Thursday, 2 July 2015

Confusion over new photos of ISIL Destroying Palmyra statues


Here's an interesting one [Louisa Loveluck, 'Islamic State takes sledge hammer to 'irreplaceable' ancient Palmyra ruins', Telegraph 02 Jul 2015 (mirrored here anonymously: 'IS destroys statues outside Syria's Palmyra museum')] :
Also on Thursday, the group released photos showing its members in Aleppo destroying several statues from Palmyra that were being smuggled through the northern province. "An IS checkpoint in Wilyat (region of) Aleppo arrested a person transporting several statues from Palmyra," the group said in an online statement. "The guilty party was taken to an Islamic court in the town of Minbej, where it was decided that the trafficker would be punished and the statues destroyed".
Now, if ISIL is behind the smuggling of antiquities out of Syria, the only reason why they'd stop and punish this trafficker was if he was trying to avoid paying the organization protection money. Or is there another explanation? The byline to Loveluck's article says "isil militants have released images showing a civilian being forced to destroy priceless artefacts from the Roman city of Palmyra " but then the caption says the photo shows " ISIS militants use heavy duty sledgehammers to destroy the historic statues in front of a large crowd, Palmyra".  In fact what does the photo of the blokes with the sledge hammer show? Were the photos taken in Palmyra, Manbidz (Minbej) or Aleppo? Note that recent reports suggest that the Syrian city of Manbij near the Turkish border is the centre of a newly-formed ISIL "archaeological administration", which manages looting and sales.


 Is this Palmyra, Aleppo or Manbidz? Who is this man in blue stripey shirt? (note
the brown leather jacket behind). Right,  the same guy unblurred on another shot

Another man in brown leather jacket carrying the
pieces, note the bearded man in the background.
A completely different story emerges from a Mail article: Tom Wyke, 'Activists caught smuggling Palmyra statues to safety are lashed - then forced to destroy priceless antiquities in front of a baying crowd', MailOnline, 2 July 2015
An activist had been attempting to smuggle the statues out of Palmyra only for the statues to be uncovered when he was caught by the militant group. As punishment for his crime, pictures show the activist being publicly flogged after being forced to use a hammer to destroy the statues he had been trying to save from ISIS. [...] After carrying out the humiliating destruction of the statues, the activist was publicly flogged [...] According to the ISIS statement which accompanied the pictures, the historical statues are described as 'contraband'. It claims that activists had been trying to smuggle out the statues, fearing their destruction at the hands of ISIS. [...] According to the captions, the statues were cleared for destruction after being passed through an Islamic Court. The shocking photos go on to show the activist being force to help an ISIS militant smash the seven statues into pieces.[...]

"With his bulging black suicide vest strapped tightly to his waist,
an ISIS militant reads out the crime"(Mail).
See the bearded guy on the right.
 The article contains three closeups of the six statues shown on the carpet in other photos. Looking at one of them, one wonders what in fact has been destroyed here:

A fake, I think
Unfortunately, when you see the general photo of the six, this one (on the right) stands out in colour and sharpness from the other five, but that does not mean that the other five are authentic.

Smuggler or activist? It seems a bit strange to me that the route the "activist" chose to take the busts to "safety" was northeast, up towards the Turkish border, rather than the southwest to the government held regions where, presumably the others evacuated objects from Palmyra are. It is interesting to speculate in whose interests it is to represent the individuals involved as "activists getting  flogged' rather than "smugglers caught and intimidated".

With reference to the Mail coverage, it should be pointed out that the photos do not show a "baying" crowd as the article discusses them, the crowd (all of them men or small boys) watches on rather solemnly - so the Mail  seems to have got that wrong too.


UPDATE 

On 30th July an article was published by Mark Giglio on Buzzfeed (''Inside the Underground Trade to Sell off Syria's History' BuzzFeed July 30th 2015) which adds some remarkable new information to this story. A week after Palmyra fell to ISIL (so this would be about 28th/30th May 2015), Giglio sat "in a sunlit living room near the border with a looter from Palmyra who had spent much of the last 15 years robbing grave sites there" and had brought at least one bust with him when he fled across the border.     
He found the bust in the fall of 2011, he said, when rebels controlled part of Palmyra’s ruins. He and a team of family and friends had walked into a tomb that held the remains of generations of a wealthy Palmyrene family, along with hundreds of well-preserved statues and busts. He made off with dozens of pieces, he said. He wanted $25,000 for the bust he was holding but said he would take much less. “Syrian history is cheap now,” he said. He asked me not to photograph the bust, since it was on the market, but texted me photos of several others he said he had picked up during the same raid.
There is a sequel to these other busts:
He had already sold those busts to a friend, he said, and then conspired to smuggle them from Turkey back through Syria and on to Lebanon, a common path because Turkish authorities are far more diligent about cracking down on the trade than their counterparts in Lebanon. The man seemed happy that the stolen busts were out of ISIS’s reach. But that didn’t last long. Two months after our meeting, on July 2, ISIS published propaganda images showing militants bearing sledgehammers. They stood in a village square before an array of ancient busts. Then they smashed them. The busts in the propaganda — titled “Expropriation of a Group of Statues and Destruction of Contraband” — and the busts in the looter’s photos appeared to be identical. Images from ISIS propaganda showing the destruction of ancient Syrian artifacts. The looter said he had lost the busts to ISIS because he’d used a smuggler who flouted the strict rules the militant group imposes on the territory it controls. The smuggler had been smoking a cigarette when he pulled into an ISIS checkpoint outside Aleppo, en route to Lebanon. This caused the militants to become suspicious, since they consider smoking a sin, and they decided to search the car, finding the busts inside. [...]  The looter was furious the busts had been smashed. “Those statues should be in a rich person’s home or in a museum, not under ISIS’s feet,” he said. 
Giglio contacted Amr al-Azm in Ohio who suggested that normally, the local ISIS officials
would have taxed the busts or sold them, according to his contacts in the area, but the checkpoint seizure drew too much attention locally. “ISIS usually turns a blind eye to the valuable stuff, but the yokels at the checkpoint don’t know that and buy into the propaganda,” he said. Which is why they were smashed:
Some items have value to ISIS on the market and others for propaganda. With few natural boundaries and a diverse mix of religious and ethnic groups, much of Syria’s national identity is centered on its long and unique history. ISIS is dedicated to destroying that as it works to create its own state based on a fundamentalist vision of an Islamic caliphate.

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