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

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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.

Above: Tem­ple of Bel with oa­sis in fore­ground (Im­age: Bernard Gagnon)

Above: Tem­ple of Baalshamin (Im­age: Ju­dith McKen­zie/Ma­nar Al-Athar Archive at Ox­ford Univer­sity)

Right: View of Palmyra Ne­crop­o­lis © Isawnyu, CCA 2.0

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)

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