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At an event last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) officially released The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk, which outlines the categories of cultural goods most vulnerable to illicit trade during the Syrian war. With growing reports of widespread damage and looting at cultural heritage sites throughout Syria, ICOM’s publication, which was supported by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, provides a concise guide that can be used by museums, auction houses, art dealers, collectors, and customs officials to identity possibly looted or stolen items as the war in Syria continues.
The ICOM announcement took place during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly and the event was attended by a wide swathe of the diplomatic and NGO communities.
Six of Syria’s 46 primary heritage sites are listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and all have been categorized as World Heritage in Danger sites. In total, 93% of Syria’s cultural sites are inside areas of conflict and displacement.
“The situation, clearly, is critical. Not only for the survival of the Syrian people but the heritage they cherish,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne C. Richards said during the press conference. “Where ever one goes in Syria, one finds monuments from the past around every corner.”
“Today, with the release of the Red List, we take an important step in helping Syrians preserve this unique and priceless cultural heritage. We are monitoring the situation there closely, and we’re engaging internationally with national police, customs officials, ministries of culture, and other relevant entities in countries where Syrian cultural objects might transit and where these objects might find a market. We call on the international community to be vigilant for looted and trafficked Syrian cultural objects and to refrain from acquiring such objects,” Richards said.
Richards outlined that the preservation of the cultural heritage had an economic advantage, and she explained that the preservation effort “are also supporting the rebirth of an economy.” She explained that before the war, cultural heritage and related tourism accounted for 12% of Syria’s GDP, amounting to $6.5 billion a year, and that 11% of the workforce was employed as conservation professionals, teachers, tour guides, museum curators, hotel owners and employees, travel agents, bus and coach drivers, shopkeepers, and related professions.
Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund (WMF), spoke about the various incidents of damage to historic sites in Syria, including the shelling of Aleppo’s ancient citadel by Syrian government forces, and the use of the medieval fortress of Krak des Chevaliers by Syrian rebels.
She outlined WMF’s work in Cambodia and Iraq, as examples of past successes comparable to the situation in Syria, and she applauded the U.S. governments dedication to historical preservation as part of a larger post-conflict mission. “We’re proud that this work is being recognized as a legitimate form of public diplomacy by the US government and its Department of State,” Burnham said. “In fact, we’ve been told that the US-government supported heritage conservation is one of the most successful areas of post-conflict assistance that our government was able to mobilize in Iraq.”
Burnham explained that their work going forward would focus on three important historical sites, including Aleppo’s historic center and the Crusades-era castle of Krak des Chevaliers.
While most Red Lists are created in partnership with a host country’s cultural ministry, for the Syrian document ICOM officials met with individuals from Syria’s Department of Antiquities during a meeting in Amman, Jordan. France Desmarais, ICOM’s director of programs, pointed out that the individuals who attended the meeting did not do so as official governmental representatives.
The categories of vulnerable objects outlined in the Syrian Red List include the general categories of Writing, Figural Sculpture, Vessels, Architectural Elements, Accessories and Instruments, Stamps and Cylinder Seals, and Tessera and Coins.
The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk is available for download on ICOM’s website.