In Syria, Archaeologists Risk Their Lives To Protect Ancient Heritage

The race to protect Syria’s heritage from the ravages of war and plunder has brought a new kind of warrior to the front lines.

These cultural rebels are armed with cameras and sandbags. They work in secret, sometimes in disguise, to outwit smugglers. They risk their lives to take on enemies that include the Syrian regime, Islamist militants and professional smugglers who loot for pay, sometimes using bulldozers.

Their backers, from prominent cultural institutions in the West, refer to them as the “Monuments Men” of Syria, based on the name given┬áthose who saved cultural heritage in Europe┬áduring World War II.

Academics On The Front Lines

“They are dedicated professionals,” says Corine Wegener at the Smithsonian Institution. She leads a worldwide effort to protect cultural heritage. “This is a new situation,” says Wegener, describing the war in Syria as a cultural emergency. “We are trying to help.”

Abdul Rahman al-Yehiya and Ayman al-Nabu seem unlikely warriors. They are academics in suits. We meet them in a hotel in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, after they made a grueling, 10-hour journey across Syria’s dangerous frontier, including the last 5 miles on foot.

“We are a team of specialists in archaeology, engineering and artists,” says Yehiya. He led the team in an emergency preservation of the Ma’arra museum in northern Syria’s Idlib province, famous for a dazzling, world-class collection of Roman and Byzantine mosaics from the 3rd to 6th centuries A.D.

The eight-month project began last summer with an intense workshop on preservation techniques. Then the dangerous work began on the front lines of the war.

The team assessed the damage from Syrian air force strikes in an area contested by the regime and the rebels. They worked to fix what was damaged and protect the remaining mosaics.

“The mortars, the warplanes and the helicopters that drop barrel bombs” were only part of the risk, says Yehiya. “There was the danger of the snipers,” he says: regime soldiers who targeted the work team in an active war zone.

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