Monday 18 February 2013

Cultural Property Again in the Propaganda War in Syria

Dorothy King has an interesting post ("Syria... Looting") on her PhDiva blog in which she tries to clarify some of the recent press reports about looting in Syria. She warns: "one has to be very careful when it comes to propaganda about the looting of museums and archaeological sites - particularly when it comes from an unpopular regime fighting to maintain their grip on power, and the blame is laid at the feet of the opposition" and then goes on to criticize the Washington Post article "Syrian rebels loot artifacts to raise money for fight against Assad". She says "the rebels are no angels" but suggests that the Washington Post text is "mostly a mixture of pro-Assad regime propaganda and speculation by cultural property management agencies trying to justify their existence".
My experience is also that the people selling antiquities, or trying to, are from the Assad regime - probably to fund a future outside Syria (they asked for payment to a Swiss bank). 
In particular Dr King takes issue with the report from the Syrian minister of culture that some "Odysseus mosaics" were on the Syrian-Lebanese border, having been stolen by the rebels together with a gilt statuette from Hama. Dr King notes however that the Odysseus Mosaics ("unless another set has come to light"), are those from Apamea. Lootbusters has photos of the mosaics in Apamea Museum
 and at Hama Museum and they were in fact reported as 'looted' last year. "Or not: actually, the very obtuse UNESCO press release re-written by Interpol had them as "at risk of being looted"...." so their status and fate is still not clear.
The Aramaic gilt statuette was in the Interpol database as stolen from Damascus [sic] in July 2011 - ie over 19 months ago, and before the civil war broke out, so to blame the rebels is a bit of a stretch. Loot Busters has better photos of it here.
But there were reports of the theft of such mosaics from an archaeological site with "bulldozers" (Robert Fisk, 'Syria's ancient treasures pulverised'  Independent, August 8, 2012). So what is the truth here?
As David Meadows says:
 the clearly deliberate vagaries of the most recent announcement suggest  that Syria’s ‘official’ channels are clearly playing up the looting aspect to gain political points in the Western media and as such, cause me to genuinely wonder who is doing the looting, the extent of it,  and for what purposes [...] I really don’t want to venture an opinion on this, but we’re clearly not getting the full story and judgement must be suspended on what’s being pillaged, when, and by whom.

Dorothy King points out (I've reversed the order of the quoted paragraphs):

Syria is not as bad as people claim in terms of archaeological looting, but much worse than people will admit in terms of slaughters and lives lost. Souks and mosques in city centres have, literally, been caught in the cross-firing, and are in terrible shape; archaeological sites tend to be outside the centres. [...] Yes, some small museums have been destroyed or severely damaged in the cross-fires, but other than the site museum at Dura Europos, none have been deliberately destroyed by either side. Ditto archaeological sites; the video of "looting" at Palmyra making the rounds shows soldiers touching, maybe admiring, sculptures in the site's storage area. 

See my discussion of the Washington Post article:  "Rebels and Refugees: Looting in Syria" [Wednesday, 13 February 2013] and also discussion of the earlier reports of looting (where it reportedly serves "both sides") - "More on Syrian Blood Antiquities" [Wednesday, 12 September 2012].



Dorothy King said...

I tend not to be a fan of Fisk (I say that to be clear in my bias), but ... mosaics are not easy to remove with bulldozers (the tessarae fall out ... needs a different technique!), and the Odyssey mosaics were not excavated recently, or in situ, but long in museums.

Paul Barford said...

Actually I took that to mean that the archaeology was bulldozed DOWN to the mosaics which were then removed... but there is a huge amount of confusion about all this. Thanks for writing that blog post pointing that out. Look forward to more when you get back from Turkey.

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