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.

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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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.

LEBANON: Salafis destroy Tripoli library and its rare manuscripts, protests ensue

We’ve talked about the risk that Salafi groups pose for heritage sites and historical materials. This story, via Agence France-Presse, shows that, as we saw recently in Mali, local populations are taking a stand againt this kind of wanton destruction.

Angry Lebanese protest over attack on priest’s library (via AFP)

Hundreds of Lebanese took to the streets of the northern city of Tripoli on Saturday to protest the torching of a decades-old library owned by a Greek Orthodox priest. The demonstrators held up banners that read “Tripoli, peaceful town” and “This is…

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Five threats to cultural and historic heritage in 2013

Full confession: I kind of hate these year-end recap stories that crop up this time every year. I guess I object to the idea that the end of a year is some real event rather than a superficial cultural marker, and I feel like we’d all be better served to keep pushing on rather than acting as though something is “ending.” That said, I do understand how important it is to stop and take stock of what’s happened every once in a while, and if the end of a year inspires people to do that, so be it. In the spirit of the season, here are five stories reflecting the threats and challenges the world’s cultural and historic heritage has faced in 2013:

5. Looting and black market antiquities dealing

Presumably looting could make a list like this one any year, but the turmoil in places like Egypt and Syria (keep reading) made this an especially difficult year for curtailing the illegal trade in antiquities. Apart from those two places, which we will deal with separately, looting was also rampant in places like Macedonia, Libya, Gaza, and Somalia. Billions of dollars are being made illegally each year via the antiquities trade. Even in the United States, the issue of art looted by the Nazis and brought to American museums after the war is still relevant.

4. Egypt’s instability puts artifacts, sites at risk

It was a year of incredible change and turmoil in Egypt, with the elected but increasingly undemocratic government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood being forced from power by the Egyptian armed forces in July. Dueling protests, both for and against Morsi and then, after the coup, for and against the new military government caused chaos in the streets of major cities like Cairo and Alexandria, and threatened Egypt’s priceless stores of antiquities. In August the Malawi Museum in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya was ransacked and looted. The museum has recovered some of its collection, but the search for the rest of its pieces is ongoing. Despite the chaos, and the promise of further chaos if Egypt is unable to transition from its current repressive military government to a stable democratic system, the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power was probably a good thing for Egypt’s antiquities. The Brotherhood is another offshoot of the same kind of ultra-conservative Islam that produces those Salafi groups that have damaged or destroyed precious historical sites throughout the Islamic World, and Morsi’s government showed little interest in protecting Egypt’s cultural heritage from looters and developers, prompting UNESCO to threaten to remove several Egyptian sites from its World Heritage list. Perhaps the biggest loss, and risk of further loss, has been in regards to Egypt’s Coptic churches, which have been targeted by angry pro-Brotherhood protesters on religious grounds.

3. The pressures of development

All over the world we saw sites threatened and destroyed by unchecked commercial and industrial development. A 2300-year old Mayan pyramid in Belize was obliterated to make gravel. A 4000 year old pyramid at El Paraiso, Peru, was destroyed by developers. The threat of unchecked mineral mining has put ancient sites across Afghanistan at grave risk. Ancient burial mounds, some more than 4000 years old, are being destroyed by development in Bahrain. Prehistoric sites are being demolished by developers in the Bujang Valley in Malaysia. Developers plowed up a 2000 year old necropolis in Cyrene, Libya.  Sites from the earliest days of Islam continue to be destroyed in Saudi Arabia. America is not immune to this trend, as American Indian sites are being wiped out for things as frivolous as new Walmart warehouses.

2. Natural disasters destroy sites in the Philippines

In October, 7.2-magnitude earthquake devastated heritage sites in the Philippine province of Bohol, in particular reducing several centuries-old churches to rubble. Two of these churches, the 17th century Loboc Church and the 18th century Baclayon Church, had been considered for UNESCO World Heritage status before they were destroyed. The devastation caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan, only a month later, compounded the challenge of recovering these sites and also damaged several other heritage churches all over the country.

1. Syria

If the civil war in Syria ended tomorrow the loss of Syria’s rich cultural heritage would still be incalculable, but the war continues and continues to destroy sites and artifacts that had survived for centuries despite doomed efforts to stave off the destruction. Entire sites have been heavily damaged if not destroyed in the fighting. The city of Aleppo and its millenia of cultural heritage is all but destroyed, and the Syrian government continues to batter it. The direct impacts of the conflict aside, the chaos created by the war has led to rampant illicit excavation and looting. The loss of Syria’s heritage is not just tragic from the standpoint of lost history and culture, but it is deeply harmful to the chances of Syrian society recovering from the devastation of the war, whenever it does end:

The preservation of Syria’s cultural heritage is critical to its reconstruction, reconciliation, and re-building of civil society, Richard argued at the Met event. Historical sites and objects “are a part of Syrian life — a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future,” she said. Losing its cultural history would rob Syria of the economic opportunities linked to tourism and cultural preservation; in 2010, tourism accounted for 12 percent of the country’s GDP and employed 11 percent of its workers.

Destruction in Syria

News came today (via) that the oldest surviving part of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, a minaret that was built in 1090 and survived a fire that destroyed parts of the mosque in 1159 and survived even the Mongols in 1260, was destroyed in fighting between the Syrian rebels and government forces. The government is claiming that the rebels blew it up, for what purpose is anybody’s guess, and the rebels are claiming that a shell from a government tank did the deed. Either way, a precious bit of Syrian heritage is gone forever, and I would argue that, whatever your feelings about the Syrian rebellion, there is no justification for something like this. It goes without saying that the massive loss of life in this conflict is sickening and astonishing, but the wanton destruction of centuries-old, irreplaceable pieces of cultural heritage is also sickening.

Why are Sufi shrines being targeted?

Sufi shrine in Libya being bulldozed, credit: BBC.com

Sufi shrine in Libya being bulldozed, credit: BBC.com

We are seeing a great deal of violence being done to cultural heritage sites across the Islamic World by relatively small orthodox Islamic groups, most particularly in North and West Africa, for example in Mali, in Libya, and in Egypt. There has been some outcry from the international community and a bit of coverage in the Western media, but I’m not sure that enough attention has been given to why these attacks are happening. To us, this kind of thing makes no sense. Imagine some kind of hardline fundamentalist movement taking a bulldozer to the Lincoln Memorial or to a venerable old basilica in Europe. It’s hard to get that image in your head, isn’t it? What could any group hope to gain from an act like that? In my view, it’s important to understand the motives behind groups that want to rob us of our heritage, because the way to stop them lies in defeating their arguments and rendering them unable to win support from the public and/or government of the country in which they act. In this case, what we have are radical militant Islamic groups, such as Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib, that seek to demolish sites of popular religious devotion in the service of their rigidly regressive understanding of Islam. Basically, it has to do with the long tension between two different Islamic communities: Sufis and Salafis.

I think people have a basic idea of what Sufism is; for this piece, it’s enough to know that it is a more mystical movement within Islam, historically centered around particular mystical paths led by one mystical teacher or another, whose teachings would be passed on to successive generations over time. Some of these teachers, as well as other important religious and scholarly figures, came to be venerated by Muslims almost in the way that some branches of Christianity revere saints. It is primarily the shrines to these figures that are under attack. I think we know less about their attackers, and that’s what I wanted to focus on. Continue reading