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Saving Syrian antiquities

Monumental arch in the eastern section of Palmyra’s colonnade in 2007, destroyed in 2015. Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki, via Creative Commons

An international committee of academics and researchers are taking action to protect Syria's ancient history.

Saving Syrian antiquities

Syria has a dense history that traces back to the emergence of human civilization, the antiquities left behind in the city tell the story of this in a “mosaic” of ancient and modern relics. Before foreign invasion and civil war, artefacts and archaeological sites that showed us how human societies evolved were careful studied and preserved. Sites like the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to the Neolithic period, has been the site of excavation and research by explorers since 1616.

When not teaching, lecturer in Classics and Archaeology at the University of Melbourne, Dr Andrew Jamieson spends part of his working life on archaeological sites in Australia, Egypt, Lebanon and in more peaceful times, Syria.

Prior to the war in Syria, Jamieson and his Syrian partner would spend some time at their apartment in the city of Aleppo, which he used as a base for periods spent on archaeological excavation projects.

[caption id="attachment_846885" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Andrew Jamieson in the streets of Aleppo during his last trip to Syria, prior to the war. Photo: Andrew Jamieson/University of Melbourne Andrew Jamieson in the streets of Aleppo during his last trip to Syria, prior to the war. Photo: Andrew Jamieson/University of Melbourne[/caption]

 

Aleppo is the largest city in Syria and is the “world’s oldest, continuously inhabited metropolis”, believed to have been inhabited for over 7000 years. During the reign of the Ottoman Empire, between 1299 and 1923, it was the third largest city after Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Cairo.

Illegal excavations, targeted attacks by military and terrorists have destroyed precious monuments, sites and artefacts or have seen these lost on the black market. Last year ISIL were responsible for the shocking destruction of ancient structures on the site of Palmyra. The Temple of Bel founded in 32 AD was considered one of the most well preserved structures at Palmyra; the temple was completely destroyed in an attack by ISIL in August 2015.

The international committee Shirin, a global community of archaeology, art and history scholars, was formed in an effort to protect Syria’s ancient sites, monuments and museums. The committee represents major universities, institutions and research centres across the world. It functions to support government and non-government bodies to “preserve and safeguard the heritage of Syria” by providing “concrete actions”, these actions include:

  • Ensuring official site guards are employed to protect sites and museums and paid a proper wage,
  • Damage assessment. Identifying cases where emergency repairs can be made or immediate protection,
  • Creating a database of Syrian heritage elements so operations on the ground can make plans to protect these objects or sites,
  • Assist local authorities to document damage so a plan for restoration and reconstruction can be made,
  • Provide expertise in assessing illegally trafficked antiquities and use Art Market contacts to reduce illicit trafficking.

Dr Andrew Jamieson is one of the founding committee members providing his expertise. He explained, “Our sights are set on a time, post-conflict, when the emphasis can shift from safeguarding and documenting the damage, towards restoration and reconstruction.”

The committee consists of antiquities experts from research groups that had worked in Syria before 2011. They have been painstakingly working fast to “systematically collect information on the damage and looting resulting from the current conflict and identifying those cases in which emergency actions or cooperation are needed.”

The Shirin committee are working against time to ensure we all have a record of where we have been, and how we came about as a civilization.

 

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