An Afternoon with Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim

Last Sunday, which happened to be October 16, the next day after the International Archaeology Day, I was honored to meet an extraordinary man, Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, the chief of the Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) of Syria. It was also the same day when a new exhibition, “Syria: a Living History,” opened at the Aga Khan Museum.

I’d known about this upcoming exhibit for quite a while and had been really looking forward to it. My level of enthusiasm for seeing this gallery has been pretty high partly because of my involvement with the Cultural Heritage Initiatives and partly because of life-long passion for all things Near East. During the weeks preceding the gallery opening, new event ads started popping on social media. A few concerts came up, and so did a couple of archaeology-related events. As soon as I found out about the lecture by Dr. Abdulkarim, I knew it would become part of my weekend plans.

On Sunday morning, I dropped off my daughter at my parents’ place and set off on a mission to meet one of the most important people in Near Eastern archaeology. The road was quite long, as I had to drive all the way from the west end to the Don Mills area. Moreover, the rain wouldn’t stop falling. A few panoramic scenes later, my car was parked safely in the Aga Khan Museum’s underground lot, and I was out, walking through a long tunnel towards the main elevator.

The atmosphere inside the museum was charged with anticipation. Visitors kept coming from all directions, and a huge lineup in front of the coffee booth was a clear evidence for willingness of many to be part of this new gallery opening.

The lecture began with welcoming messages by Henry Kim, CEO of the museum, and Christina Cameron, President of Canadian Commission for UNESCO. Then we got to see a video of a brief but very powerful message by Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General. She spoke on how cultural heritage represents achievements of the entire humanity and how its tragic demise can affect all of us. At last, he was on the stage.

Maamoun Abdulkarim briefly touched upon the dark events of the last five years and his difficult decision to stay in Damascus. The tone of his voice was very emotional, and yet he sounded determined. The Power Point images included those of the key sites, such as the Aleppo Citadel, Crac des Chevaliers, and several mosques throughout the country. Issues of looting, combat damage, and deliberate destruction for ideological reasons were raised. When he mentioned the large number of statues his team was able relocate from Palmyra to safer areas, the entire auditorium clapped. I was relieved to find out that, contrary to what most of the sources state, the statue of Al-Lat from Palmyra was not completely destroyed, but was simply damaged and can be restored. The fact that the restoration has already began for some areas gave me and many others sitting in the auditorium a glimmer of hope for a better future.

After the end of the lecture, the audience had a chance to meet Dr. Abdulkarim in the lobby. When my turn came, we exchanged a few words on the current situation and the role of the global effort in combating heritage destruction. In the end, shook hands and wished each other to meet in Damascus on day when there’ll be peace.

Afterwards, I proceeded upstairs to the exhibit, where I got to see artifacts from different historical and archaeological periods, ranging from Sumerian and Hittite to late Islamic and contemporary. Among them, I recognized a few pieces from the ROM and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many others were from famous European museums, such as Louvre and Museum of Berlin.

“Syria: a Living History” evokes a whole range of feelings, from awe for thousands years of cultural and artistic diversity, to the feeling of sadness and regret over the current situation. It’s amazing that despite anything, there are still people who are willing to risk their lives to help the humanity in saving our collective heritage.

 

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