Czechs sign up to help save Syrian cultural heritage

Palmyra, photo: Adamkou, CC BY 3.0

The general director of the Czech National Museum has just signed an agreement committing the institution to helping Syria save, preserve and conserve much of its cultural and historical heritage damaged by six years of war. At the Prague signing, Michal Lukeš and his Syrian counterpart were on hand to describe the task they face.

Maamoun Abdulkarim,  Michal Lukeš,  photo: CTK
A few hours before Islamic State (ISIS) forces first occupied the historic jewel that is Palmyra in May 2015, three massive Czech-made Tatra trucks rolled up at the site and loaded up 400 statues so that they could be taken to safety.

The fate of many of the remaining Roman monuments and artefacts after the first and second ISIS occupations, where many of the buildings were blown up and many statues defaced or broken, testified to the wisdom of that move.

And the somewhat coincidental Czech connection in saving much of Syria’s rich architectural heritage during the six-year-long conflict that started in 2011 could have stopped there. But it didn’t. The Czech National Museum’s general director Michal Lukeš this week signed a declaration of intent with the general director of Syria’s authority for museums and monuments, Maamoun Abdulkarim.

The declaration commits the Czech institution to help in the conservation and preservation of Syria’s cultural monuments and treasures as part of a wider programme of humanitarian help agreed by the government last year which lasts until 2019. Basically, it gives a sort of formal framework to an informal cooperation that has already been running for a long time with the Czechs already marking themselves out for their willingness to help. The National Museum’s Michal Lukeš was in fact the first European director of such an institution to go in person to Syria to find out on the spot in Syria what was the damage and what were conservation needs. The National Museum has been involved in similar conservation missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the second half of the year we would like to transport some items from Syria to our own workshops here so that they can be repaired and preserved.

This is how Mr. Lukeš described what he had seen on his visit:

ʺOf course, there is a war going on in Syria so there is a lot of damage due to military operations and there is deliberate damage to some items due to ideological views. I was in Homs, which is significantly damaged and the same holds true for Palmyra as well. This is all part of a great tragedy. On the other hand, the Syrian government has been able to evacuate a lot of museum items to Damascus and has been able to save many other things. But they now need our help with the items that were originally stored in various localities so they can be conserved and preserved."

This year around 3 million crowns has been earmarked for the conservation help for Syria. A lot of the early help is focused on meeting basic needs but the later targets are more ambitious.

"In the first phase we basically had to ask our colleagues what they needed to do their work. We agreed on certain areas where we would try and meet their needs. The first deliveries were various types of chemicals needed for preservation work and breathing masks. These are more or less everyday items but the deliveries there dried up so we will be giving the Syrians those sort of supplies. In the second half of the year we would like to transport some items from Syria to our own workshops here so that they can be repaired and preserved. Some Syrian specialists should also come here to receive training in conservation and preservation as well as 3D scanning and digitalisation of individual items.ʺ

Palmyra | Photo: Adamkou,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 3.0
In spite of the media images of the war, Maamoun Abdulkarim says that a lot of Syria’s cultural and historical heritage, it was a crossroads for many ancient civilisations, have been saved in one way or another. But damage at many sites has still been great:

ʺFor the collection of the museums in Syria we saved the totality of the collections and out of all the museums in Syria we saved more than 300,000 items from looting. We transported the collections in the museums from 2012 on to Damascus. We transported around 90 percent of the collections from the museums. In Damascus we made new packaging, new preservation and documentation but for the cultural sites it is another question because you know we have more than 10,000 sites in Syria and not all sites are in the control of the government. We have many kind of groups and armies in Syria; ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra etc. We try to reduce the impact of the war on the cultural heritage sites through government institutions and we saved most with the help of the local community but more 3,000 sites are damaged in various degrees by ideological regimes, by clashes, and by looting."

Syria’s cultural objects and monuments director says his workers have been able to save some of the heritage in parts of the country outside government control through links with the leaders of local communities who understand the fact that heritage should not be a political football or weapon.

The Syrian government has been able to evacuate a lot of museum items to Damascus and has been able to save many other things.

"Yes, if it is not under control of the government, we have our colleagues, archeologists, who work with us. They are from the local community and through our colleagues we try to mediate with the elite of the local community on how we can make the cultural site neutral. We have paid all our employees, 2,500 people in all of Syria. We are in a special position for all Syrian people because what we do is linked to the identity of the Syrian people and it’s the history of the people, it’s not about politics. If we have different views about politics, that’s another question. Our priority is how we can save the heritage for [future] generations.ʺ

Of course, Czech help in trying to save the Syrian cultural heritage is not unique on the ground. Other missions are also quite prominent, such as the French and Poles, and admittedly the Czech Republic is a fairly small country with limited resources. But the Czech help certainly appears to have made an impression in war torn Syria. Maamoun Abdulkarim again:

Syrian artefacts,  photo: archive of Czech National Museum
ʺMany countries from West support us through many kinds of institutions and universities but the Czech Republic is the first country to support us officially and director Michal Lukeš was the first director to officially visit Damascus and he gave us a beautiful feeling through this isolation, through this war, that we are not alone and that we have a common responsibility to save this heritage for humanity. I think what the Czech Republic had done through the general director of the museum of Prague, Dr. Michael Lukeš, is a beautiful message for the future generations, for our country. To give support and enable another country gives a message that we should separate between politics and civil society as regards our cultural heritage. The thing about the cultural heritage is that this is a sort of humanitarian work, it’s not politics. If we do not do it, it will be too late in the future."

The Syrians believe that a large amount of their heritage has been looted for gain not due to ideological reasons. Illegal excavations existed before the war, but Mr. Abdulkarim says they have been taken to a new level now with bulldozers sometimes called in to level and clear away whole sites. The authority hopes international and national police will keep tabs on some of the stolen goods but Mr. Abdulkarim is under no illusions that many will turn up any time soon:

…Michal Lukeš was the first director to officially visit Damascus and he gave us a beautiful feeling through this isolation, through this war, that we are not alone….

"Yes, we are in permanent contact with Interpol and there is an office in UNESCO for anti-trafficking. We have a lot of partners in Western Europe through our colleagues. Our partners in some institutions and in many countries within Europe try to give us support to exchange information to follow what happened about the looting, if they are able to stop something. But we are really certain that many, many objects left Syria but they are now hidden. They will appear in the future, 10 years, 20 years, later. What we need is to communicate with Interpol, UNESCO and each country should follow the black market and perform good work to combat the mafia.ʺ