Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Great Night for ASOR as the Secretary of State Says Thanks

 How would you like to hear the United States Secretary of State say this about you?

“I want to thank Professor Michael Danti for shining a light on what is without question a global, critical challenge… When it comes to elevating the fight to protect the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, Michael and his colleagues at the American Schools of Oriental Research are literally the gold standard.”

That was Secretary John Kerry addressing the crowd at a State Department event to underscore the threats to cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It was a proud night for our colleagues at ASOR. Under the leadership of Executive Director Andy Vaughn and Professor Michael Danti of Boston University, a dedicated team of American and Syrian scholars is working with the State Department on the Syrian Heritage Initiative. The SHI is a cooperative effort to document comprehensively the current condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria and assess future restoration, preservation, and protection needs. ASOR is taking the lead in the struggle to protect the cultural heritage of war-torn Syria.

ASOR is an original partner in the Antiquities Coalition, supporting our efforts to fight cultural racketeering and to promote and protect the world’s cultural heritage since we began. They are stalwart collaborators and their own efforts in the Middle East clearly impressed the Secretary. At the event on Monday, I saw Andy Vaughn at the reception afterwards as he smiled and humbly accepted compliments and congratulations from the assembled, allowing that Secretary Kerry’s encomium was “pretty cool,” while pointing out that there was still much to be done for the cause of safeguarding Syrian and Iraqi cultural patrimony.

As for Michael Danti, he directly preceded Secretary Kerry on stage to talk about the horrors inflicted in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State. His presentation of the facts, accompanied by dramatic photos from Mosul and Dura Europos, drove home to the audience just how perfidious the terrorists are in their zeal to eradicate opposition and in their willful destruction of cultural sites and materials. And Michael had reason to be proud when he also heard this from Secretary Kerry. “Michael was the first American archeologist in more than half a century to gain access to the Zagros Mountains, and that's the Iraqi Kurdistan Region along the Turkish and Iranian border. And he traveled to Syria for more than two decades, right up until the conflict erupted, researching Syria's ancient heritage. And we are all profoundly grateful for his commitment.” Michael was swept up by a press maelstrom after the event, though he did tell me later, “I felt very honored to speak to such a distinguished audience on a topic that I hold dear.”

Other leaders of the Syrian Heritage Initiative are Scott Branting (ASOR), Jesse Casana (University of Arkansas), Abdal-Razzaq Moaz (Indiana University and ASOR), and LeeAnn Barnes Gordon (ASOR).

We will leave it to Professor Susan Ackerman of Dartmouth, who leads ASOR as its President, to put this evening in perspective. “It's a great day for us to be so prominently and publicly recognized and signals just how important our work to safeguard Syria's (and Iraq's) cultural heritage is, both for us as an organization and for the remains of the ancient Near Eastern past that we all hold so dear.”

It was indeed a great day for our friends at ASOR. And it was a great night for cultural heritage too. As pleased as everyone is to see the Antiquities Coalition’s partners lauded so prominently, we are pleased to hear this ringing endorsement and promise of help for preservation goals from the Secretary of State. John Kerry gets the final word. “I want you to know that President Obama and our Administration are laser-focused on protecting the cultural heritage of countries all around the world… Our heritage is literally in peril in this moment, and we believe it is imperative that we act now. We do so knowing that our leadership, the leadership of the United States, can make a difference and that the fight to protect the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria isn’t just about shared values. It’s about protecting a shared legacy.”

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