Isber Sabrine. Photograph by Katrin Greiling
Isber Sabrine. Photograph by Katrin Greiling

Salvation in the wreckage

Isber Sabrine: One archaeologist’s attempt to monitor destruction and safeguard Syrian treasures

Sally McGrane
“I’m on the staff,” explained Isber Sabrine, as he took the steps two at a time at Berlin’s Bode Museum. The guard nodded, and waved the Syrian archaeologist through. Upstairs, under the soaring arches of the neo-baroque building’s café, Isber ordered an espresso and looked around appreciatively. “This is a great place,” said the 31-year-old, who, in addition to several other roles, is the co-founder of Heritage for Peace, an NGO dedicated to safeguarding Syrian cultural heritage during the current armed conflict.

Founded in 2013, Heritage for Peace is, in many ways, as unorthodox as Isber himself. The NGO was created, for example, after Isber and the respected Dutch anthropologist Rene Teijgeler spent two weeks brainstorming in the back room of a pizza joint in Spain where Isber – having completed his Spanish master’s degree in cultural heritage management just as the Syrian cultural heritage he had hoped to return home to manage, was in the process of being irreparably damaged – was doing the baking. 

While Isber roasted fish in the pizzeria’s large, wood-burning oven, the two experts hashed out a way to put European and American know-how about what happens to art in times of conflict to use in the Syrian crisis, while leveraging Isber’s extensive network of Syrians on the ground – a group of people the Syrian scholar had met over the years he spent taking Italian and Spanish tourists around the country as an official Syrian state tourism guide, as well as workers and others he befriended on site at digs during his archaeological training. “We just had the idea, but no support,” Isber recalls. “We were just two crazy guys who decided to do something.” 

In the pizzeria, in January, they forged their core mission statement: “As an international group of heritage workers we believe that cultural heritage, and the protection thereof, can be used as a common ground for dialogue and therefore as a tool to enhance peace.”

By April, they had launched the first project – a seminar held in Beirut that came about after Isber contacted people from the Syrian State Department for Antiquities and Cultural Heritage. “Talking to them, we decided to make a training for staff in antiquities department,” says Isber. “We looked at ‘lessons learned’ in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” 

Three years later, ongoing projects include compiling a database of mobile phone snapshots of looted art that is being offered for sale. When local people hear about new pieces on the (black) market, they approach the sellers. “Of course, the locals working with us don’t have the money to buy the pieces,” says Isber. “But they pretend they are interested in buying. Then they take pictures, and if these objects show up in European auction houses later, we have a record that they were looted.” 

Three years later, ongoing projects include compiling a database of mobile phone snapshots of looted art that is being offered for sale

“Everyone had a normal life before the war,” reflects Isber, an upbeat, dark-haired man who radiates energy, as he thanked the waitress in fluent German (he also speaks English, Italian, French, Spanish and Catalan) and sipped the espresso. “Everyone had a dream related to what he studied or what he did.”

Growing up in a small, very isolated village in a Greek Orthodox region of Syria (under the control of the Assad regime, the area is relatively peaceful for now), Isber was always interested in politics. “When the war in Iraq started in 1991, then in Bosnia in 1992–93, in my village I was always the one following the news, even though I was very young – six, seven, eight years old. Even the adults in my village came to me, to ask me, ‘we want to know about the war in Iraq or Bosnia.’” He laughed. “I was very well informed. The day of Srebrenica, for example.” He shook his head: “But I never thought it would happen in Syria.”
Language and culture captivated him, as well: When émigrés returned home for holiday visits, he would translate what they were saying for his friends – even though he didn’t understand it, himself. 

When the time came to go to University, Isber decided to study to become an official state tour guide, and by the time he was 21, he was leading foreign groups on tours all over the country. “Between 2005 and 2011 – before the conflict came – everything in Syria was going well and very, very fast. The development of the country was amazing, in terms of opening the country, and introducing modern technology.”
He started with groups from Italy and Spain, he said, “because I learned Italian when I was very young. I’m from a Communist family in Syria – by the way, I’m not Communist – but my uncle studied in Bucharest, during the period of Ceaușescu, and he taught me all communist songs. ‘Bella Ciao’, ‘Avanti Popolo’ – the biggest songs of communism in the 1960s and 70s.”
Because of the high demand for tours, and the paucity of guides, he was soon making a very handsome living. “People came for several reasons. It was one of the safest countries in world. The first civilizations started in Syria. And a lot of people speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Fifty miles from Damascus, there’s one particular town the tourists liked to go, because everyone in the town speaks Aramaic. It’s a living language, there.”

Syria’s lack of a developed tourist infrastructure meant that locals would often jump in to fill the void – if a town didn’t have a restaurant or café, regular Syrians would invite the tourists home for a bite to eat, tea, and sweets. Isber was impressed by the good will this generated, on both sides. “This was a great thing,” he remembers. “In the end, everything is about people.” Meeting Syrian people, he said, ended up being as much a reason for tourists to return as the spectacular archaeological sites he was showing them. “I had the feeling I am doing a great thing for my country. Like I am becoming Ambassador of Syria.”

Meanwhile, he began studying archaeology at the university, and, finding that he did not have the concentration needed to work for hours on a dig, began coordinating locals working at the site. Later, these local people would become part of his in-country network, sharing information about the fate of their archaeological treasures, among other updates.   
At the urging of a Spanish archaeology professor, Isber decided to study cultural heritage management. In 2009 he was accepted to a master’s program in Spain. “My friends said, ‘you’re crazy! you’re making so much money as a tour guide. Why would you give it up to make a stupid master’s degree?’ But I wanted to continue to study – it was one of my dreams.”

One of the NGO’s biggest coups, he says, was bringing members of the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition together at one table in the name of preserving cultural heritage artifacts – a first in the history of the current conflict

Just as he was finishing his degree, the war broke out. He had planned to spend the summer of 2011 leading tours for Europeans in Syria. But once the conflict started, they all cancelled. Back in Spain, Isber grew increasingly depressed. Still, he began a PhD program – despite the fact that the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers, which had once inspired Lawrence of Arabia, and was the topic of Isber’s master’s thesis, had been damaged in the meantime. In 2012, on 23 July, he received the news that one of his friends had died in Assad's army. “He was killed – shot in the head.”
“I thought: How can it happen? Just one year before I was guiding tourists, everyone was happy, because tourists were leaving money in hotels and restaurants. Everything changed in a very short time. All of the dreams disappeared – all of the things people had planned in the future.” 

Faced with the economic crisis in Spain, he and a friend decided to open a pizzeria to survive. “I started to make pizza, and it was good for me,” he said. “Making pizza helped me to forget, to be busy.”

He started reading about what happened in Dresden and other cities during World War II, and first came across the writings of his future co-founder, Rene. With the encouragement of a former mentor, Isber travelled to a conference in Jordan in 2012, and met with him. A few months later, Rene travelled to Spain, and set up shop in the back of the pizzeria.
Today, Isber has moved from Spain to Berlin, where he is now working for the Museum of Islamic Art in the Pergamon Museum on its Syrian Heritage Archive Project. He is also a guide for Multaka, a much-publicised project of the Islamic Museum of Art – sponsored by Germany’s culture ministry – in which Syrian refugees volunteer as guides at Berlin’s illustrious museums. There, they lead tours of Syrian and Iraqi art, including a beautiful wood-panelled room that was once part of a home in Aleppo. 

But his work with Heritage for Peace is far from over. One of the NGO’s biggest coups, he says, was bringing members of the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition together at one table in the name of preserving cultural heritage artifacts – a first in the history of the current conflict. Right now, the NGO is drafting a plan to reach out to imams in Syria, in order to educate them about the importance of preserving antiquities. And, he said, the work does him good. “I feel the work to be satisfying. I’m doing something for my people and my country – I am not just looking at the news and becoming sad. If you manage to do something, it’s a psychological treatment.”
He paused. “It is not about stones,” he said. “It is an emotional thing – it’s about the identity and memory of the Syrian people. Everything is about people.