Raab on Forbes: Ongoing Conflict In Syria Threatens That Nation’s Historical Document Treasures

This article was originally published at http://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanraab/2013/11/07/ongoing-conflict-in-syria-threatens-that-nations-historical-document-treasures/.

Several years back, our company, The Raab Collection, received an anonymous email from a man who claimed to be have been a resident of Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  He had, he wrote, seen firsthand the palaces used by Saddam Hussein and other senior officials.   The point of his email was to alert us that he had a few historical documents relating to the relationship of the United States with Iraq, including diplomatic appointments signed by American Presidents.  One signed by Dwight Eisenhower sticks out in my mind. He did not tell us where he acquired them, and that, plus the anonymous nature of the email, left us scratching our heads.  We asked him for information on provenance and never heard back.

Cultural and historical artifacts are always in danger in war zones, both as to destruction and looting.  There are plenty of stories of bombing and looting during the World Wars.  Just this month, we learned of a trove of around 1,400 works of art looted by the Nazis. The Middle East is just the latest example. It is home to so much history, yet has been and is surrounded by so much conflict.  This has translated into the loss of untold treasures over many years.

This week, Syria once again broke into the news.  As another bomb blast in Damascus killed more than 15 and the work of nuclear weapons inspectors continued, the fate of Syria’s historical treasures remains up in the air.  The Facebook group “Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger” (Syrian archaeological patrimony in danger) contains what it says are images and video of the effects of war on archaeological heritage. And in late September, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released an “Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk,” which details broad categories of objects that might go missing.  It encourages “Museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors… not to acquire such objects” without necessary due diligence, a wise idea in any circumstance. However, although the Red List touches on objects that might have writing on them, such as ceramic tablets or Syriac manuscripts, in general it is a report geared toward the art world, as it implicitly states in the introduction.

There is good reason to take precaution. The now-famous looting of the National Museum of Iraq during the war in 2003 involved the loss of many items of cultural import.  It brought to television screens worldwide the high stakes of the looting of cultural treasures.  Many were recovered.  The former Director General of Iraq’s National Museum, Donny Goerge Youkhanna, speculated years ago that half of the artifacts had been returned or were being held until the appropriate time for repatriation. News reports have highlighted the high profile return of many artifacts confiscated from antiquities markets worldwide.  People are still looking for cylinder seals and other works of ancient art.  But few news reports then focused on missing historical documents.

There is a lesson here for the Syrian conflict. When it comes to these pieces of paper history, who knows what has been lost?  It is hard to find something you do not know is missing.  For someone on the ground, someone willing to pilfer a historical treasure and profit from it, there might appear to be few consequences. Who would miss a government decree from 1922? Why would anyone care about an ambassador’s appointment to Syria signed by a European monarch in 1950? It would not be possible or realistic to track every historical document in the Middle East. Papers are easier to loot than objects, easy to fold and simply take with you. Few are properly catalogued and proving their provenance therefore can be next to impossible. But the reported anarchy in Syria ensures that such looting in the Middle East continues with little means to prevent it.  This is not only an art and heritage problem; it is a historical document problem as well.  What is the nature of Syria’s historical archives?   Are they in danger to the same extent? We should add this to the broader conversation.  

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