Thursday, February 2, 2023
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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Another Assad victim: Syria’s heritage

Cultural elements inherited from ancestors are intangible heritage while relics, artefacts and manuscripts as tangible heritage which includes all human skills, customs, traditions, spoken languages, values, concepts, songs, proverbs, among many other related matters. The protection of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage is an important strategic issue for Syria due to its important role in the production of world heritage and human civilization. It must be given, money, effort and plans, because it constitutes Syria’s distinct identity and national memory.

the interest in protecting the Syrian cultural heritage does not require a return to the beautiful past and stay there

Jamal TAHHAN
The Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria; Credit: Saad Fansa/SYRIAWISE

It must be clarified that the interest in protecting the Syrian cultural heritage does not require a return to the beautiful past and stay there, but rather having reform, development and modern renaissance on that great edifice formed by successive generations through the ages from different cultures and civilizations that passed through the country, so it came out a distinct civilizational and cultural mixture and a coherent building with solid foundations. It does not require isolation from other peoples, but rather closeness to them to enrich different civilizations through dialogue, not through the path of clash that erases identity and uniqueness of each country.

Throughout history, the colonizer seeks to obliterate the cultural identity of other peoples, deliberately destroying the cultural heritage of the colonized country in order to isolate the people from their past, their attachment to the land and their national identity, making it easier for it to consolidate its occupation and weaken the spirit of resistance.

Museums in Berlin, London, Paris and Copenhagen display many Syrian artefacts. It is worth mentioning that the façade of the Aleppo Museum (the Aramaic temple of Tell Halaf) is not original because the original pieces are in Berlin.

Some consuls of countries in the late nineteenth century and in the twentieth century used diplomatic bags to take out the artefacts they bought. Antiquities’ dealers were buying pieces from ignorant owners at the lowest prices and exporting them without any documents until the thirties of the 20th century, so the pieces that were taken out before that date remained in the hands of their owners outside the country. Syria has not been able to seize many secret random excavations, and we still hear from time to time about Interpol’s seizure of antiquities smuggling operations.

Several years ago, Canadian Customs discovered the theft of 54 pieces of miniatures and mosaic paintings taken from the ceilings and floors of churches and some ancient buildings in Aleppo. The Lebanese authorities also uncovered thefts and managed to seize 15,000 pieces, a large part of which of Syrian origin, and since the Lebanese state has recently joined the UNESCO Convention of 1972, these can be claimed for.

The Jews who emigrated clandestinely from Aleppo claimed that the oldest Torah manuscript in the world, known as the Torah of Aleppo, dating back to the tenth century AD and written in Tiberias, was in their synagogue in Aleppo and burned when it was burned, and then it turned out that it was not burned but transported to Israel by smuggling.

The biggest problem is that the existing authority in Syria contributed to the looting of tangible heritage, and smuggled a large part of it by selling it on the black market

Jamal TAHHAN

Al-Adiyat Association in Aleppo has contributed to the preservation of heritage, and it is one of the oldest associations for the preservation of heritage in the  Arab world. This association was founded in 1924 as a reaction to the theft by a French officer in Aleppo of the wooden mihrab of Al-Khaleel Mosque in the Citadel, dating back to the era of Noureddine Al-Zenki in the 12th century. The officer transferred it openly to France, so some of the country’s figures called for the formation of an association to protect the castle and its monuments and recover the mihrab, called the Association of Friends of the Citadel. It worked on issuing a decree to establish a museum in Aleppo, and when it was created, its name was changed to the Association of Friends of the Citadel and the Museum, and in 1930 its name became Al-Adiyat Association and its main is center in Aleppo and it has 15 branches in most Syrian cities. It is the oldest association concerned with the protection of cultural heritage in the Arab world.

Aleppo Citadel; Credit: Madain Project

The biggest problem is that the existing authority in Syria contributed to the looting of tangible heritage, and smuggled a large part of it by selling it on the black market, and what it was not able to obtain, it destroyed under the pretext of fighting terrorism. It also works on obliterating the intangible heritage to dilute the Syrian identity by receiving a large number of intruders to whom the Syrian nationality has been granted as their loyalty is guaranteed to fight against the native on the side of the sectarian authority which has been ruling the country for the past 50 years.

Jamal TAHHAN
Jamal TAHHAN
Consultant/researcher in Humanities; Contributor to a number of literary and journalistic publications

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