SYRIA: The stones can’t cry
An update from Syria Fourteen months ago, Emma Cunliffe gave an insight into the situation in Syria. Here she gives an update of what is happening there
It was a perfect summer evening. We were sitting at a table on the veranda, and the sun was setting over historic Swiss houses as the river flowed by below us. The day had been filled with presentations on the destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East, and now we were relaxing, and swapping thoughts on ways we could take forward the ideas proposed during the conference. We were a mixed group of Syrians, Germans and me, whose ages ranged from mid-twenties to perhaps mid-fifties. As we talked, the conversation turned to the destruction in the Syrian World Heritage city of Aleppo, once the home of one of the women sitting opposite me, who now worked for a European museum. As she talked of the once fine city her face glowed briefly, but as she listed the parts that were gone she was blinking back tears. She fought to compose herself, and we tactfully changed the subject.
To anyone who asks why the destruction of heritage matters when so many people are dying – and they are dying in their hundreds of thousands – I cite people like her, and the many other Syrians I have spoken to. Syria’s heritage is a part of her people: the roads they walk down every day on streets laid out millennia ago; the mosques and churches they pray in which are as old as the religions; the soaps, silks and wine still made using ancient family traditions; and the markets still serving the population they served a thousand years ago. You can take the people out of Syria – and millions have been forced to flee – but you cannot take away what Syria means to the people. One day, they say, peace will come and then we will rebuild it all.
It’s going to be a hard challenge, though. Whilst international attention is currently focused on Da’esh (aka ISIS ISIL), in a country that built
the first cities before Europe was building stone circles, historic sites are everywhere and it has been almost impossible for the conflict to avoid them. By 2013, all six of Syria’s World Heritage sites were placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage In Danger List, and several of the tentative sites were damaged, along with countless other sites of national and local importance. Today, the number of sites destroyed and damaged continues to rise inexorably and whilst the true total is unknown as so many areas are inaccessible, it’s almost certainly in the thousands. A number of organisations now document the damage and the reports make for depressing reading. Sometimes the damage is accidental, caused by stray mortars, but in other cases combatants are using the sites as deliberate cover, attracting fire. And of course, (perhaps disproportionally) dominating the headlines is Da’esh.
Da’esh is a group which follows such an extreme form of Islam that many Muslims have decried it as ‘un-Islamic’. As part of this, it has singled out a tenet of the Qu’ran that calls for the destruction of idols or anything that promotes idolatry. Intertwined with this is the consolidation of political power through re-writing history to present one very narrow world view and a craving for public attention for its actions, providing a fake patina of legitimacy. As such, it places no symbolic value on pre-Islamic heritage. Any historic sites considered to embody idolatrous values, whether ancient temples or more recent Islamic shrines of venerated figures, are to be destroyed. A significant part of its highly organised media strategy revolves around videos and images of the destruction of idols. It has left a trail of destruction across Iraq, bulldozing and demolishing World Heritage sites and historic churches, mosques and shrines. In
May 2015, it fought the Syrian army at Palmyra, one of Syria’s most famous World Heritage sites, and the army was forced to retreat, unable to evacuate all of the large civilian population, who suddenly found themselves members of the so-called Islamic State.
The ancient city of Palmyra
Palmyra is a largely Roman city that made its fortune from caravans crossing the desert via the Palmyrene oasis, leading to a unique intermingling of cultures. According to its UNESCO World Heritage inscription, it was ‘one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world’. The desert conditions have led to exceptional preservation and the ruins are considered one of Syria’s most enchanting attractions. Today, the ancient city lies adjacent to modern Tadmur, located at a major motorway intersection. It is also the site of Syria’s most hated government prison. As a result, the ancient site was heavily fortified with roads and embankments dug across the necropolises, and through the Roman walls. For Da’esh, taking Palmyra had everything to do with its location, but – given its huge symbolic value to the west – the ruins were an added bonus. According to eyewitnesses, the museum workers, who had planned for just such an eventuality, were able to throw the last of the museum’s contents into trucks and flee just minutes before Da’esh arrived.
Almost straightaway, horrific propaganda videos were released of beheadings once again taking place in the ancient theatre, with terrified civilians forced to watch and the black flag of Da’esh flying overhead. Members of the organisation told residents that they would not damage the city’s antiquities, but would destroy the idols. Yet, a month later, rumours spread that they had placed mines in the ancient theatre and the Temple of Bel, described by Syria’s Director of Antiquities as the one of the most important temples in the Middle East. Early July saw the first confirmed destruction – the 2,000 year-old Lion statue of the goddess Al-l t, located in the town.
And then it went quiet. Was that it Were they focusing on fighting rather than on ruins Information was scarce. Then in August, reports were released of the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin, one of the smaller, but still well-preserved, temples on the site. There was an international outcry, but worse was to come. Khalad Al-Assad was perhaps Palmyra’s most famous archaeologist – there was nothing about the site he didn’t know. Retired and in his eighties, he refused to flee with his sons. Da’esh kidnapped him and tortured him for months, before beheading him and leaving him with a note on his body decrying him as, amongst other things, ‘Director of Idolatry’.
His death shocked the world; he has been proclaimed a national hero. Rumours circulated that Da’esh wanted the location of Palmyra’s artefacts, and that he had refused to reveal them. Within weeks, this was followed by the demolition of the Temple of Bel and several of the famous tower tombs, once decked in stunning funerary sculpture and paintings. Analysis of satellite images by groups like the ASOR Syrian Heritage Initiative and UNOSAT confirmed little was left. Notably, the hated prison was also gone.
But whilst the destruction has garnered widespread media condemnation, it obscures a very different agenda: money. Da’esh might place no symbolic value on ancient objects, but it knows only too well the financial revenue they can generate. It has gone so far as to industrialise the looting by opening a Ministry of Antiquities, issuing permits to archaeologists and charging a tax on looted objects, which varies depending on whether you also hire your equipment from it. It’s a big business. In October, the U.S. Department of State released documents obtained from a raid on a senior member of Da’esh. The receipts for the income generated via looted artefacts totalled $1.25 million dollars.
The looting may even be linked to the destruction. The archaeologist and journalist Joanne Farchakh suggested that the destruction is to hide the evidence of the looting – not from international eyes, it’s common knowledge to us – but to those who want to see Da’esh destroy the idols. How would they react if they saw that anything of saleable value from the tombs was already gone Undercover reporters from The
Sunday Times were offered Palmyrene funerary busts for approximately 20,000. That’s a lot of money, especially when you remember that there were hundreds in the tombs. Although a plausible theory, the reporters were being offered these in 2012 – long before Da’esh ever came on the scene.
As tempting as it is to blame everything on Da’esh, on its extremist views and on its greed, truth be told Palmyra had already been heavily looted. This is another part of the problem: as we don’t know what has been taken, we don’t know how much money is being made from it or who is making it. And ultimately, the focus on the financial value of the objects misses a huge part of their importance. In many ways, it is the context of the object that gives it its value. Context is used to date an object, to give us the location, to tell us about the people who made it and used it. Stripped of these details, it is just an object, bereft of anything except its artistic measure, and the sites these objects came from have been bulldozed and quite literally ripped apart in search of ‘treasure’.
The stones can’t cry, but if they could, what would they say Would they tell us of the horrors they see today in this new chapter of their millennial history Or would they look back and tell of us of the generations of Syrians who have walked amongst them, who built them, and who – no matter how far away they are – remember them still. The stones can’t cry, but what we have lost in Palmyra is something that speaks to us all.
I have never been there – there was never enough time – and now I wonder if I ever will.
Whatever remains will no doubt be different from the Palmyra that once stood, but in a city that has seen empires rise and fall, I cannot believe this is the end. One day, they say, peace will come, and then we will rebuild. We will rebuild it all.
Previous pages: The now destroyed Temple of Bel (Image: Judith McKenzie/Manar AlAthar Archive at Oxford University) Left: Archaeologist Khalid Al-Assad. Right: Rear view of the now destroyed Temple of Bel (Image: Haitham Alfalah)
Above: Temple of Baalshamin (Image: Judith McKenzie/Manar Al-Athar Archive at Oxford University) Right: View of Palmyra Necropolis © Isawnyu, CCA 2.0
Above: Temple of Bel with oasis in foreground (Image: Bernard Gagnon)