Aerial view of mausoleum in Historic Cairo (State Dept./ECA Cultural Heritage Center)
The 13th­-century Mausoleum of Imam Muhammad al-Shafi’i in Historic Cairo is among important sites the U.S. is helping to conserve. (State Dept./ECA Cultural Heritage Center)

Terrorists, conquering powers and natural disasters all can destroy sites belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, but U.S.-backed efforts are making sure damaged treasures are repaired and preserved for future generations.

Archways of ancient ruins (© Hemn Baban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Wreckage of the historical structures that ISIS terrorists destroyed in Nimrud in Iraq is seen in 2017. (© Hemn Baban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

“We appreciate the contributions of other cultures and other civilizations to world history,” says Knox Thames, the State Department special adviser for religious minorities. “We also know that Americans, as a nation of nations with everyone’s ancestry coming from somewhere else, have connections to these places, too.”

The Smithsonian Institution, with support from the State Department, is working with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to repair damage ISIS terrorists inflicted on Nimrud, capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the ninth century B.C.E.

Deploying the U.S. government’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation is one way the U.S. helps restore and preserve sites of cultural, ethnic and historical significance.

Here are a few sites the U.S. is helping to preserve:


People on scaffolding working on exterior of ancient structure (State Dept./ECA Cultural Heritage Center)
Workers repair the Mausoleum of Imam Muhammad al-Shafi’i in Cairo, a structure named after a Muslim theologian. (State Dept./ECA Cultural Heritage Center)

Located in Cairo’s “City of the Dead,” the 13th­-century Mausoleum of Imam Muhammad al-Shafi’i is the burial place and shrine of Imam al­-Shafi’i, one of Sunni Islam’s foremost figures and the founder of one of its major rites. This project involves documentation and conservation of the shrine’s exterior walls and dome.


Ancient ruins of a city (© Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)
A view of the historic city of Palmyra in 2017 (© Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

The restored ruins of the ancient site of Palmyra in Syria were a point of local and national pride prior to their partial destruction by ISIS in October 2015. The following year, the U.S. Congress enacted emergency import restrictions on cultural objects from Syria to protect the country’s cultural heritage sites from looting and prevent trafficking in cultural antiquities by terrorist networks.

Sri Lanka

Archaeological ruins (State Dept./ECA Cultural Heritage Center)
A former Buddhist monastery is among ancient monuments being conserved within the Rajagala Archaeological Reserve in eastern Sri Lanka. (State Dept./ECA Cultural Heritage Center)

The Rajagala Archaeological Reserve in the Ampara District of eastern Sri Lanka includes remains of several ancient buildings and monuments that once formed part of Grikumbhila, a large Buddhist monastery active from its foundation in the second century B.C.E. through the early 13th century. This project continues work begun under a previous Ambassadors Fund conservation grant.

“We care about these sites of great cultural traditions because they are part of world history and oftentimes the history of Americans,” said Thames, who moderated a panel on preserving religious cultural heritage during the July 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

This article was written by freelance writer Lenore T. Adkins.