Syria’s Director-General of Antiquities and Museums made his first ever trip to the UK yesterday, on what he described as a one-day visit, ahead of similar visits to Paris and Rome. The most surprising thing was that he was granted permission to exit Syria, and the second was that he was granted a visa to enter the UK. The Syrian government is very keen, ahead of the Vienna talks, to show its cultural face.
And Professor Dr Maamoun Abdulkarim did a good job. In his 45 minute talk, accompanied by many images, the DGAM head addressed a large audience of over 500 in the Royal Geographical Society’s Ondaatje Lecture Theatre, in halting but intelligible English for which he apologised, saying his English was “new”, only learnt 18 months ago. French is his main foreign language. The talk was titled “Syrian Cultural Heritage during the Crisis 2011-2015” and was supported by the World Monuments Fund Britain.
The DGAM chief steered a careful course, talking of “one heritage for one people, no politics, humanity heritage”. He described how he and his 2,500 staff in the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums were in charge of Syria’s 10,000 sites, 34 museums and their 300,000 artefacts, doing their best, working in both government-held and opposition-held areas of the country, with the cooperation of local people. He told how they had emptied 99% of the contents of the museums and carefully boxed them up, after first doing detailed database information on them, then put them in safe places with anti-theft alarms and extra guards. He hoped that in two or three years’ time, the collections might be able to be brought out again and returned to display in the museums.
Three hundred of his ex-students were among the staff helping, he said, showing pictures of them preparing the thousands of packing cases.
He showed photos of the damage in Homs old city, saying they were now restoring the churches, and that the damage inside Krak des Chevaliers was being repaired – Phase One of the repair was complete and the castle was open, he said.
At Maaloula he also said journalists had been allowed in to see repair work at the monastery of Mar Serkis. No mention was ever made of which side had caused the damage – unless it was ISIS.
At Palmyra he showed the before and after photos since the ISIS takeover in May 2015, promising that he would rebuild the Temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, the Triumphal Arch and the funerary towers. They had the necessary documentation, he insisted. He paid tribute to Palmyra archaeologist Khaled al-As’ad, beheaded by ISIS.
In Bara and other Cities of the Dead he said they had successfully persuaded local people living in the ruins after their homes had been bombed, not to cause damage to the stones by lighting fires. He mentioned that these 700 Byzantine era towns were his own speciality.
In Apamea, Doura Europos and Ebla he showed photos of massive-scale illegal digging and looting, but said that in Ebla they had now secured the site against further damage. He showed photos of the mosaic museum at Maaret Numan and said they had protected it with the help of local people. In Bosra he showed photos of people clearing the vegetation from the tiers of the Roman theatre, saying they were working with the opposition groups now controlling Bosra, to protect the site.
He spoke of how 6,000 stolen artefacts had been recovered by Syrian police. He thanked INTERPOL, UNESCO, ICOMOS and the World Monuments Fund, and expressed his gratitude to expert help from the British Museum and Durham University.
He ended by saying he had felt “isolated” by the international community because he was “public” (working for the government), but hoped that everyone could come together to help save Syria’s cultural heritage in a way that was “scientific, not political.”
He received loud applause, was praised as “a hero” by his host, John Darlington from the World Monuments Fund, and was then rushed off to an interview with Sky News.
(the new Arabic/English website of Syria’s DGAM)