Arab 'Spring' poses risk to archaeological sites

20/11/12 .-

The ''Arab Spring'' is morphing into a dark autumn for the archaeological treasures of the countries experiencing the uprisings. Paolo Matthiae, Sapienza University professor and head of the Italian archaeological mission in Ebla, raised this concern during a Foreign Ministry roundtable discussion taking stock of the Italian missions in southern Mediterranean countries as part of the Mediterranean Archaeological Tourism Bourse in Paestum (Salerno).

The concerns, noted Matthiae (the discoverer of Ebla's cuneiform tablets and the ancient city the latter brought to light), focus on Syria, where there is uncertainty on all news coming out of the country. Matthiae noted that the latest reports(in part based on official sources) claim that the museums of Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia and Raqqa are still unharmed, while that of Hama has suffered attacks and damage has also been done in Apamea to such castles as Crac des Chevaliers and Sheizar (where Pasolini's ''Medea'' was set), as well as to the important ancient city of Palmyra - though limited and through illegal excavations, according to reports.

Aleppo's citadel has also been damaged, and some of the shops of the ancient souq burnt. As concerns the Idlib region, where the excavations are located and which has seen some of the most violent clashes of the past few months, Damascus's control has thus far ensured relative protection of the site. However, Matthiae stressed that it is fundamental that communication channels remain open with the government, despite sanctions, in order to ensure continued supervision.

Theft and damage to archaeological heritage, according to witnesses cited by the scholar, are nonetheless not committed by Syrian rebels but by external elements. He noted that ''at least ten years will be needed to rebuild Syria.'' Meanwhile, the international community - he continued in addressing his statements to the UN and UNESCO - must realise that in the countries experiencing the uprisings ''not only the political and civil rights of the individual are at stake, but also the cultural ones''.

And if, after the destruction of the Afghan Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Tunisia Sufi mausoleums are destroyed and in Egypt the Salafis call for the destruction of the Giza Sphinx, while in Mali the city of Timbucktoo, ''Africa's Florence, is suffering terrible losses,'' he underscored that ''UNESCO must firmly support the idea that cultural heritage belongs to everyone.''

Speaking on behalf of UNESCO was Mounir Bouchenaki, special advisor for the general director, who is also concerned over what is happening in Egypt (''comparing the photos of Giza from 2009 and those of 2011 we see new holes. If this is happening in the outskirts of Cairo, what is happening elsewhere?'') as well as in Yemen, ''where we are certain significant damage has been wrought''. ''We are concerned about the entire Mediterranean,'' reiterated Francesco Bandarin on behalf of UNESCO as well, in the position of Vice General Director for Culture.

''And not only due to conflicts, but especially the post-conflict period, which is the most dangerous because the administration disappears. Look at what happened in Iraq. It is in this phase that international mafias conduct their operations.'' During the debate coordinated by Ettore Janulardo, it emerged that Syria will be the focus of a technical meeting on Monday at the Italian Foreign Ministry, with another one being organised by UNESCO in early 2013.

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