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ISIS-Threatened Sites Left Off Endangered Heritage List


A British bathhouse, a mission in New Mexico and the entire country of Nepal - what they have in common is that they are all among the most endangered historic places on the planet. That's according to a biannual list issued by the World Monuments Fund. It gives out millions of dollars to help preserve endangered sites. But this year it's list did not include any place in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya or the war-torn parts of Iraq. NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered why.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: I'm not alone.

JESSE CASANA: It's a little weird.

ULABY: Jesse Casana teaches archaeology at Dartmouth College. He ran an excavation in Syria for years.

CASANA: I really was surprised and a little bit disappointed. The scale of the cultural heritage crisis in Syria and northern Iraq in particular is unlike anything we've seen probably since World War II. I mean, it's really pretty extreme.

ULABY: Casana finds Syria's exclusion especially odd during the year some of its most famous ruins were blown up by the so-called Islamic State, which also murdered an 8-year-old archaeologist trying to protect them. The World Monuments Fund lumped Syria's cultural heritage sites together as one entry on last year's list. And in the past, it has paid attention to Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya, says Lisa Ackerman. She's the World Monuments Fund COO.

LISA ACKERMAN: I think this year, literally, we were stymied - if you put in Iraq and you put in Syria but then there's things in Yemen. And then there's things in Libya. And then you say, well, Egypt, and... We thought, well, you can't have a list (laughter).

ULABY: But it is a list.

ACKERMAN: We felt with many of those countries there was nothing new to say.

ULABY: Ackerman says she thinks people generally know about the destruction of Palmyra in Syria and that cultural preservation is a huge problem across the Middle East. Plus, she says, her organization was leery about playing into ISIS propaganda that glorifies the destruction of cultural treasures. Dartmouth professor Jesse Casana does not want that either.

CASANA: But I think that there's another tact one could take that doesn't necessarily involve simply saying nothing, not even to mention the word Syria.

ULABY: Casana is generally appreciative of the World Monuments Fund's work but less so by a special entry on this year's list called "The Unnamed Monument" that's supposed to recognize all conflict zones losing their cultural heritage.

CASANA: I don't understand at all how not even mentioning where the conflict zone is achieves that.

ULABY: Some might speculate whether Syria was left off the list because there's nothing left to save. But there were almost 7,000 historic sites according to the American Schools of Oriental Research. It monitors them by satellite and says only about 1,200 have been damaged since the war began. When it's over, Lisa Ackerman says the World Monuments Fund will be there. Until then, she hopes its list will shine a light on more obscure endangered places. Three this year are in Cuba.

ACKERMAN: You know, on the whole, we want to convey a positive image, not one of desperation about the situation. You know, you have to have hope that it'll all change soon.

ULABY: Ackerman and Jesse Casana agree that no cultural heritage site is as important as human lives. And like lives, once these places are gone, they're gone forever. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.