“Syria’s heritage is under attack,” said Irina Bokova, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a press briefing Wednesday at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) officially presented an “Emergency Red List” of Syrian cultural objects that are in danger of being damaged, looted and illicitly trafficked out of the war-torn country. Just steps from the museum’s elegant Damascus Room, with its Ottoman-era wood paneled walls inscribed with poetry, Bokova declared that the world must “help Syria’s people preserve their exceptional cultural heritage.”
The red list is not a list of actual stolen objects. It describes categories of valuable cultural objects that are known to be in Syria and that are vulnerable to plunder and smuggling, and it encourages professionals encountering such objects to act with vigilance and thoroughly investigate the artifacts’ provenance and legal documentation. Categories on the list include writings, figural sculpture, vessels, architectural elements, jewelry, Islamic-era instruments, stamps, seals and coins, all of which may range in date from prehistory and ancient history through the Ottoman period (up to AD 1918).
In announcing the list, Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell called Syria “the cradle of so many of humankind’s achievements” and said that while Syria has first and foremost suffered a human tragedy, “it would be a second tragedy to find most of the country’s treasures had been lost.” Anne Richard, assistant U.S. secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, called the situation “clearly critical, “adding that “over 90% of the world heritage sites in Syria are inside areas of conflict and displacement.”
This Syrian red list is the 13th such list issued by ICOM since the first one in 2000, and it is the fourth “emergency” list, following similar inventories for Iraq (2003), Haiti (2010) and Egypt (2011). Bonnie Burnham, president and CEO of the World Monuments Fund, said at Wednesday’s announcement that “in the last two years, since the Syria conflict began, we’ve seen major destruction of heritage” and heritage sites, including Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements in the world. While “human life is paramount,” Burnham declared, “we believe Syrian heritage is critical to the future.”