Now that the Islamist forces have been expulsed from Palmyra (see my recent post: Good news from Palmyra?), the Syrian archaeologists express their concern about UNESCO’s plan to start restoring the damaged site. They feel that such a statement is far too early and beyond reality since the war in Syria is far from over; besides, implicating Russia in the future of Syria’s heritage is outrageous and absurd. Outsiders cannot simply decide on the future of Syria and certainly not on the future of poor Palmyra.
Absolute despair with UNESCO: An Open Letter
On March 27th I read on the UNESCO site the press communication made by the Director-General on the re-taking of Palmyra. It goes without saying that the expulsion of the Islamists is good news for everyone, and I can only rejoice with all my heart. Even if the loss and recovery of the city of Palmyra were above all the subject of a theatrical set piece staged for the media, and not of the fierce struggle that they would like to make us believe - as anyone who was sufficiently aware of the realities on the ground and the progress of the operations on site would already have known.
However I am thoroughly shocked, like most of my Syrian colleagues, with regard to two fundamental points concerning the treatment of heritage during what still is an open and armed conflict:
Firstly: After various conflicts of all kinds - those of the last century and those which followed during the twenty-first century - UNESCO suddenly plans the "restoration" of the damaged sites (the Executive Director “reiterated her full support for the restoration of Palmyra”) as if the war were already over and the people had returned to their homeland. The only operations that we can consider in the present context are an inventory and emergency intervention, certainly not restoration. How can we speak of restoration of cultural property when the conflict is still ravaging the country? This is without even mentioning the dramatic plight of the citizens of Palmyra, driven away by two terrors: that of the Syrian regime and that of the barbaric bearded men. More importantly, how can we decide for the Syrians what should happen to their cultural heritage? As you well know, Syrian specialists in Syrian cultural heritage, of all categories, are divided into a thousand factions because of this conflict, are refugees around the world, or are traumatized, desperate, and I could go on ... And here UNESCO adds fuel to the fire.
Secondly: To talk with Russia about the future of Syrian heritage, and to designate that country as the only partner for the restoration of our national identity, taken hostage by the different actors of this war, is both absurd and outrageous. Russia plays a dividing role in our country, for reasons that are well known. Paradoxically, its action is the exact opposite of the one called for by the vows of the Director-General in her speech: "the critical role of cultural heritage for resilience, national unity, and peace". As for me, I naively ask where this national unity is in a country severely divided, both politically and physically, and whether peace (a glimmer of hope for the Syrians) is really likely to be reached in the near future. In any case Russia, as far as I know, is not a mandatory power over our country. So why must we negotiate with Russia the future of Syria?
UNESCO should be a neutral scientific and moral institution, a guarantee of integrity for the Syrians, all Syrians, without meddling in their political or other partisan positions. There is no need to take sides here, either with the rebels or with the loyalist ranks (of course, the Islamists are excluded from the outset). If, in these critical times, decisions are taken for the Syrians, without their consent, in agreement with only a small minority of their specialists, this will create a huge problem in the future after the war, when it is finally possible to work towards national reconciliation. Syrians expect from UNESCO a unifying role: to unify the Syrians through heritage.
Archaeologist - National Heritage Curator