What does heritage matter in the face of such tragic desolation?
Robert Fisk Independent/UK 18 March 2013
What is a child’s life worth against all the antiquities of Syria? Any reflection of Syria’s architectural disasters must include this question. The pragmatist must announce that both the child and the heritage should be saved. Alas, both are being destroyed in Syria. Emma Cunliffe of Durham University sums up the dilemma: “If there are 60,000 – 70,000 – dead, with winter snow burying refugee tent communities, with gas and power shortages in shattered cities, “what does heritage matter in the face of such tragic desolation”?
Cunliffe, who is developing ways to monitor damage to Middle East archeological sites has produced a remarkably even-handed report which lays blame on both the regime and the rebels for the damage to Syria’s heritage. While still not on the post-2003 Iraqi scale, “there now appear to be established networks (on the opposition side) that circumvent official inspection…Seizures of several thousand unmarked artifacts on the Syrian border, including pottery, coins, mosaics, statues, sculptures, writings and glassworks suggest the extent of looting could be vast.” Perhaps, Cunliffe says, the trade in stolen Syrian antiquities now stands at more than Pounds Sterling 1.25 billion.
In Palmyra, however, it appears to be government army bullets that have scarred the Roman pillars and government army tracks that have used the Roman roads – not unlike the American Humvees which blithely crushed the highways of Babylon in 2003 – while in Homs (and Cunliffe does not apportion blame here), the Cathedral of Um al-Zennar, one of the city’s oldest churches “now lies in ruins, its worshippers, dead and scattered, its ancient Aramaic liturgy silenced.” It was one of the world’s oldest churches, its site dating back to AD59, containing a belt said to belong to the Virgin Mary. If you want to search for responsibility, I suppose, then you must ask: who was the first to use firearms in this Syrian bloodbath?
Ever since the Independent on Sunday first gave large-scale publicity to the destruction of Syria’s heritage, both sides in the war have used the damage in their own cause. Free Syrian Army officers have vouchsafed to prevent all looting – a dubious claim since the Jordanian markets are now flooded with Syrian gold, mosaics and statues – and have even used Roman Palmyra in a propaganda U-tube. Produced by the ‘Media Centre for the city of Tadmor (Palmyra)’, a horseman gallops across the screen bearing the FSA’s green, white and black flag in front of the Roman columns of the city’s Via Maxima.
The Syrian government’s own minister for antiquities, Professor Maamoun Abdul-Karim, has appealed to all Syrians – whatever their attitude to the Assad regime – to protect the country’s architectural treasures because “it is everyone’s responsibility (to) work together to protect those antiquities.” While acknowledging severe damage to some Roman heritage sites in the north, he praises local villagers for driving away looters and diggers. The locals realise that a town without antiquities is a town that will never earn tourist money in post-war Syria.
There are a few intriguing notes in Abdul-Karim’s appeal. Government forces, he claims, have confiscated 400 items, beads, coins, statues and mosaic panels. The minister also assures us that the vast bulk of treasures have been secured in “safe places”. But where are all these ‘safe places’? And if they are so safe, why do the internally-placed refugees not flock to them?
Deir ez-Zour, now a deserted city in largely rebel hands, seems to have suffered disproportionately as looters assaulted the Acropolis, excavated sectors of the Temple of the Rock – from Bronze Age Ebla (middle of the 3 millennium BC) – and bored down through the rock for earlier artifacts. One prominent Lebanese archeologist in the region tells me that the smugglers are now working for the same networks created by the Iraqi looters. A taste for treasures has now been acquired internationally – and buyers are now asking Iraqi gangs to use the same methods in Syria. [Abridged]