On a chilly afternoon in the British capital, Maamoun Abdulkarim, a 48-year-old Syrian archaeologist, sits in a small conference room and outlines his vision for liberating what’s left of one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites from the grip of Islamic fundamentalists. "My hope is to see all of the world together in the battle for Palymric Normandy," he explains in heavily accented English. "It’s a Syrian battle, it’s an opposition battle, it is the UK, America, Russia.
Four years into a brutal civil war, the idea of Syrian regime and opposition forces and their allies joining together to run ISIS out of Palmyra seems very unlikely. But what’s even more unlikely is the source of the idea: Maamoun Abdulkarim is head of Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM). He reports to the Ministry of Culture, which in turn reports to president Bashar al-Assad.
Abdulkarim, however, insists that the only way to save Syrian cultural heritage is to elevate the mission above the messy fray of regional politics and into the international sphere. Nonetheless, as an official representative of the Assad regime, he finds himself and his 2,500 DGAM employees isolated from much of the global community, whose assistance he says is desperately needed to preserve what’s left of Syria’s heritage.
This is why the self-described "saddest museum director in the world" now finds himself in London, hours away from giving a public talk hosted by the World Monuments Fund at the Royal Geographical Society. Days earlier, it was the Italian parliament, and next up is a UNESCO meeting in Paris.
"We’re just 2,500 archaeologists in a nation of 23 million. How many more do we need to save our communal Syrian heritage?" he asks, tapping his finger resignedly on a table. "The international community should understand that and see beyond the regime to protect our history."
Just then, a Royal Air Force jet comes shrieking low over the rooftops from the direction of Parliament, where the arrival of India’s prime minister is being feted. "It’s like Damascus," the archaeologist observes with a tight smile. "Every day we live like this."
An Action Plan to Save Syria’s Museums, Inspired by Iraq
According to Abdulkarim, it was the looting of the Baghdad Museum following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that compelled him to accept the regime’s offer to lead DGAM nine years later, just as the Syrian conflict was intensifying. "I accepted this job in 2012 because the museums were under control of the government," he explains. "I had an action plan to protect Syria’s museums from what had happened at the Baghdad Museum."
Amr Al Azm, currently a professor of history at Shawnee State University in Ohio, worked with Abdulkarim at the University of Damascus and DGAM as the events were unfolding in Iraq. "He was director of museums and I was director of the science and conservation laboratories. We saw what happened to the museums [in Iraq], and we were very concerned because we knew there was no contingency plan in place should a such catastrophe befall Syria."
According to Azm, the colleagues began to rough out the framework for an emergency effort. "I know for a fact that when the war started he felt that someone had to stay behind and put into effect what we had talked about but never really developed. He should always be remembered and thanked for that."
The resulting efforts of Abdulkarim and his team of 2,500 DGAM employees to evacuate hundreds of thousands of objects from museums around the country to unspecified safe havens have been heralded by many in the international community. (Abdulkarim says DGAM has saved "99 percent” of the country’s museum collections.) The head of UNESCO has called Abdulkarim "a hero to heritage preservation," and his efforts won him the organization’s first Cultural Heritage Rescue Prize in 2014. Most recently, DGAM employees came under fire while spiriting away the contents of the Palmyra Museum during the advance of ISIS into the city.
"We Can’t Keep Going Another Two or Three Years"
In his three years as head of DGAM, the archaeologist has repeatedly stressed his autonomy within the Assad regime. He says he has not accepted a salary from the government, and when his ability to make decisions on behalf of Syria’s cultural heritage is challenged, he claims that he threatens to quit. Abdulkarim freely asserts that he’s been the target of government "extremists" over his refusal to condemn moderate opposition forces. "I condemn all use of weapons against antiquities," he says simply.
Another former colleague, who asked not to be identified due to the safety of family still in Syria, is more circumspect. "The regime is so isolated, and I know every time [Abdulkarim] wants to go to the West to see officials they give him the green light, which could be sometimes helpful for our heritage. [But this is also] a kind of opening for the regime to have connections with the West."
"Everyone is used for a purpose [by the regime]," the colleague adds. "Does Abdulkarim have enough power to stop the Syrian government from bombarding archaeological sites and cities like Aleppo? No."
Azm points to the limitations of international cooperation with an institution of the Syrian government. "Yes, we should help the department of antiquities wherever possible without breaking any international laws. But the regime controls less than 30 percent of the country. We should also be doing much more to help those organizations and individuals outside of regime territory because they're also doing a huge amount of work and get little or no recognition or support."
Back in London, before an assembled crowd of 500 at the Royal Geographical Society, Abdulkarim strikes a similarly frustrated note. Behind him, an image of the recently destroyed Baal Shamin temple is projected on a screen. "[The international community] condemns us and ISIS condemns us," the archaeologist says flatly, before making another appeal for assistance from the outside world. "We can’t keep going another two or three years in our current situation."