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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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.

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:

Sufi shrine in Libya being bulldozed, credit:

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