Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Importance of Cultural Heritage for Syria

Chasing Aphrodite's interview with  Dr. Amr Al-Azm, ('Twenty Percent: ISIS “Khums” Tax on Archaeological Loot Fuels the Conflicts in Syria and Iraq' August 14, 2014) contains some interesting reflections on the significance of cultural property. Asked by Jason Felch "Given all the loss of human life in the conflict, why should people are about cultural sites?", Dr Al-Azm answered:
This cultural heritage is important because it’s directly linked to national identity of Syrians. Syria’s borders were created artificially. It’s very important that Syrians gather around something that helps them claim their common identity, because otherwise the whole things break down. They’ve been able to do this despite a lot challenges. If this cultural heritage is destroyed, they’re going to lose that. Once the current violence ends, if we don’t have this cultural heritage and the symbolic value of it, how are we going to unite ourselves across religions and religious sects? The country’s past is going to be key to reestablish this national identity and reconnect with the symbols its provides. ISIS knows this. When they target shrines, that’s what they are trying to destroy. But those highly visible and publicized acts are nothing compared to the daily looting of the sites. The history is not in these one or two important shrines. The history is in those hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites stretching hundreds of miles. It is that repository that is being completely decimated [...] in years and decades and centuries to come we’ll have huge gaps in our history because of this cultural violence on an industrial scale.
This was precisely the situation in Occupied Poland, the Nazis intended to destroy Polish nationhood and Polish spirit by the wholesale and planned destruction of the country's cultural heritage (a plan which unfortunately they made great 'progress' in achieving). The backlash is that here in Poland we have today a very strong association with that cultural heritage, and we don't have the same sort of prblems with public understanding of heritage issues as is the case in places like the UK which has never faced these problems (except in fiction - see my Scattered Heritage 'blog').  Today collectors are happily buying middle eastern artefacts blithely offered by dealers, with not a thought about where they came from and how they reached the market - nor of the consequences of their trade. 

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