With the crisis in Syria entering its fourth year, the pain that Syrian people live with watching the details of their lives fall apart has become parallel to a heartrending cultural hemorrhage in the country as well, one whose negative impact and influence may linger forever.
Countless archaeological sites in the country are being systematically targeted by means of illegal excavations carried out by organized armed groups, while smuggling and illicit trafficking in pillaged artifacts—rare and extremely valuable commodities which often end up for sale in international markets—have become huge concerns as well. In addition, unique archaeological landmarks are subject to deliberate distortion and destruction for extremist purposes as a transformation of city centers into battlefields—in Homs, Aleppo and elsewhere—also proceeds nonstop. These are cities that embody a cultural history, engraved in their every corner, dating back thousands of years. It is a vital and rich heritage that has always been the subject of admiration and respect around the world, as well as a source of pride for all Syrians, who have, throughout history, managed to protect it, yet it is a heritage now threatened by a veritable list of risks.
In deference to our responsibility towards the people of Syria, we at the Directorate—General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in the Ministry of Culture find ourselves racing against time in an attempt to minimize the impact of the crisis, to lessen its repercussions on our antiquities, in the face of this ongoing deterioration. Toward that end, our main target is to bring all Syrians together under the goal of defending their antiquities, regardless of their different views, given that these antiquities belong to them first and foremost, and that they represent their common heritage and solidarity as a people. Thanks to this approach, DGAM has been able to perform its mission efficiently, with its cadres and staff members still united in the governorates. In addition, its efforts have been quite successful in several areas, particularly in the matter of safeguarding museum holdings by transferring them to secure locations, an undertaking that has been deemed a victory by all measures.
But the protection provided by such preemptive interventions is not the only light in this dark tunnel. The willpower shown by members of the local community, working in cooperation with DGAM cadres, has also played a crucial role, reducing the extent of damage and violation. Furthermore, solidarity with archaeological institutions and professional organizations additionally has made an enormous difference when the ‘chips were down’ and DGAM found itself losing its own strong institutional presence due to the crisis. Hence a spirit of positivity, an awareness and faith of the community as regards the importance of safeguarding heritage—all of these things and more have helped in rescuing the largest number of sites and artifacts, thus ensuring the transmission of the shared memory, history and identity—as represented by this heritage—to future generations.
Despite these massive efforts, the magnitude of the risks threatening Syrian cultural heritage is beyond our capabilities and limited resources (though not our will). To be sure, Syria’s antiquities depend upon the solidarity of all Syrians for their protection—but they also are in need of international action to support these local efforts. This is particularly true in the field of fighting illicit trafficking in Syrian cultural property. Taken altogether it is a challenge that must not only continue but also advance, a struggle that must be expanded, a work that must be broadened and magnified, if we are to save a civilization worthy of life and respect, one which has given a lot to this world.
And so consequently comes the need to publish this book. This work contains within its leaves a non—Syrian perspective by Franklin Lamb, author and journalist, who has wandered in this land during hard times, inspected the status of its antiquities in their most fragile condition, and exerted great effort in the face of this attack upon heritage, accumulating information and presenting it in a manner that calls out to our sense of shared humanity. It makes this book incredibly important, a living testimony to the anguish of our antiquities, to blatant violations in front of which we should not remain silent. But it is also a book that hopefully will apprise the whole world of the role it has to play, as it reminds us that cultural heritage is communal and global, and that the destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage is a loss to humanity as a whole.