Vigil for Peace, Kirchheimbolanden, Germany, February 27, 2022, organized by the Arbeitskreis Kirchheimbolander Friedenstage, Copyright: Sophia Schultz

Culture Heroes

When wars break out, when the destruction begins, when humanity is shattered, heroes emerge, sometimes literally from the ashes, carrying injured people to safety or defending their neighborhoods from invaders.

In our field of cultural heritage preservation, the same thing happens, in the middle of an ongoing war, culture heroes, as we call them, emerge.

Average citizens, organizing, carrying sandbags and stacking them around their local monuments. Barricading doors, rushing to assist their local museums and libraries with bubble wrap and banana boxes.[1] This is what we are witnessing in Ukraine right now.

During Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, Emir Maurice Chehab, the late director of the Lebanese Antiquities’ Department, protected the National Museum’s treasures from falling into the hands of militiamen who had occupied the museum.[2] “Conserving the big pieces, including the stone sarcophagus of Ahiram and colossal statues […] Chehab first covered the items with sandbags, which the militiamen later removed to use as barricades. He then placed wood panels around them and again the fighters used the wood to make bonfires to keep warm. Finally, Chehab built a case of reinforced concrete around each piece.” Like a miracle many pieces in the museum remained unharmed. In 1989, in Kabul, Afghanistan, museum staff under the guidance of Omara Khan Masoudi, the museum’s director, bonded together to save the more than 2000-year old Bactrian gold artifacts and other treasures.[3] After war broke out in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012, librarian Abdel Kader Haïdara took the risk onto himself to organize the secret[4] transport of precious ancient manuscripts to safer private homes, and later to Bamako – an extremely dangerous months-long operation in the middle of an ongoing conflict.[5] Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainians in different parts of the country have been organizing to protect their history and heritage. The 17th century gold lacquered artworks in Lviv’s National Museum, for example, have been stripped off the walls and are now “bundled up and hidden in the basement.”[6]


During the civil war in Syria, Aahed Sulayman made it his mission to protect a synagogue in his neighborhood. He volunteered to lead a local committee of like-minded fellow citizens, some of whom were killed in the conflict. In 2017, I went to a lecture at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC where he spoke about what happened, he never thought that one day he would be risking his life, acting as a guard posted up in front of the historic building trying to ward off looters. Before 2012, he had never even been inside, even though he grew up in the Damascus suburb Jobar. “Of Damascus’s 22 synagogues, the one in Jobar is the most revered because it was built atop a cave where, according to religious teachings, the prophet Eliyahu concealed himself to avoid persecution. Muslims and Christians regard Eliyahu as a prophet, making the site one of the few in Syria revered by all three religions. Before the civil war, Jews, Muslims and Christians would visit the synagogue and take turns descending into the cave to pray.”[7]

When we in the cultural heritage sector highlight culture heroes it is to highlight a phenomenon that is part of conflict, it is touching to learn about these stories, but it does not mean saving ancient gold or manuscripts is more important than saving human lives.


Many communities and individuals in Ukraine are facing the same predicament others have before them – how can they protect the treasures, the jewels of their villages, towns, and cities?


The city Lviv is one of the places that has made it into the news recently.[8] “[N]ear Ukraine’s western border with Poland, [it] has existed since the Middle Ages and its architecture and city framework bear witness to many centuries of moved borders, conquests, religious ties and arrivals of various ethnic communities. At its center, is a hill upon which stands the remains of the 5th-century Vysokyi Zamok (High Castle), but what surrounds tells much more of the story of this place, a mosque, a synagogue and churches of various denominations. Buildings in the city center have been remarkably well preserved, the Gothic, Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque periods all represented.”[9] Lviv is the largest city in Western Ukraine, and the sixth largest city in Ukraine.


Lilia Onyschenko, Lviv’s head of monument protection, recently reminded us, “We are protecting world heritage, not just Lviv heritage.”[10] The Lviv Foundation for the Preservation of Architectural and Historical Monuments, reported that art conservators and concerned locals bonded together in their protection efforts.[11] The organization posts photos of the citizen actions on their Facebook page: “It’s not just monuments on the streets—museums in Lviv are working to protect their artwork. […] Volunteers are rushing to pack art and manuscripts into hastily constructed crates.”[12]


Honey Al Sayed, former radio host in Damascus, who had to leave her country after the fighting began, explained to me how humanitarian aid and care for a people’s culture can go hand in hand, that speaking up for heritage protection during an ongoing conflict brings hope because it is a fight for a better tomorrow, it is the fight for the “Day 1” after the conflict, when peace can be brought back, when reconciliation can begin, for that moment, heritage is needed. This was at a time when her country’s centuries-old bazaar in Aleppo, one of Syria’s “historical crown jewels” was still standing. Large parts of the bazaar, and with it its longstanding history, were later leveled to the ground.[13] The same thing happened to Jobar Synagogue and to the library in Timbuktu. Destroyed, burnt. As the UNESCO Director General, Audrey Azoulay, said at the beginning of the war in Ukraine: “We must safeguard the cultural heritage in Ukraine, as a testimony of the past but also as a catalyst for peace and cohesion for the future, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve.”[14]


Even though the war is happening as I write this, and as you read this, “Day 1” will come, and then hopefully the wrapped monuments of Lviv will become regular meeting spots again among friends or photo ops for tourists. And the boxed and hidden artifacts can be returned to their showrooms for everyone to see, including the people who had to leave, and will hopefully be able to return to their homes soon.


At ARCH-Europe we are currently connecting with schools and teachers in the USA, Germany and Austria, in an effort to develop culturally unifying materials for school children and teachers. There are deep cultural bonds between Ukraine and Russia, between Ukraine, Germany and Austria and other countries. Our goal is to work closely with affected communities, creating meaningful connections to Ukraine’s history and heritage, while educating European host families and schools, too. This education will work against erasing a history that is so valuable to bring about peace.

Sophia Schultz, Director of International Programs, ARCH International


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[1] “Museums race against time to save Ukraine’s cultural treasures,” Atika Shubert, CNN, March 8, 2022: 
[2] “Maurice Chehab, the guardian angel of Lebanon’s cultural heritage,” The Arab Weekly, Samar Kadi, May 1, 2015:
[3] “Lost & Found,” Smithsonian Magazine, Richard Covington, September 2008:
[4] “After the jihadists fled in the face of advancing French and Malian troops in January [of 2013], the mayor of Timbuktu, Hallé Ousmane Cissé, revealed that the city’s precious archive had been torched. What Cissé didn’t know, however, was that, while several thousand manuscripts had been destroyed or looted, hundreds of thousands more had been smuggled to safety by an unlikely band of bibliophiles.“ From: The book rustlers of Timbuktu: how Mali’s ancient manuscripts were saved,” The Guardian, Charlie English, May 23, 2014:
[5] ”The book rustlers of Timbuktu: how Mali’s ancient manuscripts were saved,” The Guardian, Charlie English, May 23, 2014:
[6] “Museums race against time to save Ukraine’s cultural treasures,” Atika Shubert, CNN, March 8, 2022:
[7] “One Muslim’s Quest to Save a Revered Syrian Synagogue,” Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous, December 1, 2014:
[8] Ukraine has seven UNESCO world heritage sites, The Old Town of Lviv is one of them. Ukraine also has 17 sites on the Tentative List.
[9] “A Ukrainian Inheritance”, PRIOR, PRIOR Team, March 4, 2022:
[10] “Ukrainians Work to Protect Historic Statues in Lviv,” Town & Country, Emily Burack, March 8, 2022:,working%20to%20save%20historic%20statues%20and%20cultural%20treasures
[11] “’Concerned’ Ukrainian locals help protect Lviv’s historic statues,” CNN, Oskar Holland, March 4, 2022:
[12] “Ukrainians Work to Protect Historic Statues in Lviv,” Town & Country, Emily Burack, March 8, 2022:,working%20to%20save%20historic%20statues%20and%20cultural%20treasures
[13] “Centuries-old bazaar in Syria’s Aleppo making slow recovery,” AP News, Bassem Mroue, August 5, 2019:
[14] “Endangered heritage in Ukraine: UNESCO reinforces protective measures,“ UNESCO World Heritage Convention News, March 8, 2022:

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