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CAORC-Kaplan Responsive Preservation Initiative Meets Urgent Heritage Threats in the Middle East

Asu Selen Özcan

CAORC’s Responsive Preservation Initiative helps preserve cultural heritage sites across the Middle East that are under urgent threat. Photo of traditional Yemeni architecture in mountain village of Kawkaban near Sanaa. Photo from The Jane Taylor Collection, ACOR Photo Archive.

Many countries in the Middle East continue to be devastated by ongoing conflict and violence. Beyond the catastrophic suffering inflicted on the people of Yemen, Syria and Gaza, many of whom have had their homes, families, and livelihoods destroyed, the physical traces of their history and heritage are also being bombarded, pillaged, and even demolished.

Through its Responsive Preservation Initiative (RPI), supported by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, CAORC is committed to helping dedicated archaeologists and heritage professionals in these war-torn countries do everything possible to preserve and secure their country’s cultural heritage. This month, CAORC is awarding seven new projects under its RPI program, with the aim of providing critical assistance to organizations in Yemen, Syria, and Gaza that are working against the clock to preserve and safeguard important cultural heritage sites and collections that remain under threat. Led by local teams of trained experts, these projects have well-designed action plans that will allow them to rapidly and efficiently address areas of urgent need at some of the region’s most vulnerable and at-risk heritage sites, with a special focus on protecting museum and manuscript collections that remain under severe threat from bombardment, warfare, vandalism, and looting.

Dhamar Museum, before and after

Before and after image of Yemen’s Dhamar Museum, destroyed during a coalition airstrike in May 2015. Photos courtesy GOAM, Dhamar office.

In Yemen, the main office of the General Organization of Antiquities and Museums (GOAM) will implement projects along with local archaeologists and universities to document and safeguard the artifact collections of the Saiyoun and Zafar Museums, two important but now threatened museums in Yemen’s beleaguered governorates of Hadhramawt and Ibb, respectively. At the Saiyoun Museum, housed in the beautiful Sultan Al Kathiri palace complex, militant Islamist groups whose presence in the area has grown have already vandalized the building and threatened to loot the collections. Similarly, at the small Zafar Museum, located amid the ruins of the capital city of the famed pre-Islamic kingdom of Himyar, GOAM, along with local institutions will work to ensure the collections are properly documented, preserved, and stored away in case the site is attacked or vandalized in the future, as the area itself is under constant threat of bombardment. So, too, trained specialists from the Center for Manuscripts in the ancient town of Zabid, which houses some of Yemen’s oldest and most valuable manuscripts, will seek to catalog and digitize hundreds of the center’s most fragile documents as the coastal Hudayda governorate becomes increasingly contested by coalition and Houthi forces.

Zabid manuscripts

The Center for Manuscripts in Zabid houses some of Yemen’s oldest and most valuable manuscripts. Photo courtesy Center for Manuscripts, Zabid.

The critical need for such preventive measures is highlighted by the case of Yemen’s Dhamar Museum, located in Yemen’s archaeologically rich Dhamar governorate, which was completely destroyed during an aerial bombardment by coalition forces in May 2015. While local archaeologists and museum staff have been working to remove and preserve artifacts still buried under rubble, there remains much to be done. Through the support of the CAORC-Kaplan RPI program, archaeologists and staff from GOAM’s Dhamar office, along with local institutions will be able to continue recovering, restoring and registering damaged objects from the museum’s rubble and then relocate them to a safe, secure location. The same GOAM team along with locals from the Hada province will also work to document and preserve the collections of the Baynun Museum, located amid the ruins of one of Yemen’s great pre-Islamic fortresses but now threatened by encroaching Al Qaeda forces and the possible onset of aerial bombardment.

In Syria, the destruction wrought on cultural heritage sites by ISIS and the country’s prolonged civil war has shocked the world, but everyday Syrians continue to battle to save their country’s heritage. One community-based group based near Aleppo, the Idlib Antiquities Center, has worked since 2015 to salvage archaeological ruins and artifacts damaged through war, looting, and neglect, while also raising local awareness, especially among youth, about the importance of heritage preservation. During the coming year, the CAORC-Kaplan RPI program will help the organization inventory, document, and preserve the more than 1,000 artifacts it has received from local citizens who are concerned about protecting the past. The program will also include training programs for recent graduates in heritage documentation and preservation.

Idlib Antiquities Center documentation

The community-based Idlib Antiquities Center in Syria is working to salvage countless antiquities threatened by the country’s ongoing conflict. Photo courtesy Idlib Antiquities Center.

Finally, the small and densely inhabited Palestinian coastal territory of Gaza faces frequent military raids and bombardments that have not only crippled the region’s economy and daily life but threatened or damaged many of its cultural heritage treasures. With support from the CAORC-Kaplan RPI program, archaeologists with the IWAN Center for Architectural Heritage, based at the Islamic University of Gaza, will train nearly two dozen Gazans who are without work to preserve and restore ancient artifacts that were damaged during the 2014 siege of Gaza. The project will provide residents with valuable employment and training opportunities while also helping to raise awareness about the region’s rich heritage and traditions.

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