Saturday, 2 May 2015

Who Emptied Idlib Museum and Why?

Syrian rebel fighters pose for a picture at the museum
 of Maaret al-Numan, in the northwestern Idlib
  province, an area under the control of rebel
fighters, on Oct. 17, 2012.(AFP/Bulent Kilic)
The France 24 report on Syrian antiquities by Chris Huby, Hédi Aouidj, Jalal Al Alepi 'Syria: On the trail of looted antiquities.', 1st May 2015 contains a sequence in which it states that the Assad regime looted Idlib Museum. In the film "Mohamed" [08:46] a Syrian "in charge of communications for one of the numerous revolutionary rebel groups" [09:00 ] firmly accuses [09:13 - 10:16] Assad troops of looting Idlib Museum.

The sequence that goes with this monologue [09:36 to 10:10] we see two men walking through what seems to be the museum. There is spray paint graffiti on the inside, the building is damaged, rubble and broken glass lie on the floor, and the cases are empty - one has its glass front hanging open. In the film the rebel spokesman "Mohammed" says the building was looted by Syrian government. The film clip used however is taken from this longer video by the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, the section containing the fragments used begins here. The full film shows that some items have been left in the museum, large storage jars. the mosaics have been covered with chipboard sheets to protect them from falling debris. Some architectural elements have been placed on old tyres as shock absorbers. In effect however the museum is a series of empty rooms containing empty cases, with the exception of large pieces that are difficult to move. What is notable is that the cases contain no labels and only some of the mounts. If the artefacts had been looted, the labels and mounts which would allow the identification of the material as stolen property would have been left behind. This rather looks more like the smaller objects were packaged for removal to safety.

Two men examine the state of the empty museum

Idlib was an early focus of the protests and fighting at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in the spring and summer of 2011. The city and the governorate fell to the rebels - from the Free Syrian Army and the Syria Revolutionaries Front in late 2011. A few weeks later though a government offensive began and in April 2012, the city and governate were recoverd.

However, 23 months later the city fell to the rebels again after a brief offensive in March 2015. This time the rebel force was led by Jabhat al-Nusra militants (Ruth Sherlock, 'Thousands flee Syrian city Idlib after rebel capture' The Telegraph  29 March 2015). Islamist groups  formed an alliance ( which also included the hardline Ahrar al-Sham movement and Jund al-Aqsa). The grouping have called the operation Army of Fatah, a reference to the Muslim conquests that spread the faith through the Middle East starting in the seventh century. This means the north of the country has now largely been taken over by Al-Nusra and other Islamist rebels, with the south of the country becoming the last significant foothold for the mainstream, non-jihadist opposition fighters.

So, who emptied the museum? Was it the FSA before the government takeover, or was it the al-Nusra Front? Perhaps a clue may be found in the article ' Syria says 15,000 antiquities at risk in militia-run Idlib' (Gulf News, 3rd April 2015)
Around 15,000 antiquities locked away in safes around the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib are at risk of being sold on the black market, the head of antiquities and museums Maamoun Abdulkarim said on Friday.[...] “The armed groups kicked out the employees of the museum,” he said, adding that Syria’s treasures could be smuggled and sold abroad in neighbouring Turkey.[...] When the government controlled Idlib, the 15,000 antiquities were stored in a safe area to preserve and protect them, Abdul Karim said.
If the objects were not removed from their cases and hidden away on the outbreak of hostilities in 2011, did they remain in the museum until the city came again under the control of the Syrian state? And were they then removed to safety?

UNESCO has been among the organizations who have set up training programmes to help safeguard museum collections, most recently in February (' UNESCO trains Syrian professionals on securing movable heritage' UNESCO Office in Beirut 2nd Feb 2015). Back in September 2014  Prof. Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Director-General of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) - SYRIA writing on 'The Impact of War on Syria's Archaeological Sites and Damage Prevention Efforts' (WMF September 11, 2014) said:
As for museums, those in Deir Atieh and Raqqa have suffered greatly; a few objects were stolen from Maarat al-Numan Museum and the Folk Museum at Aleppo, and the museums in Hama. Apamia Museum witnessed the theft of only one object. Otherwise, the collections in all other museums have been brought to safety before any damage could be done to them.
In February 2013, a UNESCO workshop dedicated to illegal trafficking in Syria took place in Jordan and was attended by academic and government organizations from various countries.
During the workshop, officials from the DGAM stated: ‘We emptied Syria's museums; they are in effect empty halls, with the exception of large pieces that are difficult to move’. Officials also confirmed that tens of thousands of artifacts had been transferred to private stores to protect them from looting and avoid a repeat of the events in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion. The DGAM report of February 2013 reconfirms that all archaeological artifacts and historic art has been removed to safe and secure places
A photograph by Mohamad Bayoush of rebel fighters standing outside Idlib museum after Islamist rebel fighters took control of the area April 1, 2015 is captioned "Idlib museum was emptied last year by the Syrian government who transported all the archeological artifacts to safe storages". 

 So, it would seem that the France 24 reporters were misled by their informant. Once again, western concerns for heritage are being manipulated. Instead of the museum being totally and systematically looted by government officials for cash, the collections had been evacuated from the museum itself for safekeeping. It is likely however that it is stored around the city, and perhaps will fall into the hands of the people "Mohammed" represents - who may decide to trash it, or put it on the market (or put it back on display in the museum of course).

Gallery including recent photos from Idlib -April 1st 2015
Previous coverage of the state of this institution (and other museums) by The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (or APSA)

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