Wednesday 29 October 2014

Syria: "Virtually Nothing is Left"

Palmyra has been damaged too
 Michel al-Maqdissi, former director of the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums' Archaeological Excavations department from 2000 to 2012 now works as a researcher at the Department of Oriental Antiquities in the Louvre in Paris. He has been talking to Mona Sarkis about the degree to which  Syria's cultural heritage is under threat, it now seems clear that the destruction of Syria's cultural heritage is far worse than anyone expected. The article is titled tellingly: "Virtually nothing is left" (, 29the October 2014). It is not stated where al-Maqdissi has been obtaining information about what is happening in the country since he left. The interview begins with pointing out that much of the damage has been done by Syrian Army bombing and shelling rebel positions in ancient sites ("The results can be seen in Aleppo, Bosra, the crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers or the columns in Palmyra. In some places, such as the old town in Homs, virtually nothing is left").
As for looting, it seems that so far, nothing can surpass Apamea. The ancient site of the Seleucids on the Orontes today consists of 4,000 craters. Some are three metres deep; some are even deeper. The brutal and systematic methods the looters used is clearly illustrated by satellite images from April 2012. They must have used drills. Dura Europos and Ebla-Tell Mardikh have also been severely affected. Since the former is in the north-west and the latter in the south-east of Syria, one has to assume that the whole country is being looted. It is mainly gangs who are responsible for this: they gathered sufficient experience in Iraq and are now supplying an international antiquities mafia.
The phrase "they must have used drills" is inexplicable. With reference to recent reports the interviewer asks Maqdissi whether he thinks the artefacts are being stolen by rebel groups in order to buy weapons. He is rather dismissive of the whole idea and replies:
I think that the majority of looters are professionals. You must remember that the antiques trade is not a quick business; the rebels hardly have the time to wait for their share of the revenues. What's more, armed groups – some of them are certainly not rebels, but real terrorists, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) or Jabhet al-Nusra – control the oil fields in northern Syria. For them, this is financially much more effective than the antiques trade. In addition, they regard the artefacts as blasphemous idols. ISIS, for example, recently smashed a one-and-a-half-metre high, approximately 3,000-year-old Assyrian statue from the site Tell Ajaja in north-east Syria on camera.
The rest of the article is critical of UNESCO as a means of dealing with the threat (actually ignoring the fact that this is not at all what the organization was set up ever to do). He considers that UNESCO is
a tired institution that operates in a framework that is far too narrow. This starts with their experts, who have remained unchanged for decades and apply the same procedures from Iraq to Afghanistan. But the cases vary from country to country and require more than just the same old pattern. [...] Unfortunately, it becomes ineffective, is always late, is blocked by its own experts and increasingly burdened by the weight of its own bureaucracy. 

He criticises them for too little, too late and not in the areas where it would help, he says UNESCO should be training activists on the ground (nota bene exactly the direction the Americans have been going in their aid programme). Other topics discussed is the lack of payment for site guards and the exodus of experts from the country after the civil war broke out.

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