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Is the Phoenix Rising From the Ashes in Syria?

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Homs Governorate, Syria

Local legend has it that it was in the Syrian Desert near present day Aleppo, some Egyptians claim otherwise, that a bird of unsurpassed beauty without equal lived for centuries and then suddenly suffered ferocious immolation. Miraculously to emerge from its still smoldering ashes with restored and even enhanced majesty.

Currently visiting a representative sampling of four years of war damaged archeological sites in Syria one witnesses some fairly massive destruction some of which has been reported in the international media. But the visitor also comes upon stunning, yet still relatively modest progress that many local communities are making in protecting and restoring mankind’s shared global cultural heritage. Voluntary work and dedication in the midst of war and frequent mayhem.

To date these measures are mainly local initiatives relying on limited community resources, with government encouragement, toughened looting laws and enforcement and facilitating local communities with repair and reconstruction permits. While simultaneously the Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), of the Ministry of Culture works with INTERPOL among others to retrieve stolen treasures. So far the local initiatives don’t receive much central government cash given the many current urgent societal needs. And a paucity of foreign material assistance is arriving. But the dearth of the latter is partially offset by the expanding international interest and concern for what has been happening to archeological sites in Syria and what needs to be done urgently by way of protection and restoration.

I have visited a number of spectacular repair and reconstruction projects now being worked on by Syrians at archeological sites around Syria. Local community achievements here in Syria bring to mind the resurrection of the Phoenix with hope for salvaging our shared global heritage.

Two examples are return visits by this observer the past week to archeological sites first toured nine months ago, shortly after armed gangs and looters were expelled and the sites were returned to the local community’s protection.

Saint Mary Church of the Holy Belt (Um al-Zennar, Homs

Before the current crisis there were an estimated 100,000 Christians living in the Old City. Most fled in February 2012 and as of May, 2014 approximately100 remained. One neighbor of St. Mary’s informed this observer during his visit two days after rebels vacated the area on May 9, 2014 that all “Symbols related to Christianity were removed. Even from inside houses. If you had a picture of the Virgin Mary, they removed it.” In neighborhoods near the old city, churches were damaged to varying degrees. The Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George was completely destroyed. Others, including the Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady of Peace, the Church of the Holy Spirit, and the Protestant church, were severely damaged.

St Mary’s of the Holy Belt is built over an underground church dating back to the mid first century and tradition has it that this seat of the Syriac Orthodox archbishopric contains a venerated relic which the local Bishop explain as he shoved rubble from around the altar. That relic is claimed to be a section of the waist belt of Mary, mother of Jesus. This observer was inspired by the number of parishioners and others form the neighborhood, including many Muslims one church official told me, as I watched several from the community who were covered in dust and soot cleaning out the war rubble. Syrians, almost without exception from my experience are deeply connected with their cultural heritage and do not distinguish all that much among its origins. Rather it appears that they are proud to help others protect and rebuild their damaged religious and cultural sites and focus more on the task of restoration of their heritage than fixing blame.

Nine months ago his observer surveyed the damage to the compound with church clergy and examined the still smoldering ‘bible pit” where just before their departure, armed groups built a fire of Bibles, church documents, religious icons, art works and sacramental liturgical vestments worn by Priests during Holy Communion and the performance of their religious duties. Shifting through the ashes one found the remains of stoles, manipules, dhasubles, daimatics, surplices, and choir cassocks as well as several burned crosses. Returning this week I saw that the community volunteers had recently created an excellent garden on top of the jihadists burn-pit and that locally financed major restoration work was underway. St. Mary’s nave and sanctuary has been cleansed of the thick soot and the heavy smell of burned furnishings and timbers. Locals have literally retrieved pieces of priceless art from the detritus, pieced them together and re-hung them. The Parish house is being rebuilt.

Crac des Chavlier, Homs

Less than an hour’s drive to the west toward Lebanon, a trip facilitated at half a dozen checkpoints once ID was verified, and the frequently raise eyebrows and question, “What’s an American doing around here?” this observer returned after nine months to the 11th century crusader castle and later Muslim fortress, Crac des Chevalier. Along with T. E. Lawrence, whose judgment I share this hilltop redoubt is the most majestic in the Middle East.

During my earlier May 2014 visit I saw the destruction of the staircase and halls in front of the internal building of the fort, partial damage in the façade of the Hall of the Knights, including some damage to the decorations and arches inside the Hall, and several places on the massive exterior and courtyard walls where explosives had caused moderate to several damage to Crac. The Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) staff, craftsmen and local volunteers have been working at Crac since May of 2014 and have made remarkable progress in repairing and where necessary, reconstructing parts of the castle. Their work continues today and local leaders mention resuming its world famous annual festival including the preeminent regional handicrafts exhibition. Seeing the repairs underway at the fortress is a testament to the local community whose lives have been shaped by this incomparable world heritage site.

Other sites that I have most visited that are being worked on largely by local communities residents include, but are not limited to the following:

Homs Museum, Homs
Cleaning of exterior walls and removal of mortar debris, replacing damaged windows and entrances

Mufid al Amin House, Homs
Securing the premises, surveying damage and organizing the required repairs with local officials and the community

Zahrawi Palace, Homs
Preparing the needed restoration projects and securing the premises, surveying damage and organizing the required repairs with local officials and the community

Aleppo Museum, Aleppo
Protecting the museum’s inventory and warehouse, internal wooden and stone sculptures in the museum’s garden and entrance area. Larges sculptures secured with sand bags and wooden encasements. Securing the museum warehouse, wooden structures and, statues in the museum’s garden. Replacement of the damaged windows caused by mortars striking the premises and museum front gardens

Deir ezZour Museum, Deir ezZour
Survey of structural weaknesses and reinforcing or replacing where necessary doors and windows.

Hama Museum, Hama
Museum contents have been secured on and off site. Protecting the Mosaics and replacing damage windows.

Taybet al Imam Museum, Hama
The museum contents have been secured. Protecting Mosaics from vandalism.

Idlib Museum, Idlib
Contents have been secured in protected museum warehouses. Replacement of damages windows.

Shaqa Tower, Sweida
Restoration and repair work to the tower. Secured the premises.

Shahba pool walls, Sweida
Secured the premises and made temporary repairs and restoration to the structure.

National Museum, Damascus
The museums contents and grounds have been secured and are patrolled. Protective roof insulation installed. Alarm system expanded.

Al Azem Palace, Old city of Damascus
Repair and restoration of the damaged limestone façade, installation of protective roof insulation, enhanced museum security.

Damascene Heritage House, Damascus
Restoration work and installation of roof protection and insulation.

Khan Asaad Pasha, Damascus
Enhanced security for the complex including rehabilitation of the premises and the installation of security measures. Rehabilitation work as required.

National Museum of Science and Medicine, Damascus
Security measures taken including, but not limited to the installation of exhibit protection devices and increased guarding of the premises.

What local communities are doing today in Syria to protect and preserve our shared cultural heritage is not going to solve their and our archeological crisis. But rarely one imagines in the midst of war have citizens undertaken such Phoenix like preservation and restoration work for the benefit of mankind. The people of Syria are doing their part to secure our heritage for those who follow us. It’s up to us to join them.

Franklin Lamb’s most recent book, Syria’s Endangered Heritage, An international Responsibility to Protect and Preserve is in production by Orontes River Publishing, Hama, Syrian Arab Republic. Inquires c/o orontesriverpublishing@gmail.com. The author is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com

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Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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