Antiquities Director for Syria, Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim calls himself the “saddest director of antiquities” in the world as he battles to save what is left of the ancient city of Palmyra.
He pleads to the international community to help save Syria’s heritage, after Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was partially destroyed by ISIS. His predecessor was tortured and beheaded by the jihadists as he tried to save priceless antiquities from being looted or destroyed. ISIS captured the ruins in May and have since been on the path of dismantling human history and culture. The rape of Palmyra, the ancient crossroads of the world, still goes on.
The director general of antiquities and museums for Syria, warns that ISIS will completely destroy the ancient ‘oasis in the desert’ within six months if there is no help from the world community. In a visit to London’s Royal Geographical Society, Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim will talk about the battle to save his country’s heritage. Abdulkarim and his colleagues, known as the ‘monuments men,’ seek the help of ‘foreign monuments men’ to help avert “the biggest cultural catastrophes in history.”
The Independent reports:
“I am the saddest director-general in the world,” Professor Abdulkarim told The Independent. “I want to appeal to the international community to be with us, to support us. Do not leave Syrian archaeologists to fight this cultural battle alone. We need you.”
He added: “If things continue as they are, Palmyra will be completely destroyed. I am sure of it. We must give it freedom, or we will lose an icon. It is the work of politicians and strategists of what to do.”
Palmyra once welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to its monumental ruins but has been “taken hostage” by Isis, Professor Abdulkarim said before adding a network of academics dubbed the new “Monuments Men” – a reference to the soldiers who protected cultural heritage in the Second World War – were risking their lives to protect Syria’s heritage. “We don’t do politics, what we do is try and protect Syrian heritage for all of humanity,” he said.
Alongside the human tragedy, as conflict rages across the Middle East and North Africa, heritage sites and objects have also been targeted.
The most pressing cultural site in Syria is Palmyra, north-east of Damascus, which has a significant number of monumental ruins dating from the first century. Isis marched into the Unesco World Heritage site, dubbed the “Bride of the Desert” by Syrians, in May. Losing it, according to Syrian archaeologist Isber Sabrine, would be “one of the biggest cultural catastrophes in history”.
Professor Abdulkarim said: “What we are doing in Syria, my brave colleagues, we have preserved and saved more than 300,000 objects; it is the work of the Monuments Men. It is dangerous work.”
The Monuments Men went into the city ahead of Isis and removed as much of the art and historical objects as they could. The director-general hailed the efforts of the “hundreds of those” trying to preserve the culture and called for reinforcements. “I want to say to them, ‘do not leave us alone in this battle because we need you’,” he said, adding that about 15 Monuments Men had been killed since 2012. “People have sacrificed their lives, many have refused to leave Syria, I am proud of these people. But I also need foreign Monuments Men.”
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