage police of France and Italy to alert them to objects from Syria that could appear on the international antiquities market.  She has also called for the mobilization of all UNESCO's partners to ensure the safeguarding of this heritage.
The photos (by Catherine Sezgin) published here are second century funeral monuments from Palmyra on permanent display in January at Istanbul's Archaeological Museum.


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