ISIS’s war on heritage claims a human victim

Yesterday, Syria’s Antiquities Director Maamoun Abdulkarim announced that ISIS has executed the 82 year old head of antiquities in Palmyra:

Islamic State (IS) militants beheaded an antiquities scholar in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra and hung his body on a column in a main square of the historic site, Syria’s antiquities chief said on Tuesday.

IS, whose insurgents control swathes of Syria and Iraq, captured Palmyra in central Syria from government forces in May, but are not known to have damaged its monumental Roman-era ruins despite their reputation for destroying artifacts they view as idolatrous under their puritanical interpretation of Islam.

Syrian state antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim said the family of Khaled Asaad had informed him that the 82-year-old scholar who worked for over 50 years as head of antiquities in Palmyra was executed by Islamic State on Tuesday.

According to The Guardian, ISIS charged Asaad with “loyalty to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, maintaining contact with senior regime intelligence and security officials and managing Palmyra’s collection of ‘idols,'” but it seems his real crime was refusing to show ISIS fighters where Palmyra’s remaining loot was:

Asaad had been held for more than a month before being murdered. Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said he had learned from a Syrian source that the archaeologist had been interrogated by Isis about the location of treasures from Palmyra and had been executed when he refused to cooperate.

Syrian authorities were reportedly able to move a lot of artifacts out of Palmyra before ISIS captured the site. Most of what’s left is immovable (and constantly at risk of being destroyed by the extremists), but as antiquities looting is a major revenue stream for ISIS, they were undoubtedly interested in anything movable that still remained on site. Asaad apparently stayed in Palmyra to oversee the removal even though it meant he would likely be taken by ISIS. He was extremely well-regarded by his colleagues:

Amr al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official who ran the country’s science and conservation labs and knew Asaad personally, said the “irreplaceable” scholar was involved in early excavations of Palmyra and the restoration of parts of the city.

“He was a fixture, you can’t write about Palmyra’s history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad,” he said. “It’s like you can’t talk about Egyptology without talking about Howard Carter.

“He had a huge repository of knowledge on the site, and that’s going to be missed. He knew every nook and cranny. That kind of knowledge is irreplaceable, you can’t just buy a book and read it and then have that.

“There’s a certain personal dimension to that knowledge that comes from only having lived that and been so closely involved in it and that’s lost to us forever. We don’t have that any more.”

Artifacts looting remains a major problem where ISIS is concerned, both for the destruction it causes to Syrian and Iraq cultural heritage and because the revenue the group earns then goes to fund its continued militant activities. On June 1, the US House of Representatives passed legislation to empower the State Department to track and prevent illicit trade in looted Syrian artifacts, but at present the bill is in committee in the Senate.

What’s King Tut hiding?

and that's the way it was

King Tut…I don’t trust the guy…something about the way he’s looking at Ay in this tomb painting, though admittedly he would’ve been dead at this point

King Tut is still getting over the trauma of having his beard broken off and badly reattached with epoxy, so maybe it’s unfair to pile on the guy like this, but an Egyptologist at the University of Arizona named Nicholas Reeves is now accusing Tutankhamun(‘s tomb) of hiding the tomb of Nefertiti, the chief consort of Tut’s father, Akhenaten, and maybe/possibly Tut’s own mother. Reeves believes that high-res scans of the north wall of Tutankhamun’s tomb show the outline of a doorway. This, combined with the long-standing belief (going back to the tomb’s discoverer, Howard Carter) that Tutankhamun’s tomb is peculiarly small for a pharaonic burial chamber, leads him to believe that some other royal figure’s burial chamber lies beyond that wall.

Nefertiti…

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The loss of Palmyra is terrible in so many ways

and that's the way it was

After it briefly looked, earlier in the week, like their advance might peter out, ISIS appears to have taken control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra as well as its modern companion city of Tadmur yesterday. As bad as ISIS’s capture of Ramadi was in Iraq, I’m going to argue that this is worse, though for a whole host of reasons. I’m not minimizing what happened in Ramadi, don’t get me wrong. Ramadi was important because taking it allows ISIS some time and space to consolidate their position in Anbar, though it appears likely that a major counter-attack to retake the city will be made soon by Iraqi military and militia forces (a counter-attack that will perversely exacerbate the sectarian tensions in Iraq that have been so important to ISIS’s long-term success). Ramadi is also strategically situated near Baghdad (though ISIS has been closer to Baghdad, in Fallujah, for…

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King Tut’s unfortunate shave

So, um, it was kind of a rough week for the Egyptian Museum, eh? Several news outlets reported that King Tutankhamun’s burial mask, arguably the most famous archeological item in the world and certainly the pride and joy of the Egyptian Museum, had its beard taken off last year, either because it was damaged during a cleaning (the popular suspicion) or because it was already falling off and needed to be restored (the museum’s official story).

King Tut, presumably in happier, pre-catastrophe times (via)

King Tut, presumably in happier, pre-catastrophe times (via)

OK, so Tut’s beard got broke. It’s a shame, but stuff happens, right? This kind of thing is exactly why museums pay people to care for and restore artifacts, right? Well, yeah, except unfortunately the effort to repair the damage in this case went terribly wrong. Either out of haste to get the mask back into the exhibit (the popular suspicion) or plain old incompetence (which, I guess, is the museum’s official story), the beard was glued back on to the mask with epoxy, and the job was done so carelessly that there’s now a thin but clearly visible crack, filled with opaque yellow dried epoxy, separating the beard from Tut’s chin.

This is supposedly the moment the beard was shoved back into place, though you can't see the wooden stumps that dude apparently has where his hands are supposed to be (via)

This is supposedly the moment the beard was shoved back into place, which for some reason they did right out in the open in front of tourists (via)

Here's the very visible, painfully visible, crack (also via)

Here’s the very visible, painfully visible, crack (also via)

Oops. The director of the museum, Mahmoud Halwagy, is insisting that whatever happened to the mask happened before he got the job in October (AKA the “it was like that when I got here” defense), but a group of Egyptologists called the “Egypt’s Heritage Task Force” are planning to bring evidence to prosecutors to see if charges can be levied at the responsible parties.

The problem is that epoxy is incredibly strong stuff, and not only is it inappropriate to use on a piece like this in general, but if you get the job wrong it becomes very difficult to separate the pieces and try again. Egyptian authorities hurriedly flew in a German restoration expert today to take a look at the botched repair job, and he declared that it would be possible to remove the glue and properly restore the piece, but we’ll see.

This is a big deal for Egypt not just because of the real value of this particular piece, but for the symbolic importance attached to Egyptian artifacts in general. For one thing, Egypt depends a great deal on tourism, and after three years of revolution, counter-revolution, violent suppression of protests caused by said counter-revolution, increasing terrorist activity in the Sinai, and general regional instability, Egypt is still struggling to get its tourist numbers back to where they were a few years ago. A story like this is the last thing the Egyptian tourism industry needed.

For another thing, one of the battles that Egypt’s antiquities officials are constantly waging is the effort to get foreign museums to repatriate important artifacts that were plundered from the country during its colonial period. The Egyptians want desperately for the British Museum, for example, to return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, or for the Louvre to return any of several important Egyptian pieces that it houses. The chief argument those museums make when refusing to return the artifacts, the one argument they can make that doesn’t smack completely of colonial appropriation of another nation’s cultural heritage, is that the Egyptians can’t take care of what they already have, let alone these other pieces. It’s a low blow, but it’s not wrong either; anybody who’s ever visited the Egyptian Museum can attest to cases upon cases where stuff has basically just been tossed in for display without much concern for how it’s organized or what kind of care it’s getting. The case against repatriation on those grounds got stronger in 2011, when rioters used the Tahrir Square uprising to loot and destroy several artifacts in the Egyptian Museum, and in 2013, when the Malawi Museum in Minya was almost totally looted during the violence that followed the ouster of former President Mohammad Morsi (most of the artifacts have since been recovered, but the fact that it happened at all is the problem). A story like this is just going to add more weight to the argument that Egypt can’t be trusted with her own history.

NY Times: Documenting the heritage that has been lost in Iraq and Syria

There was a very thorough and thoroughly crushing article in The New York Times on Friday, about efforts to determine how much Iraqi and Syrian heritage has been destroyed either directly by groups like ISIS or as a side-effect of Syria’s civil war. The destruction has been almost incalculable:

The lost or damaged artifacts range from early-20th-century minarets to millenniums-old treasures. For many experts, the biggest catastrophe is in Aleppo, an ancient trading terminus and Syria’s largest city. Fire gutted most of the central souk, a vast and vibrant labyrinth of 17th-century shops, storehouses and ornate courtyards. It was the city’s commercial heart, important for understanding how people have lived since medieval times.

Fighting between Syrian government and anti-government forces damaged the Great Mosque in Aleppo, one of Syria’s oldest, burning its library containing thousands of rare religious manuscripts. Its famous minaret, which had stood for a thousand years, was toppled. Aleppo’s iconic citadel, one of the world’s oldest castles and an excavation site, built on a massive outcropping of rock, was also a target. It has been used by government forces as a base and was hit by rockets. Western experts are uncertain what has happened to a recently uncovered Bronze Age Neo-Hittite temple there.

But for all the looting damage, nothing scares scholars more than the Islamic State militants. “The speed with which they are moving into Iraq is really like the Mongols,” Ms. Canby of the Metropolitan Museum said. “It is brutal.”

The Islamic State and other extremists are motivated by the idea of punishing “shirk,” or idolatry. As a result, they have smashed Shia and Sufi sites, statues of poets, Mesopotamian relics from Assyria and Babylonia, and Sunni shrines that are outside the bounds of their narrow beliefs.

The destruction is also useful propaganda, proving their power, advertising their ideology and attracting international attention.

Scholars and those who work in heritage preservation are divided on the question of whether or not to reveal sites that may be in grave danger, whether it’s worth alerting people to what needs to be protected given that doing so could also make those sites a target for ISIS. There’s also the open question of how far the governments fighting ISIS would be willing to go to protect sites; would the US pass up an airstrike over the risk of hitting some irreplaceable historical monument? Would it, or its partners, commit assets specifically to protect such a site from ISIS? It’s not clear how those scenarios would play out.

Travel Photos VII: Saqqara and Dahshur, Egypt

Since I just wrote something about it, I thought I’d put up a few of my pictures of the Saqqara complex and the Pyramid of Djoser. And then, since I visited both places in the same car trip and it seemed like a good idea, I thought I’d throw in a couple of pictures of nearby Dahshur. Taken together they actually tell a story about the development of Egyptian pyramid building.

Djoser was a Third Dynasty pharaoh who reigned sometime in the first half of the 27th century BCE. To the extent that anything can be known about events that far in the past, we know that Djoser pacified the Sinai Peninsula. Apart from that, we know that he commissioned the building of the pyramid that now bears his name, under the oversight of his great vizier, Imhotep. Imhotep has the distinction of being one of the few non-pharaohs in Egyptian history to be deified and worshiped as a god (though that didn’t happen until a couple of millenia after his death). In that sense his legacy actually eclipsed that of his patron, since pharaohs were worshiped as themselves after death but Imhotep seems to have been conflated with the major Egyptian god Thoth, as the god of architecture and medicine.

Prior to Djoser and Imhotep, pharaohs and other important Egyptians were buried under mastabas, flat raised rectangular structures that presumably evolved from more primitive burial mounds. Architects started experimenting with layered mastabas, but it wasn’t until Imhotep that this form reached fruition and became the pyramid. Djoser probably commissioned the site as a mastaba just like any other, but the longer his reign went on (there are two records that put his reign at 19 and 29 years respectively, but scholars think the longer figure makes more sense), he had Imhotep keep adding smaller mastabas on top of the ones that were already there, until the whole thing became the six-level “Step Pyramid” we can see today: Continue reading

What’s going on with Djoser’s Pyramid?

There were terrible reports a couple of weeks ago that the Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, the so-called “Step Pyramid” and the oldest pyramid in Egypt, was falling apart. The twin culprits are a 1992 earthquake that left the structure in danger of collapse, and a restoration company that, according to activists, has actually destroyed part of the pyramid in the process of “restoring” it. The firm in question, Shurbagy, has apparently never undertaken a historical restoration project, nor has it ever “successfully” completed a project of any kind. They’ve been building a brick wall around the base of the pyramid that seems to be exerting pressure on the pyramid itself, which would explain the damage.

This is apparently what the pyramid looks like today

This week, however Egypt’s Antiquities Minister, Mamdouh El-Damaty, held a press conference at Saqqara to declare that these reports of the pyramid’s deterioration were incorrect:

On the site, Al-Damaty detailed the condition of Djoser’s Step Pyramid. He completely denounced all accusations spread in media and social networks, describing the deterioration of the Step Pyramid as “rumours.” He continued to say that the pyramid’s restoration project is still in progress, and that it did not confront any technical problems. He asserted that the whole site was subjected to investigation, and that it had been proved that none of the pyramid’s stones had collapsed.

Mohamed El-Shimi, Head of the Saqqara Necropolis, pointed out that the company in charge of the restoration project was following a plan drawn up by specialists in the field, and its work is under the supervision of the ministry’s consultancy bureau, led by well-known architects and consultants from Cairo and Ain Shams universities.

He went on to deny claims that a wall had been built around the pyramid or that a block of the pyramid had fallen. He pointed out that the blocks scattered around the pyramid fell away over centuries as a result of environmental stresses, adding that these blocks had been collected, cleaned, and returned to their original positions as part of the first phase of the restoration project. He added that blocks damaged beyond repair had been replaced with replicas to fill in the gaps in the pyramid, and that the whole structure had been subject to careful tests.

You can imagine that this is a real sore spot for the Sisi government, which would undoubtedly like to see Egyptian tourism, a huge part of the Egyptian economy, pick up again after a couple of years of sometimes-violent political unrest have driven tourist revenues into the ground. El-Damaty blamed a group of archeologists who opposed last year’s military coup that overthrew the elected Morsi government and eventually replaced it with Sisi’s, um, also “elected” government for the “rumors” that the structure was collapsing:

During the conference, el-Damaty angrily blamed journalists for not contacting the ministry about the “rumors” of the pyramid’s structural integrity.

He singled out the website “Archaeologists Against the Coup,” run by Islamist supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, as being “behind the spread of rumors which the media helped exaggerate.”

Morsi was overthrown by the military in July 2013 amid mass demonstrations calling for his resignation after a tumultuous year in power. His supporters view the current government as illegitimate.

While it would be great if the Egyptian government were telling the truth and the pyramid was being restored to specs and was not in any danger of collapse, there’s something about military governments that take power by coup and then ratify themselves with dubious elections that makes me think they’re liable to be less than honest with the public. Just a gut feeling I guess. Unfortunately, the only way anybody is ever really going to know if they’re lying is if the pyramid collapses, so let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. As usual when it comes to antiquities, it’s not only the history and the structure itself that’s at risk, it’s the well-being of countless numbers of Egyptians who rely, directly or indirectly, on the tourist trade for their livelihoods.