Syria's antiquities: Why we must protect the region's ancient artifacts

HALIL DANIŞMAZ
Published 21.08.2015 23:43

From Yellowstone National Park in the United States to the Copan Ruins of Honduras, UNESCO World Heritage Sites hold critical cultural, historical and ecological importance. This year, one of the newest additions to this prestigious list is the ancient city of Ephesus located in Turkey, a country that is now home to 15 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a leading destination for travelers visiting the Middle East. Rich in culture, history and beautiful landscapes, Turkey joins the ranks of some of the most historically culturally rich areas in the world.

UNESCO began its famous World Heritage Site program in the hopes of preserving parts of the world that hold priceless value. The addition of Ephesus to Turkey's already long list of World Heritage Sites only reaffirms something most Turks have known all along, that their country is a nexus of historical and cultural significance. In a region where the histories of both the Eastern and Western worlds seemingly collide, Turkey and its neighbors are home to ancient ruins from multiple great civilizations, including the Roman, Persian, Greek and Ottoman empires.

Unfortunately, these invaluable pieces of history are increasingly coming under threat. Terrorist groups in the region are targeting valuable antiquities and ancient cultural sites, from the statues, monuments and jewels of the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq to the Syrian city of Palmyra, which contains ruins dating back to the first century. Palmyra recently fell under Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) rule, prompting UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova to express her deep concern for the city and to appeal for countries to "make every effort to prevent its destruction."

Terrorist groups have long targeted ancient artifacts to gain media coverage and fund their illegal activities. In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan after perceiving them as idolatrous, and antiquities looting and smuggling is now ISIS's third-largest revenue stream. As ISIS grows its stronghold to newly captured strategic and historically significant cities, the risk to these cultural sites and the citizens who occupy them is remarkably high.

Indeed, this month ISIS carried out a tragic terror attack in Turkey, posing one of the greatest recent threats to Turkey's citizens, territory and culture. In its wake, Turkey and the U.S. broadened their joint campaign to degrade and destroy ISIS in Syria through a partnership to conduct airstrikes on ISIS strongholds and to create a 96-kilometer-long safe zone along Turkey's border that will serve as an ISIS-free haven for displaced Syrians. While the primary mission of this anti-ISIS plan must center on improving security for the populations of Turkey and Syria most vulnerable to ISIS's barbarity, the U.S. and Turkey must also work together as allies to prevent the loss of centuries of culture to violent and destructive extremism.

Turkey's efforts to secure its borders, mitigate the threat of extremism and share strategic resources with the U.S. and other allies have gone a long way toward protecting its own people and territory, not to mention the millions of refugees in the country. As the anti-ISIS alliance grows in strength and number, all parties must take care to ensure that the region's ancient, historical relics remain intact for thousands of years to come. Beyond cultural significance, there is a practical reason for defending these sites: The more we shield them from ISIS' control, the less funding will make its way to the terrorist group through antiquities smuggling and other illegal means. Cracking down on the individuals and institutions that buy and sell these antiquities and alerting auction houses and art markets to be on the lookout for looted artifacts can go far in preventing the flow of funds to terrorist groups. Additional measures to monitor heritage sites with satellite imagery and train local ground troops and those conducting airstrikes on behalf of the U.S. and its allies to avoid striking these monuments can add another important layer of protection.

These cities and artifacts serve as important reminders to both the resilient people of the Middle East and observers around the world of how far we have come and of the promise that awaits future generations beyond the current conflict. These sites have survived centuries of manmade destructive forces, from war and conquest to extremism and fanaticism. We must all commit to preventing the obliteration of these cities that served as cradles of civilization as we know it.

* The president of the Turkish Heritage Organization, New York

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