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Near East: Archaeologists fight to save Syria’s artifacts

In 2011, after three decades of working in Syria, the archaeologist Glenn M. Schwartz was unable to return to his dig at the Bronze Age city of Umm el-Marra. The intensifying civil war had made work in the country impossible.

Archaeologists fight to save Syria’s artifacts
Syrian rebel fighters in a damaged section of the Umayyad Mosque, a UNESCO 
world heritage site in Aleppo that has been heavily damaged in fighting
[Credit Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images]

Like many archaeologists of the Middle East, Mr. Schwartz, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, is watching the news from the region with deep concern and, he said, a feeling of impotence.

“It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happened in Syria in terms of cultural heritage and more so for the country at large,” he said.

The upheavals and conflicts sweeping the Middle East in recent years have caused untold human suffering, and they have resulted in deep losses to the heritage of the region.

Scholars can do little to stop the fighting and looting, but they have created blogs, websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts to monitor the destruction and raise awareness about it. By sharing excavation records, scholars outside the Middle East have helped their counterparts in the Arab world to compile online lists of missing or stolen objects.

Cheikhmous Ali, an archaeologist at the University of Strasbourg, in France, founded the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, which relies on an underground network of activists and journalists to document damage to historical sites in Syria. The Syrian authorities are often suspicious of people taking photos, so the association’s volunteer informants sometimes use hidden devices, such as tiny digital cameras inserted into pens, to accomplish their goals.

After photos have been taken and other data sent back to the association, scholars abroad verify the reports and provide historical details. The goal is to create an up-to-date record of Syria’s losses and, Mr. Ali said, to “sensitize the international community” to it. The project is “based entirely on the Internet, social media, YouTube,” he said. “It would not be possible to provide visual documentation without these means.”

In Egypt, Monica Hanna, an archaeologist, began posting on Twitter about threats to her country’s heritage more than three years ago, when the Egyptian Museum was broken into as the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak began. As political upheaval and violence continued in Egypt, Ms. Hanna’s work has expanded. She has become a well-known social media activist with nearly 35,000 followers on Twitter.

Protecting cultural heritage “is not on the agenda, and it’s not getting the attention it deserves, and we’re pushing ’til that stops,” said Ms. Hanna, an independent scholar who has taught at the American University in Cairo.

Archaeologists fight to save Syria’s artifacts
The Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna has become a well known social media activist
with nearly 35,000 followers on Twitter [Credit Karsten Moran/The New York Times]

Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, a Facebook group founded by Ms. Hanna, has 50 volunteers and hundreds of supporters and informers, she said. They send in photos and reports of remote archaeological sites that are being damaged by looters or squatters. Ms. Hanna travels to these sites as often as she can. Gangs of looters have twice fired warning shots at her, she said.

Last summer, she traveled to the town of Mallawi, about four hours south of Cairo, during protests over the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, a museum of Pharaonic antiquities was broken into and looted. Ms. Hanna said she had been able to save a few of the museums’ remaining objects, carrying them to safety with the help of local residents and police officers while rioting and gunfire continued nearby.

Carol Redmount, an associate professor of Egyptian archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of Ms. Hanna’s supporters. Ms. Redmount said that it was frustrating not to be able to do more to help but that scholars outside the region can “keep shining the light of publicity on the problem, then can provide expertise.” The key, she said, is to “support grassroots efforts as much as possible.”

The Middle East lost many of its ancient treasures in colonial times, when priceless artifacts were carried off to European collections and museums. It is now witnessing “a new wave of loss” associated with wars and conflicts, said Tamar Teneishvili, a program specialist for culture at the Unesco regional bureau in Cairo. Many archaeologists are experiencing flashbacks to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Baghdad’s national museum was looted and sites across the country were ransacked.

“We looked on in horror,” said Mr. Schwartz, the Johns Hopkins University professor.

Today, Iraqi heritage faces new threats from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the Islamist extremists who have taken over much of northern Iraq, including the city of Mosul, where they have already destroyed ancient shrines.

The situation in Syria is equally dire. Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj is a Syrian architect who in the 1990s worked on the restoration and redevelopment of the Old City of Aleppo — an area that was devastated when it ended up “on the dividing line between rebels and regime forces,” he said. The Islamist militants, Mr. Hallaj said, have “absolutely no reverence” for the country’s antiquities and view them as a source of cash.

“On the regime side, it hasn’t been much better,” he said.

Among archaeologists, Ms. Redmount said, “there is a collective depression at the moment regarding the whole situation in the Middle East, not only regarding antiquities.”

“It’s an area where many of us have lived and worked for years,” she said, “and it’s terrible to see the suffering that’s going on.”

Scholars have adapted as best they can. After being forced to leave Syria, Mr. Schwartz said he did not want to give up field work and was able to find a site in Iraqi Kurdistan, which he has visited twice. Ms. Redmount said she hoped to return to Egypt next year to continue work on the ancient buried city of El Hibeh, which she describes as a “poster child for looting.” Her team will “switch to a different kind of archaeology,” she said, adding, “We’ll be dealing with what’s left, mitigating the damage.”

In the spring in the United States, thanks in part to her social media presence, Ms. Hanna testified before a congressional committee in favor of a request by the Egyptian government to impose restrictions on the import of Egyptian artifacts to America, a move many American archaeologists support. Ms. Hanna said she hoped that more support from the Egyptian authorities and foreign governments would mean that she could scale back her activism, which has become a distracting “full-time job.”

“I haven’t been able to keep up with academic publications,” she said. “I don’t have the time to do proper research as before. It’s having a negative effect on my academic career. But this is more important.”

By raising their voices online and off, Ms. Hanna and other scholars of the Middle East’s past hope to save as many relics as they can for a less turbulent future.

Author: Ursula Lindsey | Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education/NY Times [August 24, 2014]

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Near East: Archaeologists fight to save Syria’s artifacts + TIME