Cultural Heritage Defines Us and Must Be Preserved

Posted by Evan Ryan
October 6, 2015
Archaeological site of Palmyra in Syria. [UNESCO Photo]

If someone were to ask what the quintessential American image would be, certain iconic structures like the Statue of Liberty, the White House, and the Golden Gate Bridge might come to mind.  And yet, we are also defined by the cultural fabric that makes us uniquely American, such as Hollywood, jazz, and the rodeo.

American landmarks and traditions are two distinct yet connected facets of our nation’s cultural heritage.  We value the preservation and protection of our heritage because it helps define who we are as a people.

When the heritage of other countries faces extinction or is threatened or destroyed, we all share in that loss. The United States is a nation of many origins, many peoples, many faiths, and many cultures.  We are connected through our families and ancestors to every part of the world.  So the world’s heritage is also our heritage -– and we have a responsibility to protect it. 

In modern Iraq and Syria, a region’s history and traditions are being erased.  Destruction of historic sites has become a prime target for terrorist groups who have made it their mission to eradicate cultural elements that do not conform to their narrow ideology. 

In the chaos of the Syrian civil war, ISIL has damaged or destroyed many historic landmarks -– including UNESCO World Heritage sites -– as well as archaeological sites that have been ruthlessly and systematically plundered.  ISIL continues its despicable campaign of destruction throughout northern Iraq as well, destroying dozens of religious buildings, shrines, and tombs. This loss of cultural heritage represents not only an irrevocable loss for humanity but also jeopardizes the important role cultural heritage can play in a post-conflict period through reconciliation and economic revitalization. 

Last week on the margins of the UN General Assembly, the State Department co-sponsored a symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Presentations by State Department officials provided new and irrefutable evidence that ISIL is looting for profit, and unveiled a new initiative to combat the trade in conflict antiquities, Rewards for Justice.  In addition, the State Department continues to fund a major initiative in cooperation with the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) to document comprehensively the current condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria and assess the future restoration, preservation, and protection needs for those sites.  Following the spread of ISIL into Iraq, the State Department provided additional funding to expand the initiative to include monitoring and documentation of threats to heritage in ISIL-controlled areas of Iraq.

We also welcomed private sector participants to this symposium. Representatives of museums, collectors, and the antiquities trade denounced the looting and trafficking of cultural property and asserted their determination to take appropriate steps to counter it through enhanced research and public education.  

We must work together -- citizens, law enforcement agencies, private organizations, collectors, museums, and auction houses -- to build meaningful and important partnerships that will help stop the spread of this destruction and thwart the trafficking of antiquities.  In doing so, we demonstrate our commitment to the preservation of our shared history and traditions and promote the quintessential American values of freedom of expression, tolerance, and social inclusion. 

About the Author: Evan Ryan serves as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). 

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