ASOR CHI: Documenting, Protecting, and Preserving Cultural Heritage

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A photograph of the heavily damaged al-Ma’ara Museum taken by local partners (photograph provided by The Day After - Heritage Protection Initiative; June 2015)

By Marina Gabriel

ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives is an international, collaborative effort founded to respond to the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Since 2014, ASOR CHI has produced over 2,000 reports on the cultural situation, inventoried 16,000 sites, conducted 13,000 satellite assessments, and compiled 17,000 archived media entries on cultural heritage incidents and assets.

The destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq has been called the worst heritage catastrophe since WWII. Years of conflict have resulted in catastrophic damage to Syria’s and Iraq’s ancient archaeological sites, museums, libraries, and other built heritage. The cultural cleansing campaign carried out by ISIS destroyed hundreds of ancient monuments, as well as hundreds of religious sites including mosques, churches, cemeteries, and shrines.

In response to the ongoing destruction of cultural heritage, the American Schools of Oriental Research—an organization dedicated to initiating, encouraging, and supporting research into (as well as facilitating public understanding of) the history and cultures of the Near East and wider Mediterranean world—and the US Department of State signed a cooperative agreement that established ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives (ASOR CHI),formerly known as the Syrian Heritage Initiative. ASOR CHI addresses the cultural heritage crisis in Syria, northern Iraq, and Libya by monitoring, reporting, fact-finding, promoting global awareness, conducting emergency response and stabilization projects, and developing post-conflict rehabilitation plans. The organization consists of a team of scholars, archaeologists, geospatial specialists, and heritage professionals. Dr. Michael Danti serves as the academic director, and Dr. Andrew Vaughn, ASOR’s executive director, acts as administrative director.

Established in 2014, the ASOR CHI team was first tasked with monitoring damage to cultural heritage sites in Syria. However, the project expanded to include northern Iraq when the so-called Islamic States (ISIS) invaded Mosul and began its campaign of cultural cleansing. The group previously released theatrical video footage of its destruction of sites such as the Nebi Younis Mosque Complex in Mosul and the ancient site of Nimrud. In 2017, ASOR CHI’s monitoring and reporting work expanded to include Libya where ongoing insecurity, as well as natural impacts and development, threatened ancient heritage sites.

TRACKING DAMAGE TO CULTURAL HERITAGE SITES

As archaeologists and cultural heritage experts are often unable to access cultural heritage sites that have been damaged, ASOR CHI relies on open source media, satellite imagery, and local sources on the ground to gather critical information. As a result, the team has closely tracked damage to cultural heritage sites, often as it is occurring.

To comprehensively document the damage, ASOR CHI maintains a database of nearly 16,000 cultural heritage sites such as archaeological, religious, and secular sites and monuments, as well as museums, libraries, and modern cities. To date, ASOR CHI has recorded over 2,000 incidents in Syria, Iraq, and Libya involving damage ranging from intentional destruction to natural impacts (as of November 2018). This information is gathered into incident reports that make up ASOR CHI’s series of weekly and monthly reports available online.

The ASOR CHI Geospatial Team assesses and monitors heritage sites using high resolution satellite images made available through our cooperation with the US Department of State. To corroborate reports from the ground, as well as fight disinformation that has been so common in this conflict, the geospatial team conducts satellite assessments at regular intervals. To date, nearly 14,000 satellite assessments have been conducted. ASOR CHI also maintains a database of over 17,000 media files that have been vital in tracking the condition of cultural heritage sites.

While ISIS’s intentional, and widely publicized, destruction of ancient and religious sites has received intensive international media coverage, the vast majority of damage to cultural heritage has been from ongoing conflict and insecurity. In Syria, ASOR CHI documented an expansion of heritage incidents in September 2015, when Russia entered the Syrian conflict, bringing with it extensive aerial bombardment campaigns. These campaigns resulted in an increase in damage to civilian infrastructure including cultural heritage sites such as museums, mosques, and churches. Damage to such sites continued as the Syrian regime, bolstered by Russia, fought to reclaim territory held by Syrian opposition groups.

In Iraq, military operations by Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition to liberate areas held by ISIS further devastated the cities of Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi. Operations in 2017 to defeat ISIS in Mosul resulted in an estimated 90% of damage to the city’s West Bank—home to the famous al-Hadba Minaret and Mosul’s Old City. ASOR CHI documented damage to 490 buildings in Mosul’s Old City.

In areas with poor security, archaeological looting has become a source for major concern. Most of the artifacts looted from Syria and Iraq are laundered through secondary countries, such as Lebanon and Turkey, before entering international markets.

By closely monitoring different elements of damage to cultural heritage sites, ASOR CHI has been able to publish a series of Special Reports and Updates that focus on individual sites and incidents. Most recently, ASOR CHI released a report on the heavily damaged Tel Ain Dara Temple that was damaged by suspected Turkish aerial bombardment in January 2018. Using satellite imagery, local media reports, as well as archival photographs, the reporting team was able to analyze the damage and draw conclusions as to the nature of the attack.

PROTECTION AND REBUILDING EFFORTS

As part of ASOR CHI’s efforts to protect cultural heritage sites, the organization provides cultural heritage protection advice and conducts mitigation and stabilization efforts. ASOR CHI has partnered with local organizations for emergency projects at several cultural heritage sites, including the al-Ma’ara Museum in Maarat al-Numan and the Raqqa Museum in Raqqa, Syria.

The al-Ma’ara Museum has been damaged multiple times throughout the Syrian conflict. Located in Maarat al-Numan, Syria, and housed in a former 16th-century caravansary, the facility features a collection of mosaics from across Syria. In a joint effort, ASOR CHI and local partners in Idlib Governorate conducted protective measures to safeguard the thousands of square meters of mosaics as well as to rebuild museum walls damaged in airstrikes.

The photograph to the (direction), taken by an ASOR CHI partner during a recent stabilization project, shows the heavily damaged Raqqa Museum, located in the city of Raqqa in northern Syria. One of the building’s walls is being repaired using traditional techniques and materials to address combat damage inflicted during the liberation of the city from ISIS occupation.

ASOR CHI has also supported the cleaning and reconstruction of the Raqqa Museum. Raqqa was formerly the Syrian capital of ISIS, and the organization had repurposed the museum for bureaucratic and military use. Following the liberation of the city, the museum was found to be in poor condition. The building was full of trash and debris, and the area surrounding the museum was riddled with mines left behind by ISIS. The building had sustained significant combat damage and had been repeatedly vandalized and pillaged for construction materials. The ASOR CHI-sponsored stabilization project has restored access, function, safety, and security to the Museum for the people of Raqqa as they work to rebuild.

In Libya, ASOR CHI has partnered with local organizations for educational workshops on cultural heritage monitoring and preservation. Most recently, ASOR CHI sponsored a pop-up museum and mock excavation in Libya with the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides of Libya. ASOR CHI has also partnered with the World Monuments Fund to document damage to the Old City of Benghazi.

You can follow ASOR CHI’s ongoing work via the organization’s website and via social media. For more information on ASOR CHI please contact Marina Gabriel at heritage@asor.org.

AUTHOR BYLINE

Marina Gabriel is the Project Manager for Monitoring, Reporting, and Fact-Finding at ASOR CHI where she manages all research and reporting for ASOR CHI’s monthly and special reports. Ms. Gabriel is also the lead officer for ASOR CHI programming in Syria.

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The destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq has been called the worst heritage catastrophe since WWII. Years of conflict have resulted in catastrophic damage to Syria’s and Iraq’s ancient archaeological sites, museums, libraries, and other built heritage.
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