Blog Post

Remarks by Bonnie Burnham, President of World Monuments Fund, at the Press Conference on Heritage and Conflict in Iraq and Syria at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday, September 22

On Monday, September 22, WMF President Bonnie Burnham participated in an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about heritage in peril in Syria and Iraq. Burnham joined Secretary of State John Kerry, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, and other officials in discussing protection and preservation efforts and ideas for Syrian and Iraqi heritage.

Thanks to the Department of State for the opportunity to speak, and to UNESCO, ICOM, and ICCROM for the invitation to share this forum and talk about the impact of this conflict on the world's cultural heritage.

Protecting cultural heritage in times of conflict is one of the biggest challenges facing the heritage field. It is a challenge precisely because it is dwarfed in the public’s perception by the magnitude of human suffering, the civil disruption, the critical concerns for the safety of our global political environment, and the economic toll of these conflicts.

Contrary to this perception, the loss of heritage is a vital issue especially in the context of how to emerge from these disastrous events, and how the aftermath of these conflicts will shape the future. People under siege care no less about their heritage than we do as we watch with concern from the outside. Heritage will be a key building block for future stability when the conflict ends. But right now the conflict in the Middle East is bringing destruction on a massive scale, and people caught in these circumstances are powerless to intervene.

The last year has been an unfortunate one in this respect. In July the Director General of Antiquities and Monuments in Syria, Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, wrote his second annual open letter and I quote from it:
A year has passed since we last sent an international call out to all those concerned with defending Syria's heritage. At the time, we warned against a possible cultural disaster that might be inflicted on an invaluable part of the human heritage existing in Syria. We also added that the latest development of the painful events in Syria as well as the absence of the specialized government institutions and the archaeological authorities in some regions contributed greatly to the aggravation of the risk befalling the Syrian cultural heritage. Consequently, systematic clandestine excavations, carried out by professional armed gangs, doubled. In addition, smuggling cultural objects grew remarkably across borders seeing that the neighboring countries were not making enough efforts to put an end to smuggling taking place across their borders and within their territories.

Much of what we had feared happened; vast regions extending along the geography of Syria are now classified as "distressed cultural areas" due to the exacerbation of the clandestine excavation crimes and deliberate damage to our historic monuments and cultural landmarks in those regions.

He cites a dozen archaeological sites as well as the historical Christian Dead Cities, a part of Aleppo, Simeon Castle and its surroundings, Yarmuk Valley in Daraa, and Apamea.

The list goes on. Just last Friday an interview with the director of Museums in Archaeology in Iraq, Qais Hussein Rashid, produced a similar assessment for parts of Iraq that are under control of terrorist groups including the ancient Assyrian sites of Kahlu, Nineveh, and Ashur—names that resonate in the context of the exhibition now on view at this museum. Imagine if this museum were about to be laid siege by people who believe that all evidence of past culture should be erased. The City Museum of Mosul is in just such a situation.

Under such dire and exceptional circumstances, the government agencies in these two countries—the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria and the State Board of Antiquities in Iraq, are still carrying out its responsibilities, relying on the persistence of devoted employees and armed with the will to defend cultural heritage, because it is the unifying factor and key component of their cultural and national memory. They are being supported, to the degree that it is possible, by the institutions represented here today. In the U.S., the Department of State has been vigilant and proactive in supporting efforts to help stabilize this volcanic situation by supporting initiatives that will help to build the knowledge base and the capacity of the people on the ground.

World Monuments Fund began its Future of Babylon initiative in 2005 with support from the State Department. The goal was to create a management plan for the site, train a local team to implement the measures proposed in the plan, and carry out site-specific conservation treatment. Today, the management plan is completed, and the Iraqi government intends to use it as the basis for a nomination of Babylon to the World Heritage list next year. The site has been diligently mapped and surveyed, tons of debris have been removed, and the area is under management as an archaeological zone. A core Babylon "conservation action" team has been constituted of three Iraqi archaeologists, supported by fifteen local residents. Even though WMF international advisors have not been able to visit the site in 2014 due to security issues, the work continues. In the meantime, WMF has joined other institutions conducting training programs at the Erbil Institute created with U.S. government support in the Kurdish territories of northern Iraq. As recently as last summer, WMF was conducting courses in preservation law, risk management, and landscape archaeology, attended by employees of SBAH from Baghdad, Babylon, and other sites as well as staff of the Directorate of Antiquities in Erbil. Through these courses heritage sites around Erbil have been surveyed, resulting in one instance in the discovery of important artifacts that were moved to safe storage.

The UNESCO Action Plan for Syria’s cultural heritage, adopted in May 2014, calls for damage assessment, mapping and inventories, communications and awareness-raising, technical assistance, and capacity building. Through support of the Erbil Institute, the Future of Babylon Project, and a satellite mapping and monitoring initiative under the auspices of the American Schools for Oriental Research (ASOR) based at Boston University, the Deparment of State has ensured that U.S. institutions have the resources and the ability to participate in the efforts to secure the future of vulnerable heritage sites located in the widening area of conflict.
But as the conflict escalates, we are increasingly aware that these documentation and goodwill efforts cannot have any immediate impact, and that the destruction is also escalating. This calls for involvement on another level. As I read that U.S. military advisors will begin to train moderate insurgents in Syria to better defend themselves against the tide of fundamentalist terrorism, one immediate thought would be to encourage the U.S. military to incorporate heritage protection into the training that is being offered to these groups and to the Iraqi army. The example of the famed Monuments Men has not been seen on any scale in military and peacekeeping operations since World War II . It should be reinstated as part of the training that our own troops receive, as well as part of our assistance offering in the region.

We also need to begin to prepare for post-conflict reconstruction. As we have learned in Iraq, there are windows of opportunity when it is possible to work on the ground, and this work can be continued by our local partners when the window of opportunity closes. To be effective, these efforts need more public recognition and they need to be well-funded. A cultural counterpart to the Red Cross is not out of the question, and now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to show our good faith, as citizens, to the people in this region whose lives have been so disastrously affected by this conflict.

I was in Aleppo in 2010 to celebrate the completion of WMF's work, in partnership with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, to restore the Ayubbid cistern in Aleppo Citadel. It was the last piece of a decade-long conservation program that had created ripples well beyond our work site. Aleppo was bursting with optimism about the future. The inner city was one big construction site. Along the avenue that surrounds the citadel, the old post office and a number of palaces were being converted into beautiful hotels. The streets were being re-cobbled, and at the same time, high-tech infrastructure was being installed. Development agencies from European countries were planning and executing large-scale urban rehabilitation projects centered on the city's cultural resources. The Aga Khan Trust was planning a series of urban parks and gardens. A major archaeological discovery had been made within the citadel by a Syrian-German team, and there were exciting discussions about how this newly discovered Assyrian Temple of the Storm God could be presented within its original context.

I stayed in a hotel, the Mansouriya, that had been opened in one of the beautiful palaces of Aleppo's historic city. The owners, Syrian expats, were there with a well-known British landscape architect, planning for their next venture. We talked about a vision for the city to take its rightful place amongst the cultural meccas of the region, as an interpreter of the multicultural history of which its citizens were so justifiably proud.

For now those dreams are on hold. Some of the beautiful palace interiors I saw then, so similar to the Damascene one preserved in this museum, may have been destroyed or they are imminently at risk. But no matter what happens, this ancient city will be a focal point and a key asset in rebuilding the future of the region. However long this may take, we should be planning for its reconstruction now. It will not be possible to vanquish terror without instilling hope. That is what cultural preservation is all about.