A Yale affiliate is facing criticism from the international archaeology community after he attended a cultural heritage preservation conference in Damascus, Syria, that was supervised by the government of Bashar al-Assad in December 2016.
Stefan Simon, the inaugural director of Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, was one of a few archaeologists from an American university to attend the weekend-long conference. Many of Simon’s fellow archeologists have since condemned his attendance, which many see as tacit support for the despotic Assad regime. The University has not publicly commented on the visit, and in an email to the News, Vice President of Communications Eileen O’Connor said Simon attended the conference as a private citizen without Yale’s institutional support. Still, Simon maintained it is important for academics to collaborate with their Syrian colleagues working to preserve their homeland from destruction.
“I believe if you want to present a project or an initiative, for example, a safe haven for museum collections, the voice of the country of origin is the most important one,” Simon said. “Any such meeting needs to include those who are defending the cultural heritage on the ground. We have to make all possible efforts to get everybody to the table.”
At the conference, Simon delivered a lecture about Project Anqa, a collaborative project with the virtual cultural preservation organization CyArk and the International Council on Monuments and Sites. According to Belgian archaeologist and President of the European Centre for Upper Mesopotamian Studies Marc Lebeau, the conference was organized by the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in the Syrian Ministry of Culture as well as a French archaeologist and a private French company specializing in drones and aerial surveillance.
The conference’s itinerary said the event was “under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture — Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums.” Lebeau said that the event was being supervised by the Syrian minister of culture and the minister of tourism, and added that the Syrian deputy minister of tourism opened the colloquium in the name of both ministries.
“A presence at this colloquium — which was not advertised anywhere — of course means pledging allegiance to the [Assad] regime in order to be rewarded in the future,” Lebeau said.
Project Anqa, which was launched in 2015, aims to document heritage sites at risk of destruction in Syria and Iraq using 3-D laser scanning to document sites. Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage joined forces with Project Anqa that same year to assist with the online publication of the laser scans.
Simon said his decision to speak at the Damascus conference was in step with a provision in the “London Declaration on Culture in Crisis,” a document created by the April 2015 international Culture in Crisis Conference. The conference participants, which included Yale’s IPCH, recommended that leaders in cultural preservation should consider “supporting cultural heritage professionals in countries suffering, or at risk of suffering, cultural crisis” while being “generous, innovative and dynamic in their support.”
“In my career I have worked in heritage preservation in the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], in Iran, in China after 1989, in Russia, Honduras — many places which you may perceive from various perspectives, and this is a key lesson,” Simon said. “These professionals devoted to cultural heritage preservation deserve our support in times of hardship even more than in peaceful times.”
Simon was one of three Americans who attended the conference, Lebeau said. The other two attendees representing America alongside Simon were archaeologists from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Mary Miller GRD ’81, an art history professor and senior director of Yale’s IPCH, said that Simon attended “as a private citizen” and without her “explicit endorsement.” Classics professor and Chair of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate Emily Greenwood said that there was some faculty discussion about the legality of traveling to Syria prior to winter break, so Greenwood wrote to the Yale Office of General Counsel for clarification, but said she had no further involvement on the subject.
“Mr. Simon was invited to speak in the area of his expertise on the preservation of cultural heritage at a conference in Damascus,” O’Connor said. “All of the information Mr. Simon presented is publicly available. Yale did not arrange his travel or reimburse his related expenses.”
Still, some faculty said the University should have been more involved in Simon’s decision to attend the conference. Harvey Weiss, a Near Eastern languages and civilizations professor and director of the Yale University Tell Leilan Project in Syria, said the higher levels of the University’s administration and faculty should have been involved in discussions prior to the December conference, where the “moral, legal and archaeological issues posed by collaboration with the Assad regime would no doubt have been raised.”
While Simon said he has heard positive feedback from peers in and beyond Syria and various intergovernmental organizations, his decision has been met with criticism and condemnation from many in the archaeological and cultural preservation communities who see his cooperation with the Syrian government as unethical and opportunistic.
“Downing Damascus kebabs with Assad’s minister of tourism to hustle cultural heritage contracts, while neatly overlooking his barbaric bombardment and destruction — with his Russian allies — of Aleppo and other historically important civilian population centers, hardly befits our University’s moral posture,” Weiss said. “Let us hope this mistake will never be repeated.”
Prominent academics responded by creating an ethical charter for Near Eastern archaeology and Assyriology research during wartime, which was posted on the University of Pennsylvania Cultural Heritage Center’s website on Jan. 17, an action Lebeau called “exceptional in disciplines very rarely confronted to present-time politics.”
“The behavior of those cynical colleagues has stunned our community of scholars, and we want to wash the honor of our disciplines,” Lebeau said. “It is a profound breach in what should be our work and role in the society, based on the principles of honesty, integrity and responsibility, on which the society bases its confidence.”
Lebeau added that by condemning the political and ethical actions of a colleague such as Simon — something he has never done in his 40-year career — he has eliminated the possibility of continuing his own fieldwork in Syria. He said that his stance was adopted with the agreement of his team, which is composed of partners from five European universities and several Syrian colleagues, most of whom are living in exile. He added that about 75 percent of the “high responsibles” of the Syrian antiquities and museums organizations are in exile, having been expelled by their government.
In a December letter Simon sent to the president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, Simon stressed the complexity and emotion involved in navigating the realities of any conflict. Simon called for the conservation community to “aim at more inclusive, consensual views” and emphasized the importance of supporting Syrian colleagues.
Near Eastern languages and civilizations professor Benjamin Foster GRD ’75 echoed Simon’s praise for Syrians participating in the cultural preservation effort.
“The real heroes in the recent efforts to preserve cultural heritage in Syria have not been those who attended or stayed away from conferences or those who have pronounced judgment upon them, but the brave professionals who, at great personal risk, moved more than 300,000 antiquities from museums throughout the country, in the face of war and looting, to safety,” Foster said.
Lebeau said there are many factors that should be considered before restoring and reconstructing cultural heritage sites in conflict zones. In Syria, an estimated 11 million civilians have fled the country since March 2011. He added that only when there is a “consensus between the civil society, the professionals and the responsible organizations” can heritage sites be restored.
The Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale was founded in 2012.