15.05.2017 - UNESCO Office in Beirut

Lebanese and Syrian youth rekindle a relationship with their heritage and learn about Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property

“I have never felt as proud of my country’s heritage and identity as I feel today; heritage is not “dead” material; it is something alive that reconnects us with our civilization and our past”. This is how Ahmad, a 15-year-old student, expressed his joy at discovering Lebanon’s historical treasures during a school visit to the Lebanese National Museum, organized in the context of UNESCO Beirut’s project on Combating Illicit Traffic in Antiquities.

Believing in the importance of education in sensitizing youth on heritage and in raising their awareness about the dangers of illicit trade in antiquities, UNESCO Beirut launched a first-of-a-kind initiative in Lebanon that aims at combating illicit trafficking in cultural property through heritage-focused educational programs. The “No to Illicit Traffic in Antiquities Project”, initiated by the Culture unit at UNESCO Beirut in partnership with Biladi Association, and in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education, brings together 1500 Lebanese and Syrian refugee students aged 8 to 16 years old, from 35 public schools in Lebanon, to discover their cultural heritage through field trips, workshops and panel discussions.

On 10 May 2017, the project was launched in the National Museum in Beirut, where 300 students gathered to visit some of the jewels of Lebanese heritage. In addition to touring the museum and learning about the history of each treasure exposed in it, students attended a workshop where they played a collective game that introduces them to World Heritage sites in Lebanon, their location, and their history. Ahmad was particularly amazed by the Phoenicians necklaces and jewels showcased in the museum: “The jewels are impressive and their craftsmanship is a testimony of the greatness of our ancestors and the Phoenician civilization. This visit brought life into history we learn at school. What I saw made me feel proud of my identity”. Rania, Ahmad’s History teacher at school, expresses her satisfaction with the activity: “This project facilitates my work as an educator. The visit of the Museum created an emotional tie between the students and heritage. Now, history for them is no longer something abstract, but tangible.” Rania hoped that “this project is not only carried out every year at schools, but is also expanded in the future to include all schools in Lebanon”.

To make the complex topic of illicit traffic in antiquities accessible to young people, a unique interactive educational material has been developed for this project. Through cartoons, colorful drawings, and a “puzzle” game, students learn about Lebanese reality and the tragedy that Syria is currently experiencing in antiquities traffic. In the workshop, students explore important archaeological sites on large maps, then they learn about the dangers of war on these sites and the three scenarios the sites face, from the best case to the worst case, based on real examples. The first scenario is protection against looting and the second is post-looting recovery through the use of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The third scenario, the worst-case scenario, is the disappearance of the artifacts. Rania, the school teacher, stressed the importance of this project in making youth aware of the necessity of combating illicit traffic in antiquities and rejecting it. She said: “During the visit of the jewelry section at the National Museum one of my students asked the trainer: “What if I find, next to my home, a piece of Phoenician jewel? Can I take it? Is it mine? The trainer explained to him that this piece is a collective property that belongs to all, and not a private good”.

The project therefore creates a generation that recognizes the significance of antiquities in building its identity and encourages it to protect them. “Now, I am much more attached to heritage. If I hear about historical sites being looted or destroyed, I will feel very sorry and sad, because I realize the importance of these sites. I will do my best to safeguard our heritage so that future generations are proud of our civilization and identity”, Ahmad said.

In order to ensure the sustainability of the project, workshops were organized with history and civic education teachers from relevant schools in order to train them and hand over the educational material developed for later use with their students in extracurricular activities. This project, therefore, would reach a larger number of students and become a real awareness campaign.

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