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Syria’s Heritage Sites: Home to Refugees

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Idlib_SyriaRoman structures, columns, temples and churches that date back to the 1st century are a few U.N. World Heritage sites in the northern Syrian province of Idlib. They’re known as the Dead Cities, tracing the transition from ancient pagan Rome to Christian Byzantium, and until recently, they were deserted and frozen in time. Last month, as the U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) reported, these once quiet ancient sites have now become homes for Syrians who seek refuge and a safe place from the unrest in Syria.

Recent survey by Syrian and international aid workers says there are millions of displaced Syrians inside the country. In Idlib, villages are now completely empty. These refugees have in many cases fled from one village or city to another and then to another, basically running away from the war. In most cases, these are families with small children and/or pregnant women. Many of these families now live in ancient cities among the graves and artifacts.

As international experts have been monitoring the destruction to Syria’s vast archaeological and historical heritage even before the uprising began in 2011, it is especially difficult to watch the destruction to the Dead Cities. Experts believe that not only are people now using these ghost towns as a place to live, but also as a way to make a living. Every day, remains of a site are dug up and pieces and relics are taken and sold in the international market after being transported out of Syria. It is believed that there are well-established networks for selling such artifacts in the region, and internationally. In a recent auction a Syrian Bronze Age artifact that was thought to be looted sold for $400,000.

Heritage Center Planned for Cairo

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Egypt Construction

Even though Unesco has declined to comment on reports (published in the Egyptian press as well as the Art Newspaper) that it plans to set up a regional center for world heritage in Cairo, the news has been widely reported.  A few months ago Unesco’s director general Irina Bokova discussed establishing such a center in the Egyptian capital with Mohamed Ibrahim, the minister of state for antiquities, during a recent meeting. This was reported at that time by the press and WCHV too.

Specialists at the planned venue would assist in protecting archaeological sites in Africa included on the World Heritage list. African archaeologists would also receive training in conserving and studying artifacts and monuments. 

Japan’s Mount Fuji

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Mt FujiEarlier this month, it was reported by the Agency for Cultural Affairs in Japan that the magnificent and beautiful Mount Fuji will most likely be recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  The agency received a notice that Mt. Fuji was recommended by the advisory panel, known as the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) for World Heritage status, a body affiliated with UNESCO.  However, the panel also said that it had rejected a request to add a group of cultural assets in the ancient city of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, to the World Heritage List, citing scarce resources directly linked to the medieval Shogunate’s rule as reported by Japan Times in early May 2013.

The formal approval is expected in June at a meeting in Cambodia.  Mt. Fuji would be Japan’s 13th cultural World Heritage site. The 3,776-meter (12,388-foot) volcanic peak is ringed by lakes, national parks, temples and shrines. It rises from the Pacific coast and is seen as a sacred part of Japan’s cultural landscape.  In its request for registration, the Cultural Affairs Agency said Mount Fuji covers roughly 70,000 hectares in Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures, including five major lakes and the Shiraito Falls.  It is widely believed that Mount Fuji is a national symbol of Japan and blends religious and artistic traditions.

Registration on the World Heritage list greatly boosts tourism.