Syria: Cultures in Peril

WilliamBy William Bevil
Director, NAI Region 7

A few weeks ago, my wife and I visited Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. We hiked beautiful canyons and explored the park’s new world-class visitor center and interpretive displays. And, of course, we enjoyed tours of magnificent cliff dwellings built by Ancestral Puebloan peoples over 900 years ago. Knowledgeable and engaging NPS interpreters were a highlight, breathing life into the ancient ruins through artful storytelling and thoughtful explanation. Mesa Verde has long been on my ‘bucket list’ and it did not disappoint.

Visiting a special place like this evokes strong –and sometimes unexpected—emotions. I found myself thinking often of distant places, and people, and how civilizations ebb and flow. Inevitably, and often, my thoughts strayed to a perhaps surprising place – the distant country of Syria.

The Roman-era Amphitheater of Ancient Tadmor (Palymra, Syria)

The Roman-era Amphitheater of Ancient Tadmor (Palymra, Syria)

Unless you’re living under a rock, you’ve been hearing a lot about Syria. For the past few years, the world has watched in seemingly helpless fashion as the country has descended down the dark path of civil war. As of August, 2014 the official death toll relating to this tragedy stands at 191,000. ISIL and ISIS and Assad and the Free Syrian Army are becoming household words, even among those who don’t normally follow world events.

The Monastery of St. Simeon (Northern Syria)

The Church of St. Simeon (Northern Syria)

I visited Syria in 2001 while working for Fernbank Museum in Atlanta. The trip was in advance of the museum hosting an exhibition featuring 450 artifacts from 18 provincial museums throughout Syria. The exhibit storyline spanned 12,000 of years of human history as told through prehistoric stone tools, ancient cuneiform writing tablets, medieval manuscripts, ceramic vases, intricate jewelry and delicate textiles. Hittite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine civilization were all represented in this complex tale.

As the exhibit designer, I had to figure out a way to present this web of stories and the best way to do that was to experience the country firsthand. I’ll admit to some trepidation about the whole idea, and not only because Syria was often labeled an enemy of the United States. There was also the fact that I hadn’t traveled internationally all that much, and there would be significant language barriers and cultural differences. Luckily, at my side would be an experienced Middle-East traveler in the form of Dr. Maxwell Miller, a professor from Emory University specializing in near-eastern archaeology.

Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra, Syria

Put simply, I could write a small novel about that trip. Max was the ultimate guide, taking us on a zigzagging tour across the country. We visited the exquisitely-preserved ruins of Palmyra and Rasafa, whose citizens were made wealthy from caravans traveling through the oasis cities on the ancient Silk Road. The oldest sites included a Neo-Hittite city of Ain Dara and “city states” like Ebla and Ugarit. More recent creations were just as amazing, most notably opulent fortresses dating to the Islamic Golden Age, and Muslim mosques and holy sites of various scale and scope.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria

Not to be excluded, and perhaps a surprise to some, were places of relevance to Christianity and Judaism. Syria boasts some of the best-preserved Crusader-era castles—including the incredible Krak de Chevaliers, while ‘dead cities’ of the Byzantine Empire dot the landscape of northern Syria.

Krak de Chevaliers - Crusader castle

Krak de Chevaliers – Crusader castle

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, one of the oldest synagogues in the world, dating from 244 CE and preserved virtually intact, can be seen at Dura-Europos. Hands-down, my favorite sites were linked to the Roman Empire. The grandeur and mystique was palpable at every turn. As we walked the stone-columned street of the ancient Roman city of Apamea, Max nonchalantly pointed out that we were walking in the footsteps of famous figures like Cleopatra and Marc Antony. Wow. Just…WOW.

The colonnaded Roman "straight street" of Apamea.

The colonnaded Roman “straight street” of Apamea.

The cultural heritage and history were what took me to Syria—and there is no denying how powerful that aspect of the experience was. But equally important were the people themselves, who lovingly embraced us at every opportunity. Indeed, it was often hard to keep our travel schedule because as soon as we spoke with the locals, they excitedly insisted we come back home with them for a cup of tea and meet their family. As an American, I had assumed that Syrians were as wary of us as we were told to be of them. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that we were American only seemed to make them more curious and interested and affectionate. Maybe it was the novelty—they don’t see many Americans, after all—but it felt like much more.

My travel companion, Dr. Maxwell Miller posing with a splendid lion at Ain-Dara, an Iron Age Syro-Hittite city.

My travel companion, Dr. Maxwell Miller alongside a splendid carved lion at Ain-Dara, an Iron Age Syro-Hittite city.

The human loss of life in Syria is on an unimaginable scale, and my intention is not to compare the destruction of archaeological sites to those horrors. But it is a worth mentioning. Such places represent not only Syria’s past, but also its future. Syria’s cultural treasures are being plundered and bombed into oblivion, depriving the country of an asset as important as oil or mineral wealth. Imagine if you will that bombs were dropping on the Pyramids of Giza, or the Parthenon, or the Great Wall of China. Imagine if this were happening to the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That is what is occurring in Syria as we speak, a country that (I believe) could rival any other in terms of international tourism potential. All of that is being stripped away. And the loss is not just to the Syrian people – it is to all of human kind.

The Temple of Bel at Palmyra, Syria

The Temple of Bel at Palmyra, Syria

Get me talking about Syria and I almost cannot stop. To this day, it remains a place of magical allure for me, and the reason I felt compelled to write this article. With all of the bad news coming out of Syria, I simply felt obliged to share my experiences and present another side of the country. I feel lucky to have traveled there, and wish everyone could see it as I did.

As interpreters, we are caretakers of our cultural and natural heritage, keepers of the special places and stories. Spare a thought for the Syrian people as they fight to hold onto their own heritage, and spread the word about things we can do to help – both in terms of humanitarian relief and safeguarding cultural treasures. And, someday when the time is right, remember this “crossroads of civilization” when considering a place to travel. It will take years—possibly decades—but there will come a time when Syria will again open its doors to the world as a tourism destination. The people of Syria will need the friendship and patronage as much then as they do in this time of war.

Majestic horse in the Dead Cities (Northern Syria)

Majestic horse in the Dead Cities (Northern Syria)

Links for more info:

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

International Rescue Committee

UNESCO – Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage

SAFE – Syria’s cultural heritage in danger: What can we do?

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