Monday 18 March 2013

Robert Fisk on the Destructiveness of the Syrian War

Ever since the western newspapers have been giving large-scale publicity to the destruction of Syria’s heritage, both sides in the war have used the damage in their own cause. Emma Cunliffe of Durham University has a recent article in British Archaeology’ lays blame on both the regime and the rebels for the damage to Syria’s heritage.
[...]  “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. [...] 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 [...]
The Syrian 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. He asserts that it is the responsibility of all citizens 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, it would appear, 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 “though some of them were fake”. Where, in heaven’s name, did the fakes come from?
The truth probably is that these fakes are not just those being produced in workshops established now, during the war, but there probably was already a criminal underground network of antiquities flowing onto foreign markets before the war- and such criminals were mixing fakes in with the authentic dugups. This is what inevitably happens when the no-questions-asked antiquities market is supplied from wholly clandestine sources. Independent journalist Robert Fisk quotes the case of Deir ez-Zour, now a deserted city in largely rebel hands, which "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".  There is a worrying aspect to the whole trade in the proceeds of such exploitation to which foreign buyers are obviously eager to shut their eyes:
One prominent Lebanese archeologist in the region tells me – and this one of the most disturbing characteristics of this tragic treasure-hunt – is 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. The Washington Post has been investigating rebel smuggling trails, and insurgents told the paper that an average haul can net $50,000 for weapons purchases. “Some days we are fighters; others we are archeologists,” an Idlib rebel told the paper, after claiming to have discovered Sumerian tablets from Ebla. 
In other words, the journalist is saying that a taste for blood antiquities has now been acquired internationally.  Do the professional bodies of the international antiquities trade intend taking any active steps to prevent this?

Robert Fisk, 'The cost of war must be measured by human tragedy, not artefacts', The Independent Sunday 17 March 2013.

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