Galvanized by pressing threats to communities and their heritage across the Middle East and North Africa, leaders from around the world have been meeting at Yale this week to discuss culture in crisis. The occasion was the 8th UN Global Colloquium of University Presidents.
Among those representing ICOMOS was former ICOMOS France Secretary-General Samir Abdulac who chairs the ICOMOS Working Group for Safeguarding Cultural Heritage in Syria and Iraq. In remarks yesterday (April 12) at Yale, Mr. Abdulac outlined efforts by ICOMOS to provide assistance, training and moral support to our colleagues in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere working to safeguard heritage and communities in peril. He highlighed two projects in particular, ANQA and AMAL, as well as the fruitful working relationship that has developed between ICOMOS and partners and the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) and its Director General Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim. Samir’s full remarks at Yale are reproduced below.
A highlight of the week came yesterday when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the Yale Global Colloquium with a keynote address on the theme of “Preservation of Cultural Heritage: Challenges and Strategies.” In his remarks, the Secretary General linked the work of conserving heritage and addressing climate change to the issue of intergenerational justice. Both pose the question, what type of world will the next generation inherit?
Watch the address here.
The Secretary General also explored the geopoltical context for cultural preservation, to show why the United Nations believes it is essential to our mission of peace and security, sustainable development and human rights. Art, literature, music, poetry, architecture are the hallmarks of our human existence, he said. They form a common thread that unites all civilizations and cultures; a celebration of our emotional lives and the beauty of our natural environment.
Echoing the nature-culture linkages that are the hallmark of the World Heritage Convention, the Secretary General declared; “Cultural diversity, like biodiversity, plays a quantifiable and crucial part in the health of the human species. An attack on cultural heritage in one part of the world is an attack on us all.”
On Monday, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova also gave a public talk as part of the Yale meetings on “Culture in Crisis.” “Culture is a force for resilience, giving people strength and confidence to look toward the future,” the Yale News reported Bokova as saying
During her talk, Bokova emphasized the importance of cultural heritage sites not merely in terms of their historical or aesthetic value, but also with regards to their social meanings for particular communities. ICOMOS President Gustavo Araoz, who also participated in the meetings, praised Bokova’s speech and work, noting that her emphasis on cultural heritage was unprecedented among her predecessors.
You can watch the Director-General’s address on YouTube.
While Araoz said that outdated approaches and legislation in the field are still challenges to contemporary heritage conservation efforts around the globe, he added that Bokova’s work remains important in building new models for such activities. Former US/ICOMOS Executive Director Katherine Slick highlighted the fact that the colloquium was occurring during the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which itself was the product of a search for international best practices in heritage conservation.
Parts of the Colloquium and related programs have been organized by Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH). The IPCH is dedicated to “advancing the field of heritage science through transdisciplinary research, education and training, as well as practice and advocacy, with the aim of enhancing sustainable preservation of cultural heritage, interpretation, and access in service to the global conservation community.” Kudos to the IPCH and its director Stefan Simon on organizing this import event, which stands as an excellent prelude to International Day for Monuments and Sites on April 18.
In remarks at Yale, ICOMOS’s Samir Abdulac highlighted Project ANQA, a partnership between ICOMOS, CyArk and Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Property to provide capacity building and equipment to undertake 3D laser surveys in Syria.
ICOMOS President Gustavo Araoz (second from left) joined ICCROM Director-General Stefano De Caro (far left) and host of other heritage leaders at Yale’s Culture in Crisis program, including the Getty Conservation Institute and the World Monuments Fund.
“I hope that one day, Palmyra, Aleppo, Nineveh and the other devastated cities of Syria and Iraq will again serve as symbols of unity and diversity,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said at Yale on Tuesday.
The AMAL in Heritage Program aims to provide Rapid Impact Assessment, Database and Mapping and Distance Learning for heritage at risk in the Middle East and North Africa through a partnership between the Global Heritage Fund, the Prince Claus Fund, the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage (ARC-WH), the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), and the ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICOMOS-ICORP).
ICOMOS and THE CRISIS IN SYRIA, An introduction to the partnership with the DGAM
Remarks of Samir ABDULAC, Ph.D. Urban Planning – Architect DPLG – Dip UCL Bartlett
Chair, ICOMOS Working Group for the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage in Syria and Iraq and Vice President, CIVVIH – Steering Committee Member, ICOMOS France
The crisis in Syria has been devastating for the population, the country and cultural heritage. An ICOMOS Working Group started monitoring the situation from the beginning and was later on unanimously empowered by our General Assembly and tasked with the safeguarding of the cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, in cooperation with UNESCO and other international and national partners, to coordinate the activities of ICOMOS related to fostering cooperation and exchanges, monitoring, awareness raising, communication, training, assisting and planning.
As ICOMOS is an international professional organization, we are quite sensitive to the essential role played by local professionals on the ground in time of great danger and seek to provide them with assistance, training and moral support. The ICOMOS Group provided, together with ICCROM, risk preparedness Internet sessions in Syria followed by 170 persons in 2013. Other sessions and workshops followed later with UNESCO European funded Program in Beirut.
Two joint projects are presently in their early stages, ANQA and AMAL. The first one aims at providing capacity building and equipment to undertake 3D laser surveys in Syria and archive them, in association with CyArk and Yale Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Property.
This is how gradually developed a fruitful working relationship with the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums, or DGAM, and particularly with its Director General Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim. Last month he even accepted to come over to Paris to participate in a colloquium we organized on reconstruction.
Dr. Abdulkarim began as an assistant professor at the University of Damascus in 2000 and became in 2009 the Head its Department of Archaeology. One would have then every reason to believe that he was going to continue his career as a most distinguished university scholar.
Destiny had other plans when it knocked at his door in 2012. The country was in turmoil and one of his university colleagues had been nominated as Minister of Culture. The DGAM, needed a consensual personality, a good captain to try to save it from wreckage and she insistently asked for his help. Professor Abdulkarim was quite reluctant but finally ended up by agreeing.
He proved to be not only a scholar, but also a man of action. He is moreover creative and sensible, a wise man full of energy and optimism.
He is a man of vision too. He once stated, “The cultural heritage belongs to all Syrians irrespective of their views and political orientations.” Thanks to that vision, the performance of the DGAM has been professional, scientific and effective. Its staff members have remained rather united wherever they were located.
Maamoun Abdulkarim proved to be sensitive and brave, a man of Heart. He personally cares for all members of his staff. He does his best to provide them with accommodation if they become homeless and even with security if needed. We were once quietly chatting along the banks of the Seine, when, to my great surprise, he suddenly burst into tears as he recalled how ISIS-Daesh fighters beheaded one of the DGAM guards in front of his family, just because he has been observing a looting he couldn’t prevent.
Nobody should envy Maamoun Abdulkarim for the challenges he has to face and yet he is the right man, in the right place, at the right moment.
He is definitely a Monuments man. Syria and the international scientific community should be grateful for his ability to mobilise around him other Monuments men, Monuments women and Monuments teams at home and abroad.