Edinburgh International Cultural guest Syria’s Maamoun Abdulkarim

Syrian antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim Picture: AFP
Syrian antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim Picture: AFP
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The Culture Summit is a chance to bring Scottish concerns to an international audience, and vice versa, writes Tim Cornwell

If there is one battle over cultural heritage that has seized the global imagination in the last year, it is the fate of the historic ruins of Palmyra, in Syria, at the hands of Islamic State (IS). The blast of an explosion rising from over the Temple of Bal as the Islamic extremists set about its destruction, and the beheading of archeologist Khaled al-Assad, 81, brought an international cry of anguish, in the wake of which Assad was commemorated in museums worldwide and Palmyra’s destroyed Arch of Triumph was recreated in Trafalgar Square.

Dakhaniyeh neighberhood, southeast of the capital Damascus Picture:  AFP

Dakhaniyeh neighberhood, southeast of the capital Damascus Picture: AFP

So it is no surprise that the star guest at the third Edinburgh International Cultural Summit this week is Syria’s Maamoun Abdulkarim. As director-general of antiquities and museums, he oversaw the last-minute evacuation of three truckloads of Palmyran artefacts in the face of IS’ sudden advance, and with its recapture by Syrian and Russian forces is the man primarily responsible for charting its recovery.

It is a notable coup for summit organisers and director Jonathan Mills to bring Abdulkarim to Edinburgh. Respected and loquacious, with his newly-learned English, he will bring a hard edge to the woolly concepts of cultural politics, debates over the value of heritage, the building of bridges between practitioners of art and politicians, that Mills has set as his goals. Abdulkarim offers a link between hard-fought but peaceful battles in Scotland – such as over the fate of the old Royal High School in Edinburgh – and violent upheavals that have wrecked or endangered historic ancient sites in the Middle East and North Africa.

More than 40 countries are represented at this year’s three-day gathering, according to Mills, including about 25 ministers of culture and another ten who occupy equivalent posts. There are probably another 40 or 50 leading cultural players, from theatre bosses to the Google Cultural Institute’s Suhair Khan. With an impressive roster of funders, and a £50,000 grant from the UK government this year, the summit seems to have come of age, after its founding by Mills in 2012. Delegates are gathered from Australia to Bangladesh, Poland to Oman, Singapore to South Africa, the United States and Wales – including Dr Abdulkarim’s counterparts from both Iraq and Libya.

With every event in the festival city fighting for attention and audiences, is there really space at this time of year for summitry, in the sanitised setting of the Scottish Parliament chamber? Isn’t Edinburgh really famous for the Fringe, the uncurated, rowdy and unruly mayhem of anyone who wants turning up to try and make their stage career? Mills makes the point that the vision of the Edinburgh festivals driven by performers who max out their credit cards and ride north in rented vans is romantic but not quite true.

“How do you think people get here?” he says: “Some of them do indeed mortgage their houses and so on. But many, many ­others come here under the auspices of their governments.

“One of my motivations in establishing the culture summit was to acknowledge the partnerships we already have with a number of foreign governments and build on those as part of the essential international context in which all of these festivals happen. To have a group from China, to have a group from South Africa, performing at the [International] Festival, to have their ministers here talking about the things that matter to them, and at the same time to have their military apparatus in the Tattoo, to have their Fringe artists performing, that is what I think Edinburgh can do uniquely.”

At the same time, Edinburgh is uniquely situated to host this kind of gathering, and it underlines it’s still a special place in the festival circuit.

The summit runs this year over a tight two and half days. Public opening events give way to private sessions in committee rooms – like any conference, hopefully, it’s the side-deals that matter. The grandiose over-arching theme is “building resilient communities” but it includes protecting and preserving cultural and heritage sites, taking in economic pressures and arts participation.

The tone reflects Mills’s professorial approach to the arts, but other headline guests include Youssou N’Dour, the Grammy-award winning songwriter and former culture minister for Senegal.

What the summits clearly promise is a “soft power” opportunity for Scotland, the chance to make Scottish culture and concerns known to an international audience, and vice versa, in a month when Edinburgh considers itself the centre of the (theatrical and artistic) world. Abdulkarim calls for just that kind of international co-operation, calling for help from archeological teams from Scotland and the West.

While Russian archeological teams were the first to go into Palmyra after it was recaptured from IS, he says it is western, not Russian connections with Syrian archeology that go back a century.

After a first visit to the UK last year, he has built contacts with British teams at Durham, Oxford and Leicester universities but will be looking to make new contacts in Scotland.

“It is a good opportunity to come to Edinburgh, to meet all the cultural personalities, to find how the international community can help us because finally our heritage is common heritage,” he says.

With hundreds of damaged Palmyran pieces awaiting repair in Damascus depots, he adds, “I appeal all times, French archeologists, British archeologists, German archeologists, to come! We have the problem between the governments, it’s not my problem. All the damage of the cultural heritage will be for generation after generation. For this, I need my colleagues to visit Damascus. Just come to Damascus.”

Speaking alongside Abdulkarim is the assistant director-general of the United Nations cultural agency Unesco, Francesco Bandarin. Recently involved in one of the first war crimes trials to include charges involving heritage sites, Bandarin and his agency have also been outspoken much closer to home, on the old Royal High School and the preservation of Edinburgh. It’s the kind of global free association, the “robust and rich” conversation that Mills is looking for.

“Just because in Syria or Afghanistan sites are destroyed or looted, or wilfully blown up, it doesn’t mean we can be complacent about our own position in all of this,” he says. “Someone coming here serves to remind us of the precious beauty that surrounds us on a daily basis and we must understand our own responsibilities.”

The performances offered as the part of the third International Cultural Summit are decidedly diplomatic. Jupiter Artland, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the closing speech from the James Plays are all on offer, along with a “secret tour” of Edinburgh’s hidden chapels and gardens, and Will Pickvance’s Pianomorphosis music show at Summerhall.

Delegates seeking a true taste of the Fringe will have to plan their own outings; there are no excursions to the inspired lunacy of Richard Gadd or other edgier, ruder fare. The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra at the Usher Hall is on the list, but the opening night of Cosi fan Tutte, whose reputation as a shock opera has the festival media monitoring it for walk-outs, is not.

But that veteran Fringe figure, Assembly theatre director William Burdett-Coutts, will be among those making their way to the Scottish Parliament for a bit of summitry, in particular a session on cultural economics. The milestone play Mies Julie, a re-setting of Strindberg’s classic Miss Julie, featured in one of three government-sponsored South African seasons at Assembly, is becoming a global hit; Burdett-Coutts is hosting a set of Korean shows this year.

“I think it’s a remarkable achievement to get all the cultural ministers to come,” he says. “I’m not aware of them gathering anywhere else in the world like this, and I don’t know about the detail but my sense is the point is the relationship building. Ministers of culture have the possibility to change how money gets spent in their own countries and how one builds relations between countries. They are critical to making the festival work. It underlines the whole idea of internationalism and the setting out of Edinburgh’s standard for the world.”

l Edinburgh International Cultural Summit runs until 26 August. www.culturesummit.com

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