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Syria’s ‘Monument Citizens’ Taking Risks Saving the Future of Our Past

Damascus

Increasing numbers of Syria’s women and men, whom I considered as this war-torn country’s ‘Monument Citizens’, have recently expanded the scope and range of cultural heritage site protection and preservation on behalf of humanity.

In addition to documenting heritage site damage through 3-D photography at the scene, many reconstruction projects are also underway. A few have been nearly restored including in Lattakia al Mahalbeh Castle, in Old Homs, and nearby Crac des Chavaliers, the 11th Century Crusader Castle, al Khawabi Castle , Tartous, Al Omari Mosque, Bosra, Tell Mozan, Al Hassakeh and the Citadels of Salah ad-Din, Masyaf, and the Damascus Citadel to mention a few.

Archeological site access remains the major impediment for Syria’s ‘Monument Citizens” according to archaeologist Mayassa Deeb, who put on hold her doctoral dissertation at Damascus University in order to supervise groups that photograph and then carefully package artifacts from around the country. Limited access may remain unchanged for the foreseeable future given current conditions in 2/3 of this war-torn country, now in its 5th year of conflict with displacement of more than half of its pre-conflict population of 23 million, including at least 120,000 more people just this month (between Oct. 5 and Oct. 22). This latest refugee exodus occurred in the Aleppo, Hama and Idlib governorates where terrified citizens fled toward the Turkish border as most people in Aleppo moved toward villages and towns in the government controlled countryside west of the city.

There are many impediments to the work of Syria’s irrepressible Monument Citizens given the vast archaeological damage here. Some1,300 sites have been documented using recent, high-resolution satellite imagery technology. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in more than 25% of more than 10,000 archaeological sites in Syria have also been targeted by looters with the frequency and severity of looting varying significantly depending of which faction in the conflict controls the specific area. As of 10/25/2015, more than 16,000 looter pits have been photographed just in the ancient city of of Apamea. A Dartmouth University study published last month in Near Eastern Archaeology confirms that at least a quarter of Syria’s archaeological sites have been looted in the past four years with the Islamic State (Da’ish) being the worst offender. But there have also been extensive losses from sites under the control of other forces and no group involved in the Syrian conflict has clean hands. This organized plunder has dwarfed the thefts by desperate civilians who continue to mine Syria’s heritage sites to pay for food. Looted objects are arriving in neighboring countries including Lebanon brought in by militia seeking to trade them for weapons. Among those reportedly active in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley are organized crime agents and middle men on behalf of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and Free Syrian Army brigades.

Syria’s numbers of Monument Citizens are increasing and they come from all walks of life, local shopkeepers, youngsters whose nearby archaeological sites have been an important part of their childhood, older Syrians who often feel a strong, seemingly genetic bond with this cradle of civilization, archaeologists, some military personnel, museum staff, and people from the general population who cherish their and our cultural heritage and are adamant about protecting and preserving it. They sometimes work individually, but more frequently in pairs or groups, sometimes under the watchful eyes of friendly ‘lookouts.’ But youngsters sometimes take unnecessary risks from this observer’s fatherly perspective.

Syria’s ‘Monument Citizens’ insist that they eschew politics. “While I would admit to you that archeology can get political, governments come and governments go but our cultural heritage, who we are, remains for millennia. “one graduate from Damascus University’s Archaeological college, who describes herself as a “cultural warrior” explained to this observer, adding, “If we allow our cultural heritage to be destroyed, given all the hegemonic invaders these days seeking advantages in our country, we may be destroying the only bond the Syrian people have left that can help heal this country once this war is over.” Her roommate added before beginning to sob, “Our children will never have the chance to see Syria the way we did growing up. Our neighborhood in Palmyra was our museum. This insanity must be stopped!”

As Der Speigel’s Katrin Elger, commented recently after a visit with some of Syria’s Monument Citizens: “From an archaeologist’s vantage point, all the major players in Syria’s proxy war are but a blip on history’s radar. Islamist fundamentalists, even superpowers like Russia and the United States are newcomers compared even to the youngest monuments in Syria.” I believe most Syrians would agree.

A major inspiration and role model for many of Syria’s Monument Citizens is the international patriot, archeologist Dr. Maamoun Abdel-Karim, Director-general of Syria’s Museums and Antiques. Shortly after conflict began, this tenured Damascus University Professor was summoned to take the lead in preserving Syria’s antiquities. As much of the world has come to know, Dr. Maamoun has been indefatigable is his work. His devotion has helped develop many unique contacts across Syria as he monitors and reports the latest damage while at the same time planning-and in several locations when security conditions permit, he is actually beginning and completing some restoration projects with his staff and Monument Citizens. His colleagues across Syria, often under the watchful eyes of ISIS or other Islamist groups in off-limits areas, use everything from WhatsApp or Skype when available, word of mouth or anonymous scribbled messages to advance their Monument Citizens work. In many areas, Dr. Maamoun has mobilized local Monument Citizens to protect heritage sites and in some cases, locals have persuaded rebels themselves to help. In others, his fellow Monument Citizens have documented and where possible, photographed the destruction creating a database for researchers.

In Deir Ezzor, now an Islamic State stronghold on the Iraq-Syria border, volunteers aided staff of Dr. Maamoun and wrapped 16,000 cuneiform tablets in paper towels, packed them in plastic boxes, and shipped them to Damascus.: Each one was individually photographed, added to a and then carefully wrapped them in linen and placed in small Tupperware containers, which were then packed in wooden crates lined with thick foam for storage in a safe location.

The continuing invaluable work of Syria’s “Monument Citizens” reminds one of the global cultural heritage protection projects during WW II when in 1943 on orders from Supreme Commander General Dwight Eisenhower approximately 400 service personnel and countless civilians in Germany and elsewhere in Europe labored to safeguard historic and cultural monuments from war damage. The mandate of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program (MFAA) was to protect and preserve cultural heritage sites and to stop the looting of antiquities. As the conflict came to a close, the ‘Monuments Men” primary mission evolved to locating and returning works of art and other items of cultural importance that had been looted, hoarded and in many cases sold by the Nazis and their collaborators. Earlier this month, the United States Congress granted the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the WW II Monuments Men, in recognition of their heroic role in the preservation, protection, and restitution of monuments, works of art, and artifacts of cultural importance during and following World War II. They are the subject of George Clooney’s new film by the same name.

New teams of Syrian ‘Monument Citizens” are today forming dozens of 5-member 3-D digital camera photography teams to record every possible damaged and not yet damaged site wherever and whenever possible. Scores of Syrian nationalists have just begun an approximately 3-4-month key project known widely as the Oxford University Institute of Digital Archeology’s Million Image Database. This relatively new application of recently developed technology is a large-scale scholarly project targeting both object documentation, and trafficked object identification. Scores of Syria’s ‘Monument Citizens’ will use easy-to-use 3-D cameras to document archeological sites and objects in their area. Images and videos collected in the nearly 14,000 images capacity memory cards will be send for processing to the project’s technical team in the United Kingdom via uploads to the project’s website. Some of these images will be used to create detailed maps of Syrian sites, and to create 3-D models of buildings and artifacts that will be useable as blueprints for full-scale reconstruction. The project website is closed to the public to protect volunteer’s anonymity and also to ensure that the initiative remains a purely scholarly venture, not a social media platform for activists, according to Alexy Karenowska, the project’s director of technology. But Ms. Karenowska assures that as this project progresses through the work of Syria’s Monument Citizens, it will soon be available to the public. The images are to be collated in a huge, publicly accessible database, available to all and under development in collaboration with UNESCO. Syria’s ‘Monument Citizens’ are helping create an ever-growing archaeological catalog which brings together scholarly information about sites and artifacts, raises awareness of cultural heritage and cultural heritage preservation, and provides a new platform for the identification of trafficked objects. The database will be integrable with existing catalogues and lists of known missing or stolen items and employ the latest image comparison and feature recognition based search technology, removing the need for those inspecting suspect cargos or objects to have specialist knowledge.

There are also Monument Citizens operating outside of Syria. Examples include several who operate back and forth between southern Turkey and northern Syria who have done major work and have achieved an emergency preservation of the Ma’arra museum in northern Syria’s Idlib province, famous for its world-class collection of Roman and Byzantine mosaics from the 3rd to 6th centuries A.D. They have also placed more than 1,700 ancient artifacts in secured places.

A couple of other examples of ex-pat Syrian Monument Citizens. The Aleppo Project, also based outside Syria, released on 10/20/2015 its first 3D modeled reconstructions of this under siege former economic hub of Syria. Its website is an open collaboration among Monument Citizens who are planning for the future of a city torn apart by war. Its objectives include gathering as much information as possible about the past of the city, and plan for restoration projects to the day security conditions allow.

Another is the New Palmyra Project, which released its first 3D modeled reconstructions on October 20, 2015 of the ISIS (Da’ish) seriously damaged cultural heritage treasure. Three more Triumphal columns were destroyed this month as three ISIS victims were murdered at their base when they were blown up.

The Non-profit CyArk has digitally preserved scores of the world’s most famous cultural sites, this month announced its most ambitious effort yet – Project Anqa, a joint project with the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) to digitally document and preserve dozens of at-risk sites in Syria.

Another example of ‘Monument Citizen” self-directed initiatives across Syrian borders is a lovely Syrian refugee couple who this observer crossed paths with the other day in a muddy rain-drenched camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley and who explained their personal “Monument Citizen” work. The couple poses as buyers of looted antiques entering Lebanon from Syria and then they photograph and catalogue the photos. An American interested in the subject of Syria’s Endangered Heritage was pleased to be able to present these Syrian ‘Monument citizens” with a 3-D digital camera and accessories, pictured below, in aid of their stellar “cultural triage,” work protecting when possible and documenting Syria’s Endangered Heritage.

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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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