Protection Strategies and the National Museum of Aleppo in Times of Conflict 9th ICAANE, Basel 2014, Vol. 1, 465–475Youssef
This paper discusses the protection strategies for archaeological collections at the National Museum of Aleppo. The large number and diverse nature of the archaeological collections necessitated the implementation of a range of protection methods
Organised and edited by
University of Melbourne
Collections at Risk: Sustainable Strategies
for Managing Near Eastern Archaeological Collections
Proceedings, 9th ICAANE, Basel 2014, Vol. 1, 465–475
Protection Strategies and the National Museum
of Aleppo in Times of Conflict
This paper discusses the protection strategies for archaeological collections at the
National Museum of Aleppo. The large number and diverse nature of the archaeological
collections necessitated the implementation of a range of protection methods.1
The National Museum of Aleppo (commonly known as the Aleppo Museum) was founded
in 1931 in response to an urgent need to display the results of the archaeological projects
working in northern Syria, particularly the finds emerging from Tell Halaf which formed
the initial core of the Aleppo Museum exhibition. Originally the museum building had been
an Ottoman palace; in 1968 it was repurposed and redesigned as the modern building that
stands today. The Aleppo Museum is divided into five sections: Prehistoric, Ancient Syrian
Antiquities, Classical, Islamic, and Modern Art.
From the outset, the Aleppo Museum exhibited the history of northern Syria, for this
reason it is sometimes called the North Syrian Museum. Its collection includes the most
important finds from the archaeological sites of the Syrian Euphrates River valley and Dead
Cities. With the construction of two hydroelectric dams on the Euphrates River, more than
60 archaeological teams executed excavations in this area, and all the discoveries came to
the Aleppo Museum (Del Olmo/Fenollos 1999; Freedman 1979). Over time the contents
of the Aleppo Museum grew with the increased number of archaeological excavations in
northern Syria. Later when regional museums were opened in Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Idlib
many objects were relocated to these new institutions, but much pressure remained on the
Aleppo Museum to find space for its ever expanding archaeological collections. The Aleppo
1 The author would like to thank the organising committee of the 9ICAANE in Basel. The author would
also like to thank to Andrew Jamieson for organising the workshop: Collections at Risk: Sustainable
Strategies for Near Eastern Archaeological Collections Management. Finally, the author would like to
thank to Professor Jean-Marie Le Tensorer for supporting his participation at this congress.
Museum also carries responsibility for curating and disseminating knowledge on its special-
ised subject area: Ancient Syrian antiquities dating back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. This
is in contrast with the National Museum of Damascus which focuses on the Classical and
Of primary importance for the Aleppo Museum is its curation of original collections from
the major kingdoms of ancient Syria: Mari, Ebla and Ugarit. The Museum also exhibits
some of the most important world cultures in the Middle East, such as Achulian, Mouste-
rian, Aramaean, Babylonian, Hittite and Assyrian, which are all displayed at the museum in
chronological order (Akkermans/Schwartz 2003).
The recent conflicts in Syria have put this highly significant collection at risk. The con-
flict began on March 15th, 2011 with peaceful protests but soon took the form of armed
conflict which continues until now. Meanwhile, many of Syria’s archeological sites are at
risk. There are over 10,000 documented sites, from prehistoric times up to the present. The
main periods are represented: Paleolithic, Neolithic, Halafian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Baby-
lonian, Assyrian, Hittite, Aramaean, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic and Ottoman.
These archaeological sites are concentrated in three main areas: northern Syrian (Euphrates
River valley), north-western Syria (Dead Cities) and southern Syria (Orontes and coastal
region). All these areas are now scenes of very severe and intense conflict.
The current situation has affected the status of archaeological sites and museums of Syria
in a loss of support both in terms of security and funding. In addition, sites and museums
often lay within the circle of armed conflict as in the cities of Homs, Raqqa, Aleppo and
Deir ez-Zor. Heritage sites have suffered as the rest of Syria, both socially and economically
due to illegal excavators active throughout Syria. A number of factors are contributing to
the problems, including archeological sites been used as military bases, the construction
of modern buildings over ancient sites, and the loss of artefacts either directly or indirectly
through theft or vandalism. The overall lack of resources and awareness relating to the
importance and the role of heritage in society results in lack of respect among the combatant
parties, and the inability of the community to contribute to the protection of monuments.
In particular, Syrian museums have undergone several robberies since the beginning of
the conflict. According to official reports, the first was at Hama Museum where an impor-
tant artefact was stolen (a gold statue of a god dating back to the 2nd millennium BCE).
Around 30 pieces were stolen from the Marra Museum. Several boxes containing hundreds
of objects were taken from the Raqqa Museum. Similarly, one piece was stolen from the
Apamea Museum. Seventeen objects were looted from the Archaeological Museum of
Jaabar (Abdulkarim 2013). Objects were also stolen from the storage repositories of many
archaeological missions, such as Tell Brak, Tell Bazi, Tell Al-Karkh, Tell Sheikh Hamad,
Apamea, Andrin and Tel Saka. Recently the biggest looting was from the Heriqalah storage
repository where one military group stole around one hundred archaeological pieces. The
467Protection Strategies and the National Museum of Aleppo …
Syrian authorities have confiscated stolen objects intended for smuggling from several areas
since the beginning the conflict. So far, the number of antiquities rescued totals 4,000 pieces
dating back to different periods (Abdulkarim 2013).
Before the war spread to neighboring countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, their museum
staff established protection plans for the museum collections. In the case of Beirut, museum
staff sent the small valuable objects, the gold, and other major pieces, to the French Archaeo-
logical Institute in Damascus. Other objects were placed in the underground chambers of
the Crusader Castle in Byblos, north of Beirut. Some objects stayed in the museum; most of
the delicate objects were stored in cardboard boxes in the staff offices on the second floor
and the more sturdy objects were placed on shelves in the basement storage rooms. The
larger objects, such as the sarcophagi, the floor and wall mosaics and statues, were covered
with concrete (Al-Radi 2003).
In Iraq, all of the moveable objects on show in the galleries were taken down and hidden
in the storerooms or in bomb shelters around Baghdad. The larger objects and statues were
left in place and foam rubber pads were placed around them for protection. Foam rubber
was also strategically laid or wrapped around smaller objects and placed on the face of the
Assyrian reliefs, as well as on the floors of the storerooms. The manuscripts and ancient
scrolls were removed and deposited in a bomb shelter in western Baghdad. Archival mate-
rial was packed into boxes and distributed in Shiite neighbourhoods where they could be
guarded by clerics. The gold jewellery from the Royal Tombs of Ur and those from the Royal
Tombs of the Assyrian Queens in Nimrud (totaling some 7,360 pieces) had already been
deposited in the vaults of the Central Bank of Iraq before the Gulf War of 1991 (Rothfield
2008; Wegener/Otter 2008; Al-Radi 2003).
Action Plan to Save the National Museum of Aleppo
Due to security developments and based on previous experience observed in Egypt, Iraq,
and Libya the Aleppo Museum begun developing an action plan to safe guard and protect
the north Syrian archaeological collections. Seeing the conflict unfolding in Syria was much
like a repeat situation of what transpired in Iraq. The staff of the Aleppo Museum studied
the experiences in Iraq very carefully and took from it lessons and ideas about how best to
protect Syria’s heritage.
The conflicts in Syria started in March 2011, and over time, it has become more acutely
necessary to take action to protect the archaeological collections in the Aleppo Museum.
The museum specifically adopted the following four principles:
1. Evaluation of the evolving security situation: the security situation in Aleppo
city has changed throughout the conflict. For one year there was no police near the
museum, but this changed as the armed conflict came closer to the museum using
different types of weapons, including car bombs, posing an increased threat to the
staff attending the museum every day.
2. Evaluation of the artefacts: the objects were divided into three groups based on
significance, and depending on their importance as well as on storage requirements
they were further divided into two categories: first degree and second degree. This
was necessary because the size of the Aleppo collection did not allow the same pro-
tection for all material.
3. Evaluation of the types of risk: staff started to consider the variety of risks
involved. Will the objects be stolen by thieves or armed groups? Will there be big or
small shells or bombs?
4. Evaluation of evasive precaution and camouflage: it was necessary to change the
layout of the museum so that no one entering inside the museum to loot it could
find material, in contrast to the previous plan which was well known by all.
The overarching aim was to protect the museum without guards or any other persons, or in
other words, ensuring that if thieves or armed groups entered into the museum, they could
not take anything or even access the artefacts due to a number of obstacles impeding access
to them. During the planning of the protection strategies the Aleppo Museum went through
several stages. In the first stage, the security situation (2011) was still acceptable so artefacts
were moved from the galleries and showcases to warehouses. Original objects were replaced
with replicas. At that time it was believed that the main danger was thieves attempting to
loot the museum.
At the same time, museum staff updated the digital archive system. At the end of 2011 and
beginning of 2012, all the artefacts were catalogued and entered into the Syrian museum
database. This process began in Aleppo, occurring in two stages. Each stage took 21 days
and involved working with the students of the Archaeology Department at the University of
Aleppo: comprising two groups, each one containing 15 students. Also at that time as the
security situation progressed, staff moved the very important artefacts, over 5% of the col-
lection, to a safe place outside the museum.
All this work was undertaken during 2011 when the security situation was relatively
stable. However, in the following year the armed forces entered the city and the surround-
ings and the clashes came nearer to the museum, especially the terrorist attack on the city
centre in the beginning of October 2012, where 4 car bombs exploded and greatly damaged
the museum infrastructure. It broke all the windows, the artificial roof, light system and the
showcases, as well as injuring some workers and curators. Fortunately no artefacts were
469Protection Strategies and the National Museum of Aleppo …
Fig. 1. The Mari display section at Aleppo Museum, after the 4 car bombs exploded in Aleppo city
centre, near the Aleppo Museum.
Fig. 2. The damage inside the Classical section of Aleppo Museum (the objects on display are copies).
Fig. 3. The protection procedure of the large stela from Tell Ahmar at the Aleppo Museum.
damaged in the bombings. This soon became almost a daily routine, with the museum being
targeted by multiple shells and bullets. Two mortars landed in the garden of the museum,
two on the outer wall of the museum and one in one of the halls (recently snipers have begun
to observe the main door) (figs. 1–2).
These events led to more protection and additional security measures. The museum began
supporting all the statues and mosaics with sand bags (bag dimensions 50 x 50 cm), both
inside and outside the galleries (figs. 3–4). All the halls and storerooms were sealed off
with metal (fire proof) doors and reinforced with concrete. For the protection of the objects
in the garden sand bags and bricks were used for protection. In order to ensure security of
both the museum and the employees and obstruct armed groups entering to the museum,
some staff remained inside the museum at all times. At this time the museum housed a
number of guards and curators (the families of six guards and three curators were based at
the museum). For two years now they are permanently living in the museum. The museum’s
general safety plan has contributed to the protection of artefacts in the museum. In compari-
son with other Syrian museums, there is a notable difference in the protection procedures.
471Protection Strategies and the National Museum of Aleppo …
Fig. 4. The implementation of the protection plan of the Aleppo Museum entrance.
For example, in the museum at Raqqa and Marra pieces were not protected in any way thus
being exposed to theft and vandalism.
Though most important pieces resided in safety for a long time, many other significant
pieces have been left to a less secure fate. It is impossible to protect all artefacts to the same
degree and any kind of damage to any piece constitutes a real disaster for Syria. As part of
protection strategy, museum staff re-evaluate the protection plan every day. Even though
the strategy has been set it has not been possible to execute the full security plan allowing
for the most thorough protection because of a lack of economic support. The museum still
needs considerable support in order to strengthen its protection. The museum remains in
grave danger owing to the current situation, with the use of heavy weapons threatening to
destroy a section of the museum at any moment.
Future Rehabilitation Plan of the National Museum of Aleppo
At this point the National Museum of Aleppo is thinking about the future in two key areas or
stages. The first step involves reinforcing the protection of museum for the preservation of
the most artefacts possible. The museum is also considering how it can change some of the
protection strategies that are geared towards short-term security. Early on, it was assumed
the war would end quickly. However, now that it has proven more long-term it is necessary
to change plans to suit the new circumstances (no more explanation is possible about this
stage for security reasons). The second step or question relates to how the museum will
change? Will the role of the museum stay as it is? Will it only display artefacts? Similarly,
how can we face the big disasters in our heritage sites and museums? Also, why do museums
not receive attention from civil and military people, especially in time of conflict?
The museum believes it should play a significant role in the community, and therefore
believes that rehabilitation of the link between the museum and the community is critically
important. The biggest lesson learnt from these past events is the devastating effects of the
absence of such a relationship. The local community needs to take a supporting role safe-
guarding the museum (Boylan 2002).
For that reason from 2011 to 2012 the staff began a program to connect the Aleppo
Museum to the community. Museum staff organised a number of activities with primary
and secondary schools from different areas in Aleppo city in cooperation with several NGO
associations. The activities included a writing competition with stories inspired by local
museums, a rally at the Aleppo citadel and at other heritage sites. Such activities drew a
lot of interest from the students and their families. These pilot activities aimed at exploring
opportunities for using cultural heritage as a vehicle for socio-culture development, mobilis-
ing community initiatives using social organisations and volunteerism in cooperation with
the Aleppo Museum. The museum is now considering its role in the reconstruction endeav-
our: including the construction of national identity and civil peace. This could be rebuilt
through the common history of all spectrums of Syrian people and focused through the
presentation of different ancient cultures in the Aleppo Museum from Aramaic, Assyrian
and Babylonian, as well as Muslim and Christian faiths.
At the same time the museum believes it must take a role in rebuilding a new relationship
between society and heritage institutions. This means the community must participate in
some way in museum practices; this can be through outreach activities outside the museum
in cooperation with social groups. Such activities can take place in cultural centres, NGO
centres and markets or organisers can invite the community to present their heritage,
both tangible and intangible in the museum. This way contact can be established between
museum and society, informing more people about museums. The activities in museums
will come to play an important part in the daily lives of the people, this will help to increase
the knowledge about heritage and ensure its protection when necessary (Mhando Nyangila
2006; Kila/Zeidler 2013).
The Aleppo Museum is now looking to the local community to take initiative in cultural
heritage protection, as cultural heritage represents the identity of a community, stemming
from the past but living today and being transmitted to present and future generations. The
473Protection Strategies and the National Museum of Aleppo …
protection of cultural heritage has mainly been focusing on the heritage itself and not to the
people for whom it has meaning. However, if the aim is to preserve the cultural heritage in
the time of conf lict, it is important not only to focus on the protection of the objects, but
also to promote a community’s ownership of that cultural heritage (Jaramillo 2012). In this
sense, heritage recognition constitutes a priority and a vehicle towards peace. That means
we must not just look to heritage, but to the people, and community. One problem now is that
many people cannot understand what the sites and museums are displaying and why they are
important. It is essential to establish relations between the community and the local herit-
age. No doubt that this heritage belongs to the community, the members of which are also
the main component of this heritage. Without society there is no sense of heritage. Heritage
is a cumulative process of communal cultural products over time. It is also a key element of
identity, and it serves as a connection between the community and the land, a connection
that can become a motive for peace (Kila 2012; Bevan 2006).
Research into the causes of the destruction of Syrian heritage have found that the main
reasons were the weak role of community resulting in a negative effect during the civil
war; the rapid change from a small contained struggle to an armed conflict, followed by the
absence of any consideration to the protection of museums. However, due to lack of aware-
ness on the importance of heritage and the lack of knowledge in the community, as well as
the aftermath of armed conflict, the community’s role was limited. As the fighting inten-
sified local communities were pushed to abandon sites and left the area to armed groups,
with no attention to or awareness of the importance of archaeological sites. Early on, the
communities established some initiatives for the protection of museums. For example, the
Marra Museum, was first protected by the local community but the increased violence of the
conflict forced them to leave it under the protection by the Free Syrian Army.
At the same time, the museum notes, in the case of Syrian heritage, that the initiatives for
the protection of heritage coming from individuals and associations seem more active than
those coming from the official authorities. Individual initiatives work on different levels:
through social networking or work on the ground or communication with local communi-
ties and international organisations. In this case, all societies have certain core values and
principles whether social, economic or religious, and work to stimulate the society through
the development of those principles to the protection of heritage and identity. These forms
are ultimately interlinked and cannot be separated; rather they must be incorporated into the
practices of both museum and community.
So far there is no sign the war will stop especially in Aleppo. For this reason it is now neces-
sary to develop a plan for the long-term protection of the museum objects. In order to achieve
this staff of the Aleppo Museum are constantly looking for new ideas or suggestions from
archaeologists and non-archaeologists who have experience in the working of museums in
times of conflict. Staff of the Aleppo Museum are prepared to cooperate internationally in
this matter, because it is believed the Aleppo Museum is not just a museum for the Syrian
people, it is for all humanity. Many key materials for studying world civilisation exist in the
collection of the Aleppo Museum. In particular the museum is hoping for ideas from survey
and excavation teams who have extensive working experience of the Aleppo region and have
a deep knowledge of the importance of the museum. Their help is indispensable in dealing
with the current crisis and they are motivated to so as the joint owners of many of the objects
in Aleppo National Museum.
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Youssef Kanjou, National Museum of Aleppo, Syria; currently based at the National Museum of
Ethnology, Osaka, Japan. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.