FEBRUARY 11 – From the Old Cities of Damascus and Aleppo to Bosra, Palmyra, the crusaders castle Crac des Chevaliers and the archaeological sites of Mari, Ugarit and Ebla, much of the cultural and archaeological heritage of Syria has been heavily damaged, bombed or destroyed. The horrors of the hundreds of thousands dead over the past three years of conflict are linked to those of this less discussed tragedy. A campaign launched in Rome on Tuesday by Francesco Rutelli aims to draw greater attention to the risks to Syria’s cultural heritage. The former culture minister and former Rome mayor told the media that ”it wasn’t like this for Iraq”. This was one of the reasons inducing him and the Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae – who excavated the ancient Roman ruins of Ebla and its invaluable cuneiform tablets – to call on European scholars to take part in the campaign sponsored by the Berlin-based Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (of which Rutelli is honorary chairman) and the Italian Priorità Cultura (of which he is the founder).
The aim is to inform the public and support international programs already initiated on the model of an agreement between UNESCO and the European Union to work together to restore the damaged heritage. The campaign will include a European exhibition debuting in Rome on the ‘Splendor and Drama of Syria’ and aims to ”award the courageous” who – a bit like what happened during WWII for European heritage, as George Clooney’s recent ‘Monuments Men’ narrates – struggle every day to save Syria’s cultural heritage.
Some 10,000 dollars are at stake for 2014, and the prize money will be awarded by a committee under France’s former culture minister Jack Lang. Potential candidates include Syria’s director general for antiquities, who Rutelli said ”is able to engage in dialogue even with opposition groups”. A documentary with background music by Ennio Morricone has been made by Matteo Barzini to help spread the message of the campaign. The images have a strong impact on viewers, important – as Matthiae noted – to remind everyone that the dramatic events taking place in Syria, ”a country of extraordinary historic and cultural significance”, ”concern us all”. Prior to 2011, the Italian archaeologist had been conducting archaeological digs in Syria since the 1960s, and the discovery of Ebla was made in 1964. He has not been back since the autumn of 2011, however, when the local authorities convinced him not to return to the site in the northern part of the country. When he speaks about the Middle East, so important in history and ”the place where the model for the city we live in today came from”, words rush out of his mouth. He notes that it is also the place where the first Neolithic attempts at sedentary life took place, as well as the birthplace of agriculture and the oldest alphabet in history and the fatherland in the Roman Era of such important figures in history as Apollodorus of Damascus, the architect of Trajan’s Forum.
Later it was ”the center of the magnificent Umayyad caliphate, heir to Arab, Byzantine and Persian influences, and then for centuries the bridge between the Christian West and the Islamic East”. The approximately 70 archaeological missions working in Syrian territory until 2010 have now been shut down for security reasons. The country’s invaluable heritage is suffering enormous damage through pillaging, clandestine excavations and smuggling.
The international community as well as citizens, he said, have the duty to take action to save and safeguard the history, identity and daily life of a population.