Public Archaeology in the Service of Peace·Distinguished Service Award
玛莽·阿布杜凯如 Maamoun Abdulkarim
(叙利亚大马士革大学 Damascus University)
Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim is a shining example of what archaeology ultimately stands for in terms of social cohesiveness. The award recognizes both the originality and the courage of what he has done not just for Syria, but for the whole field.
Since 2012, and thus shorty after the start of war in Syria, Dr. Abdulkarim took quickly measures for the evacuation and safeguard of the objects in all Museums in Syria (one for every region and others at major sites). This was not just a logistic matter. He set out to motivate the large number of functionaries in the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums, offering a strong image of commitment to the value of culture as a bulwark against barbarism. This was all the more significant as, during his tenure, fifteen members of the Directorate were killed, some of them quite brutally. He also mounted a broad campaign of education in the country, right in the middle of war, with an extensive public campaign throughout the country, the organization of scholarly gatherings, the very active publication of scholarly series within the Directorate, the intense restoration work in areas recovered from terrorist control (Palmyra and Ma’lula are prime examples), and an unrelenting series of travels abroad to present the case of Syria to the world. This he managed to do because of his deep understanding of what archaeology is all about. He was able to show, at a moment when great divisions were happening in the country, that one could, and should, remain super parts. In other words, he unremittingly showed that adhering to the basic principles of the discipline should always be the only goal, without compromises aimed at mitigating slander and ill will. The SAF award points to him as a beacon of scholarly excellence. It is the excellence of archaeology in face of base violence and of political gain. Here is a courageous statement he gave the press: “The main concern of the DGAM at this stage is to protect the Syrian cultural heritage with all its components as it is the history, heritage and memory of the Syrian nation. The cultural heritage belongs to all Syrians irrespective of their views and political orientations. Thanks to that vision, the performance of DGAM has been professional, scientific and effective and its team members have remained united in all governorates, and their efforts have resulted in success in many cases and regions.”
Details about his accomplishments will help put in the right perspective his work and the reason for the award. With about 2,500 employees in the whole country, the DGAM is comparatively one of the largest institutions devoted to cultural heritage in Arab countries. It had a working collaboration with about 80 foreign scientific missions before the war. The evacuation of the 34 major museums was quickly decided and implemented before the end of 2012. 300,000 objects were stored in safe places, city by city. Archives too. Protection was secured for museum buildings and for heavy or large unmovable pieces. Additional guards were recruited for the protection of archaeological sites, but the number of cultural sites reaches 10,000 and many of them are located in remote areas. During a second wave of evacuation, 13,000 objects from the threatened city of Deir Ez-zor were brought to Damascus, a few weeks ago, in Army planes also carrying the bodies of dead soldiers. 6,000 other pieces from Homs museum were brought in an Army convoy. Other pieces from Deraa museum were unearthed to be also more safely stored in the capital.
Beyond figures and facts, it must be stressed that Maamoun Abdulkarim understands the importance of the human factor, which is why local communities have come to be associated to the DGAM protection efforts and his staff is increasingly prepared to its new missions. Workshops and Training sessions are organised about illegal trafficking or war damage. A co-ordination is set up with universities, professional organisations, NGOs and the civil society at large. National awareness raising campaigns are organised with the media including large public posters and exhibitions. Up to date computer techniques were soon used for inventories. Files of about 77,000 objects from Damascus national museum were apidly computerised and so were 50% from other museums. An interactive map has included 8,000 registered sites and another one was set up for damaged sites. Some architectural plans were digitalised in Aleppo. A bilingual Arabic and English web site was created presenting news and activities. Its written and graphical updated content has widely gained a reputation of seriousness and credibility.