#CultureCannotWait: The Work of ICCROM in Turkey and Syria

Beyond the devastating human toll in Turkey and Syria, the media has occasionally reported on damage from the earthquake to historically significant buildings such as the Roman-Byzantine fortress at Gaziantep and the citadel at Aleppo. The extent of the damage, especially in remote mountainous communities, is still unknown. Less talked about, however, is the loss of intangible vernacular heritage that accompanies physical devastation. The recovery and revival of this heritage will be instrumental in the rebuilding of these communities. As Emre Can Dağlıoğlu, a local historian, has commented with reference to the likely rebuilding of churches destroyed by the earthquake:

I’m heartbroken that some people seem more interested in old buildings than in the intangible heritage of the many communities in this region… A lot of people in Antakya have been displaced by the earthquake. We have to find a way to allow them to settle here again. These communities are irreplaceable. There’s no reason to restore a church without its people.

Fortunately, there is an international intergovernmental organization that has laid the groundwork for incorporating cultural revival into the humanitarian response. The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) was formed following World War II “to promote the conservation of all forms of cultural heritage in every region of the world.” ICCROM has institutional relationships with UNESCO, nonprofit organizations such as ICOMOS, and scientific organizations and universities in member states.

The starting point of ICCROM is that people are more than biological organisms and communities are more than biological entities. The shared history of a community, its lifestyles, traditions and ceremonies are keys to continuity, critical to resilience and recovery and to combating the mental anguish that inevitably results from these disasters. In this area of the world shared ancient history is especially significant, but because of the existing political conflicts, the society is even more fragile and vulnerable.

In 2020 ICCROM created a methodology entitled First Aid and Resilience for Cultural Heritage in Times of Crisis (FAR) that is specially tailored to complex emergency situations where natural disasters overlap with political conflict. Using the motto #CultureCannotWait, FAR:

  • seeks to protect moveable, immoveable and intangible cultural heritage
  • trains, creates networks, increases awareness and influences policy
  • contributes to a growing network of cultural first aiders that spans 83 countries
  • focuses on mainstreaming and embedding cultural heritage in disaster risk management, humanitarian action, peacebuilding and climate action
  • specializes in relay training to build capacities among disaster risk reduction specialists, emergency responders and humanitarians, as well as various local communities.

The concept is that when disaster strikes, there is a cadre of persons on the ground who have documented local resources and are trained in damage assessment. Recognizing the delicate balancing act that is involved, they interact with emergency responders to assess and document damage to culturally significant buildings, spearhead the recovery and safeguarding of tangible artifacts to the extent possible and help reignite shared cultural traditions. In areas of political conflict, the balancing act is even more challenging and the local lead is crucial. In addition to these “local first aiders,” ICCROM has an alumni network of people who can assist and a vast network of specialists with whom to coordinate.

We will follow and report on these valiant efforts to preserve the intangible cultural heritage in disaster zones that will ultimately contribute to their recovery and resilience.