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Forced to Close by Civil War, the National Museum of Damascus Re-Opens Its Doors

The museum’s collections were among 300,000 artifacts hidden by officials as violence spread in Syria

A visitor at the reopening ceremony for Syria's National Museum, in Damascus, Syria. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
smithsonian.com

In 2012, the National Museum of Damascus packed up thousands of precious artifacts and ferreted them away to secret locations, where they would be safe from the fallout of Syria’s brutal civil war. Now, more than seven years since the conflict began, the violence is starting to subside. And on Sunday, as the Agence France-Presse reports, parts of the National Museum reopened to the public, displaying a rich collection of artifacts long hidden from sight.

Among the relics on view are 2nd-century murals, Greek statues and an elaborate tomb transported from the ancient city of Palmyra, which suffered devastation at the hands of ISIS militants. The recently restored “Lion of al-Lat,” a stone sculpture that stood sentry at the Palmyra museum before ISIS wrought havoc upon it, has been installed in the Damascus museum’s gardens.

Some parts of the museum remained closed on Sunday, but officials hope to open them in the near future.

“We will exhibit a group of artifacts from all periods from prehistory, the ancient east and the classical and Islamic eras,” said Ahmad Deeb, the museum’s deputy director, according to the BBC.

Syria was an important trade location throughout ancient history and across a succession of civilizations, among them the Mesopotamian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Islamic empires. When civil war broke out in 2011, the country’s museum authority went to 34 institutions and evacuated some 300,000 artifacts and thousands more manuscripts that bear witness to the country’s rich history. The objects were hidden in secret locations to protect them from shelling, looting and deliberate destruction.

“We put some in metal boxes,” Deeb said, according to the AFP. “But we surrounded the larger pieces that are tough to transport with cement blocks to protect them.”

Unfortunately, officials could not save every relic and heritage location. ISIS systematically attacked ancient sites and mutilated museum artifacts. Still other sites, like the Old City of Aleppo, were flattened by fighting or looted, with “all sides blamed for the plundering,” the AFP writes.

To date, some 9,000 stolen artifacts have been reclaimed and restored, reports the Associated Press, and cultural institutions are slowly starting to recover. Earlier this month, hundreds of artifacts retrieved from rebel-held areas and locations beyond Syria’s border went on display at the Damascus Opera House. The wounded city of Palmyra may be ready to welcome visitors by spring of next year.

Mohamed al-Ahmad, Syria’s minister of culture, hailed the reopening of the National Museum as “a genuine message that Syria is still here and her heritage would not be affected by terrorism,” according to the AP.

“Today, Damascus has recovered,” he added.

The toll of the civil war has been steep. More than 400,000 people have died, including those killed in chemical attacks launched by the Syrian government. Millions of people have been displaced. And the conflict is not yet over. Speaking at a summit this weekend in Istanbul, world leaders emphasized that military might alone will not bring the fight to an end.

“A political solution is necessary, besides military solutions,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, adding that worlds leaders “have the duty to prevent another humanitarian disaster.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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