The Syrian Heritage Initiative provides Middle Eastern and American archaeologists the tools to document and raise awareness of the destruction of Syrian and Iraqi culture by extremists, including Daesh.

What extremists destroy is part of “our worldwide heritage,” Syrian Heritage Initiative program director Andrew Vaughn says. “All of our history dates back to this area, and I would say that when the culture of any people is threatened, part of human history and human identity is threatened.”

The value of cultural heritage under threat cannot be overstated. Six of Syria’s heritage areas are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and 12 others are nominated for inclusion.

In answer to that urgent threat, the State Department partnered with American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in August 2014 to create the Syrian Heritage Initiative. The initiative, jointly managed by the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, aims to protect cultural property in Syria and areas outside of Iraqi governmental control by:

  • Documenting damage by collecting news, social media and satellite photos and communicating with Syrian and Iraqi heritage experts.
  • Promoting global awareness with reports that highlight threatened and damaged heritage.
  • Shaping emergency and post-war responses by rapidly documenting damage and preservation needs.

The initiative promotes awareness of the danger to cultural heritage on English and Arabic language social media platforms.

The Syrian Heritage Initiative uses satellite images to track destruction of monuments and sites. (Courtesy of Digital Globe)

“We want Arabic speakers to be aware of culture that is threatened and is being damaged and destroyed, and we want them to be aware of the involvement of the international community,”  Vaughn says.

In the future, Syrians and Iraqis dedicated to cultural heritage protection can use data collected by the initiative to focus on the sites they believe need attention.

“Hopefully this information will attract international resources so that they can take the steps necessary to rebuild their culture,” Vaughn says.