Fighting for Cultural Heritage: Does it Matter?

It’s no secret that we live in a less-than perfect world. Sadly, the modern geography is changing rapidly, and in a few years, parts of the Middle East might end up looking differently on the map. With refuge crises and terror threat being constantly replayed in the media, it’s easy to forget about heritage destruction happening in Syria, Iraq, and a few other countries. After all, why would anyone care about a bunch of statues disappearing when thousands of people are dying or fleeing for their lives? Yet anyone with a background in archaeology or world history would agree that heritage destruction is one of the biggest tragedies of the modern age.

I’m part of the ASOR’s Syrian Heritage Initiatives, a global effort to document cultural damage happening in Syria and Iraq. I decided to join it mainly because of my former academic background, which is in Near Eastern archaeology and languages, and because I simply care. I must admit that sometimes, it’s hard to remain optimistic about the whole project. Let’s face it; all we can really do at the moment is to collect the data and record the damage. Surely, there are people who are trying to rescue ancient treasures on the ground, but it’s an extremely risky business and the success rates aren’t terribly high. As for the post-war preservation projects, it’s hard to tell what the future holds. Nevertheless, there is still hope.

Places such as Palmyra and Nimrud are very important to the scholarly community worldwide. Anyone who has been in the academia even for a short period of time can testify how hard getting hold of the past can be. Even findings that are easily available can present so many enigmas. Talk about forgery trials regularly featured in the Biblical Archaeology Review. When significant portions of evidence disappear, more gaps need to be filled.

With modern technology, it’s much easier to track down sites that have been looted, intentionally destroyed, or damaged as a result of military activity. It’s even possible to preserve entire manuscript libraries and reconstruct ancient cities digitally. There are several organizations that work on heritage preservation.

The Aleppo Project

http://www.thealeppoproject.com/home-inn/

Supported by the Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery School of Public Policy in Budapest, Hungary, the Aleppo Project is collaboration among people who care about the city’s future. The goal of the project is to gather information about the city’s past, document military damage, and plan for post-war restoration. The organization is currently looking for blog writers, map designers, and people who are interested in sharing their opinion about various matters by completing surveys.

The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (APSA)

http://apsa2011.com/apsanew/

APSA aims at gathering information about the region and documenting damage done to heritage sites. The organization consists of volunteer professionals from various fields, including archaeology, journalism, and web technology, who are eager to contribute their skills to the cause.

The Canadian Centre for Epigraphic Documents (CCED)

http://www.epigraphy.ca/

Run by a group of scholars and information professionals from Toronto, Canada, and other parts of the world, the center aims at creating digital archives of epigraphic materials from the Middle East and beyond.  The center’s main area of focus is early Christian writings of Syriac/Aramaic origin.

Heritage for Peace

http://www.heritageforpeace.org/about-us/

Based in Girona, Spain, Heritage for Peace consists of a volunteer network of heritage specialists from across the world. The organization seeks to document heritage destruction and support Syrians in protecting their cultural heritage. Currently, the organization isn’t actively looking for volunteers. However, they do need help in managing social media and writing the newsletter.

Monuments of Mosul

http://monumentsofmosul.com/

Supported by The Czech Academy of Sciences, the project aims at documenting monuments that had been destroyed by the Islamic State.  Currently, the team is working on releasing a satellite map of all the monuments and is requesting for more information on thirty eight statues that yet need to be identified.

Project Mosul

http://projectmosul.org/

As the name indicates, the project focuses on restoring and preserving northern Iraq’s heritage via digital resources. Currently, the project representatives are looking for help in sorting and masking images from various destruction scenes that had taken place at the Northwest Palace in Nimrud and other similar sites.

New Palmyra

http://www.newpalmyra.org/

The project’s main goal is recreate the site of Palmyra virtually, using computer technology. So far, the models of the Ach of Triumph and the Temple of Bel have been created. Hopefully, more sites will be reconstructed in future with the help of digital specialists.

The Syrian Heritage Initiatives (CHI)

http://www.asor-syrianheritage.org/

Supported by the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and the US Department of State, the CHI seeks to document damage, promote awareness, and plan post-war responses. The team is always looking for help in various fields.

How can you help?

You don’t have to be a scholar or a specialist in 3D technology. Anyone with basic computer skills can contribute to either of these projects. These organizations are constantly looking for artists, researchers, archivists, and people of many other professions to help out with various tasks. If you know another language, especially French or Arabic, it’s always a bonus, as many of these organizations have communications in foreign languages. No matter what your talent is, you can become an integral part of the global effort to save our heritage.

Resources

https://www.rom.on.ca/en/collections-research/rom-channel/syria-today-humanitarian-crisis-and-the-destruction-of-cultural

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/05/29/the-islamic-states-threat-to-cultural-heritage/

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/while-isis-destroys-hamilton-man-battles-to-preserve-historic-texts-1.2748734

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