The Syrian civil war and the self-declared Islamic State’s (ISIS) expansion in the region are, together, causing the largest population upheaval in recent history and the destruction of some of the most prominent physical vestiges of humanity's cultural heritage. The unprecedented humanitarian crisis throughout the Middle East and North Africa is sending millions of refugees and migrants into Europe and elsewhere. That, coupled with ISIS's intentional destruction of historical artifacts and monuments—in particular those of the ancient city of Palmyra, in Syria—is threatening to erase not only the physical history of a region oft-dubbed 'the cradle of civilization,' but also its memory.
Since ISIS seized the ancient metropolis northeast of Damascus, in May, the terrorist group has ransacked and, ultimately, destroyed several Greco-Roman monuments and archaeological treasures there, including one of Palmyra's most significant structures, the Temple of Bel (shown above). The scale of destruction is such that Palmyra was named one of UNESCO's endangered World Heritage sites in 2013, and recently earned a repeated listing on the World Monument Fund's at-risk site list for 2016. It's beyond Palmyra, of course. As of December 2014, nearly 300 cultural heritage sites in Syria alone had been damaged or destroyed, according to satellite images taken by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.
To raise awareness, Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director-general of antiquities and museums in Syria, will travel to the U.K. to deliver a talk, “Heritage & Conflict: Syria’s Battle to Protect Its Past,” on Thursday at London’s Royal Geographical Society. The discussion will be the first of the World Monuments Fund (WMF) Britain's lecture series “The Past, Today.” Abdulkarim will be joined by James Davis, the program manager for the Google Cultural Institute, and he will be introduced by Lisa Ackerman, the World Monument Fund's executive vice-president.
Abdulkarim will discuss his role documenting Syria's vulnerable cultural heritage, and what it’s like to be “the world’s saddest director of antiquities," as WMF Britain's press release puts it, while doing what he can to protect and preserve it. He will also give details on the country's efforts to prevent further damage to its historical artifacts and monuments from insurgent forces, including his agency's reports on the condition of the heritage sites. Abdulkarim's advocacy earned him the first Cultural Heritage Rescue Prize, awarded by UNESCO on Oct. 25, 2014, in Venice, Italy.
Abdulkarim's department has experienced the violence on a personal level, too. In August, ISIS publicly executed the former chief of antiquities and Abdulkarim's friend, the 82-year-old Khaled Mohamad al-Asaad, at Palmyra and displayed his body in the ancient town's former square after he refused to disclose the location of historical artifacts that his team had removed from the site in order to protect.
Cultural heritage sites (and their keepers) have long been targets of terrorism, and the recent attacks by ISIS militants are no exception. Explains the BBC: "[T]hey see ancient cultural heritage as a challenge for the loyalties and legitimacy of Iraqi or Syrian people to [ISIS] itself." Destroying the representations of the culture is an attempt to eradicate any "nationalist agenda" that could form an opposition, according to the BBC. Additionally, ISIS has been looting antiquities to sell in the black market to fund its expansion. Other major sites in Syria to have been wrecked by escalated violence include the 13th-century Crac des Chevaliers castles and the city of Aleppo's historical 17th-century covered marketplace.
International aid organizations have responded with funding and documentation of the damage. In March 2014, UNESCO launched the Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage project to monitor, mitigate, and eventually restore the site with funding from the European Union and other partners. Since August 2014, the Syrian Heritage Initiative has published weekly reports detailing the threats to and restoration needs of the heritage sites that are still standing. And open-source initiatives such as #NewPalmyra aim digitally revive monuments that have been destroyed.
"The shocking images of events in Syria and beyond makes for difficult viewing," said John Darlington, executive director of World Monuments Fund Britain, in a press release. "These are buildings, monuments and antiquities that define and enrich nations their loss and destruction is a tragedy."