During World War II, the allies commissioned the so-called “Monuments Men” to help protect artworks, monuments and key buildings from destruction. A similar “Monuments Men” effort has been under way to save key art treasures and sites of historic value in Syria from destruction during the current civil war.
Syria’s Cultural Wealth
Over its rich history spanning tens of thousands of years, Syria accumulated a wealth of archeological sites, key cultural landmarks, and art works. That trove of treasures is now threatened.
Some of Syria’s well-known historic sites, that were UNESCO World Heritage sites, have already fallen victim to the fighting. Aleppo, with its world-renowned medieval Arab architecture, was devastated in the conflict’s early days during fierce fighting. This March, the castle Crac des Chevaliers from the Crusades, constructed between the 11th and 13th centuries, was shelled by government forces while being used as a rebel fortification. Even Palmyrahave’s iconic Roman ruins have been damaged. In Damascus, rockets destroyed one of the oldest Jewish synagogues in the world, the Jobar Synagogue.
One area of concern is the ancient city of Dura-Europos, which sits atop a bluff above the Tigris River. Near Syria’s border with Iraq, the city’s precise grid of streets—laid down by Greek and Roman occupants 2,000 years before—remained intact. The ancient temples, homes and substantial Roman outpost were well-preserved by the desert sands.
Dura-Europos “stood out for its remarkable preservation,” according to Simon James, an archaeologist from the University of Leicester, UK, who spent years studying the area’s Roman garrison. “Until now.” U.S. State Department satellite images released this June of the site show shocking devastation and large-scale looting.
The Monuments Men Reborn
With sites that survived for millennia threatened, the United Nations, United States, key museums and art scholars decided last fall that action, just like seven decades prior, must be taken. They decided to get a “Monuments Men” art effort under way to save Syria treasures.
The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (aka the Monuments Men) section of the army during World War II was comprised of 345 men – and women – from 13 nations. They were trained by the military, but were not “soldiers.” Most were middle age museum directors, art historians, architects and university professors. They compiled lists of key buildings and monuments not to bomb, art objects to conserve and other treasures. Before the war ended, they also tracked down and located more than 5 million historical and artistic items stolen by the Nazis.
The comparable effort in Syria started last September with a meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with the International Council of Museums, State Department officials, UN representatives and others. The group developed an Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk. (Similar lists were developed earlier for Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Recognizing that all they can do is stabilize items, conceal them and teach emergency conservation techniques, workshops were held in Turkey, near the Syrian border. They included museum curators and restoration specialists from the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Center, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and Heritage for Peace, a network of volunteers and activists based in Spain.
They taught Syrian curators, archaeologists and activists “first aid for objects and sites,” such as wrapping mosaics and ceramics in Tyvek, the lightweight plastic used in construction, then burying or sandbagging them to save them from battles. The Syrians left Turkey armed with Tyvek and supplies of things like museum-grade glue. As noted by Brian Daniels, director of research at Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Center, the Syrians’ commitment was evident by the fact the participants “got outside Syria safely and then went back.”
In a war that has killed nearing 200,000 people so far, old ruins and museums may not seem that important. However, as National Geographic pointed out, these archaeological sites are not just the cultural heritage for Syria, they are huge economic assets in a country that relied heavily on cultural tourism prior to the war. Hopefully the hastily trained Syrian “Monuments Men” will be able to save Syria’s remaining art treasures with the effort now under way.
By Dyanne Weiss