It’s rare to hear any positive news associated with cultural heritage and Syria these days, but Maamoun Abdulkarim, director of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria, recently told the AFP that 99% of objects in the country’s 34 museums have been secretly hidden away to save them from looting and destruction. That’s about 300,000 artifacts and thousands of manuscripts — 80,000 items in Damascus alone.
Other nations have similarly hidden art in times of conflict. The Museo del Prado in Madrid packed away hundreds of its artworks in Valencia and Geneva during the Spanish Civil War, including Velásquez’s “Las Meninas” and Goya’s “Black” paintings. During World War II, the entire collection of Britain’s National Gallery was also transferred to an old slate mine in Wales. And during the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the National Museum evacuated many of its holdings to a vault.
But Abdulkarim’s job seems particularly difficult. When he was appointed to his post in 2012, he found himself in the odd position of being in the employ of an autocrat while trying to safeguard Syria’s rich cultural heritage — a heritage that is not just Syria’s, but the world’s, too. The country contains six UNESCO heritage sites, five of which have already been damaged by the conflict.
“Not only do you have the barbarity of the [Islamic State] jihadists who destroy any representation of humans and Muslim mausoleums, but also the greed of mafia groups coming from Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey to buy pieces found by local residents,” explained Ayham al-Fakhry, who was director of antiquities in Raqqa before he fled the city in 2012.
An anecdote Abdulkarim shared more fully completes the picture. Last year, he led an effort in Deir Ezzor to evacuate by military plane the remaining 13,000 artifacts in the city, which is largely controlled by ISIS. “If the plane had crashed, I would have lost three friends and gone to prison for losing 13,000 items,” he said.
In October, UNESCO awarded Abdulkarim with the very first Cultural Heritage Rescue Prize, though he’s not working alone. He’s had the help of 2,500 brave employees — 12 of which have been killed, five while on the job. The award reflects the growing international recognition that however terrible Syria’s current leadership may be, its cultural heritage needs to be preserved. “There must be a international mobilization to save culture and civilization,” Abdulkarim said. “It’s not just our responsibility, but a collective one.”