Thursday, 21 February 2013

Syrian Government Takes Steps to Protect Museum Collections

The cultural heritage of Syria's past is a rich one, as Suleiman Al-Khalidi writing for Reuters from Amman ('Syrian violence threatens ancient treasures', Feb 20, 2013) reminds us:
Numerous Bronze Age civilisations left successive marks on Syria including Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hittites. They in turn were replaced by Greeks, Sassanians, Persians, Romans and Arabs, many choosing Syrian cities for their capitals. European Crusaders left impressive castles and the Ottoman Empire also made its mark over five centuries.

For the past 23 months, conflict has been tearing the country apart, and there are international concerns over the fate of its cultural heritage. Many of the museums have been evacuated and the world's press is keeping its eyes on the fate of World Heritage Sites such as  the old cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Bosra and the Crac des Chevaliers castle. Who is doing what to these monuments of Syria's past and its cultural property has become a propaganda battlefield, with one side accusing the government of all imaginable cultural heritage crimes on top of the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding, while others put the same blame on the rebels. Quite what the truth is may never really be ascertained, at least not until the fighting ends. What however is clear is that both sides see the propaganda value of the 'western' attitudes of piety towards the monuments, and are dragging them into the story for shock effect. What is truly shocking is that the images of dead, wounded and refugee people no longer have the same shock effect as fuzzy photos of tanks parked alongside ancient columns, a shell hole in an ancient wall, or blokes in military style dress handling chunks of carved stone. Then people start taking note. The spin doctors of the Syrian conflict know how to manipulate foreign public opinion.

Last week the blogosphere was blaming the Syrian regime for cultural property destruction. Now an article has appeared putting a new slant on that story. Measures being taken to protect part of that heritage are described by Maamoun Abdulkarim, a 46-year-old French-educated archaeology professor who took over as Syria's Director General of Antiquities and Museums six months ago:
"We emptied Syria's museums. They are in effect empty halls, with the exception of large pieces that are difficult to move," Abdulkarim told Reuters during a visit to neighbouring Jordan. Tens of thousands of artefacts spanning 10,000 years of history were removed to specialist warehouses to avoid a repeat of the storming of Baghdad's museum by looters a decade ago, in the wake of the U.S. invasion and overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, he said.[...]  if they reach these places then my conviction is that Syria would no longer exist... It would signal the end of the end [...] Syria as we know it would then be over."
While noting that a number of items were now missing, combined losses so far remained just a modest fraction of Syria's priceless national collection. Furthermore, Abdulkarim said that:
priceless artefacts in the northern town of Maarat al-Noman were saved when the local community ensured the museum's famous mosaic portals were kept safe during fierce clashes. In Hama, local neighbourhood youths protected the museum's Roman and Byzantine statues from looters until they were taken to safety, Abdulkarim said. "They closed the doors of the museum and were able to protect it from disaster" . 
Unfortunately the situation on the archaeological sites is less secure. Dozens of them have been targeted by illegal excavation and trafficking, though again Abdulkarim stresses that at the moment such sites "account for less than one percent of the 10,000 sites across the country".
The diggers concentrate mainly on sites which have long been the focus of illicit trafficking [...] thieves who are active in this area have found greater freedom to operate during this crisis," Abdulkarim said [...] protracted and escalating violence could usher in anarchy and more brazen theft. "So far the gangs and thieves are small scale operators and no organised international gangs have surfaced," he said. "But what could be terrifying is that column heads and columns and large stones could be stolen...and smuggled out of Syria. [...] If this happens, God forbid, then we are approaching the start of the tragic demolition of our past and future".
It is interesting to note (in connection with recent debate in 'criminological' circles about what constitutes "organized crime" in the antiquities trade), it is worth noting that here the definition relies on the ability to move large chunks of heritage, large stones and whole mosaic panels for example. I am not sure that is the only criterion that should be applied. There is another thought-provoking correlation here between two branches of the current no-questions-asked antiquities market already at source. Antiquity fakers seem to be activated by the possibilities of palming off their work mixed in with genuine looted artefacts ('caveat emptor'):

In some cases those illegal digs stopped simply because thieves failed to locate any treasures, as happened at the Bronze Age site at Ebla after they dug holes in an ancient courtyard at the royal palace. More than 4,000 items, including beads, coins, statues and mosaic panels, were turned over by Syrian customs last year to Abdulkarim's department, although nearly a third of those turned out to be counterfeit.
There seems to be some journalistic (at least) confusion about the items claimed to be missing. Al-Khalidi reports that Abdulkarim says "The department is also working with UNESCO and Interpol to track down 18 mosaic panels smuggled to Lebanon" and "the most significant pieces to go missing since the start of the conflict were a gilt bronze statue from around 2,000 years ago that was stolen from the city of Hama - and placed on Interpol's 'Most Wanted' list of art works a year ago - and a marble piece looted from the garden of Apamea museum".

The exact situation over the Apamea mosaics is at the moment unclear (see Dorothy King "Syria ... Looting?") and it is not certain whether "18 panels" are missing from the museum, or if they are all at the border, or as now reported, across the border. Likewise as already pointed out ("Syria ... Looting?" and see now "Syria Puts Antiquities into Storage - And Lies Again").

Likewise, in the case of the gilt bronze statue from  Hama, the Syrian authorities:

 reported it stolen to Interpol in time for it to be on their July 2011 poster, ie it was stolen before then ... which means long before this civil war and the fighting started [...]  So how you can blame 'rebels' that did not yet exist ... Also the authorities reported it as stolen from Damascus Museum, not Hama, with bad photos, which caused quite a bit of initial confusion. Better ones can be found at Loot Busters here, as well as other items from Hama Museum which although not officially reported stolen, probably were - or were destroyed.
To be fair, we are getting this information at second hand from an official outside the country (in Jordan, was he there to meet officials to urge them to prevent the movement of cultural property out of Syria?)
who may be finding it difficult in Damascus to get information about the actual situation from his own staff (government employees) on the ground in rebel-held areas of the northwest. Also it is worth noting in the Hama statue case, that the phrase which appears in the interview might have been mistranslated from: "missing since the start of the conflict". More important though is that the statue is missing, it's presumably on the market somewhere and the present situation in Syria is not making getting it back any easier. In addition the current conflict is clearly jeopardising (despite Abdulkarim's welcome explanation of the measures being taken to safeguard it) the cultural heritage of the country today. 

This raises an important question, which will no doubt go unanswered, or flippantly dismissed, by those concerned: in what way could the antiquities market in western Europe and the United States of America help prevent this material moving illicitly onto the no-questions-asked market?

Map: Syria, showing Hama (Apamea is just to the northwest) adapted from an AFP map.

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