Remarks at Threats to Cultural Heritage in Iraq and Syria Event
Secretary of State
SECRETARY KERRY: Tom, thank you very, very much for hosting us all here at this rather remarkable gathering in this absolutely extraordinary location, for which we thank the Egyptians for their generosity and Augustus for his creativity. It’s a pretty special backdrop for anybody.
For decades – it’s a privilege for me to be able to be here with all of you, and particularly to break away from a day of dealing with the realities of the policies behind what is happening here, and very, very special for me to come to this museum – which I’ve had the pleasure of coming to as a civilian just to walk through and enjoy, as so many of you do – this remarkable institution that has given millions of people the opportunity to learn about our collective past and to share some of the finest examples of human achievement on the planet.
Later this evening, all of you will have a chance to see many of those achievements firsthand at the groundbreaking exhibition, “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age.” And Tom, we can’t thank you enough for your leadership. It’s extraordinary.
I also want to thank Emily Rafferty. Emily’s historic tenure as the president of the Met has made everybody in the country proud. Few people have done more or fought harder to make this museum and the treasures that it holds accessible to all of the public. That is an enduring conviction, and Emily will leave behind her an enduring legacy when she retires next year after an extraordinary four decades of service here. And I think everybody would join in saying thank you for that. (Applause.)
I also want to thank Professor Michael Danti for shining a light on what is without question a global, critical challenge. And I’m particularly glad that he hails from Boston and came down here tonight. Thank you. 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. And 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. And I must say, in the last 29 years that I served in the United States Senate, I went to Damascus a number of times and to Syria, and I cringe at what is happening now, and particularly to an extraordinary place like Aleppo.
It’s my pleasure to be here with President Hadi al-Bahra, the – of the Iraqi opposition coalition – Syrian Opposition Coalition. It’s a long day. (Laughter.) Director-General Irina Bokova of UNESCO; Elizabeth Duggal, the chair of the U.S. Committee of the International Council of Museums; Bonnie Burnham, the president of the World Monuments Fund; and Dr. Zaki Aslan, the director of the International Center for the Study of Preservation’s Regional Conservation Center in Sharjah.
Now I’m going to pick up where Tom began, and I’m not going to mince words. We gather in the midst of one of the most tragic and one of the most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage that perhaps any of us have seen in a lifetime. Ancient treasures in Iraq and in Syria have now become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting. And no one group has done more to put our shared cultural heritage in the gun sights than ISIL.
ISIL is not only beheading individuals; it is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations. It has no respect for life. It has no respect for religion. And it has no respect for culture, which for millions is actually the foundation of life. Far from hiding their destruction of churches and mosques, they broadcast these, purposefully and with pride, for all the world to see their act of depravity and for all of us to be intimidated and to perhaps back off from our values. For the proud people of Iraq and Syria – ancient civilizations, civilizations of great beauty, great accomplishment, of extraordinary history and intellectual achievement – the destruction of their heritage is a purposeful final insult, and another example of ISIL’s implacable evil. ISIL is stealing lives, yes, but it’s also stealing the soul of millions.
How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization. So many different traditions trace their roots back to this part of the world, as we all know. This is the first thing many of us learned in school. The looting of Apamea and Dura Europos, the devastation caused by fighting in the ancient UNESCO heritage city of Aleppo, the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah – these appalling acts aren’t just a tragedy for the Syrian and the Iraqi people. These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilized people, and the civilized world must take a stand.
So what is really at stake here? When you walk around the exhibit and you see the limestone reliefs from Assyria or the Syro-Hittite sculptures, you get up close and personal reminders of the power of human creation. Each artifact tells a story – a human story, our story. But we also know this: When ISIL destroys dozens of shrines in Mosul or the historic lion statues in Raqqa, when Assad’s forces shell the Roman Temple of Bel in Palmyra or care more about regaining territory in Aleppo than protecting its ancient treasures, we are all bearing witness to cultural barbarism at its worst – ugly, savage, inexplicable, valueless barbarism. It’s not just that the forces of extremism threaten to take us back to the Stone Age. Extremists want to rob future generations of any connection to this past. That is profoundly what is at stake. And if you leave it unstopped, if you don’t stand up, we are all complicit.
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. That is why we’re funding a landmark effort with the American Schools of Oriental Research to document the condition of cultural heritage sites in Syria. And we’re providing additional support to extend this effort into Iraq. We’re also doubling down on our support for Iraqi conservation experts and providing them with critical training on emergency documentation and disaster preparedness and response at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage.
Through the National Science Foundation, we’re partnering with the American Association for the Advancement of Science on a project that uses geospatial technologies to track the destruction of the historical sites in Syria. They just released a big study that proves the destruction of these sites publicly. And this is yet another wakeup call, and those who deny the evidence or choose excuses over action are playing with fire as a consequence.
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. And that is the story that I want to leave you with this evening.
The Tomb of Jonah that I mentioned a moment ago was a sacred place in Mosul for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It was a symbol of tolerance, and a powerful reminder of the traditions that we all share. In its perverse reality, ISIL saw the Tomb and the Nabi Younes Mosque that housed it – they saw it as a threat. So they ringed the mosque with explosives and literally turned it into dust. When he saw the destruction, a local man named Omar summed up the reaction in Mosul. He said, “We cried for it with our blood.”
Those are the stakes, and this is our world – our world: ISIS forces the people of Iraq and Syria to pay for their cultural heritage in blood. We are determined instead to help Iraqis and Syrians protect and preserve their heritage in peace. That’s our common responsibility. And that is why the cause of conscience and conviction in our cause for action in Iraq and Syria today is so important.
Thank you for being part of this tonight, this reminder of our values and this reminder of our connectedness, and reminder of our responsibility. Thank you. (Applause.)