Sunday 23 August 2015

UNESCO Director: "ISIL is Systematically Destroying Heritage Sites"

"There is very little the world can do to stop
extremists from inflicting more damage, but stopping
the trafficking in artefacts must be a priority
Irina Bokova​ UNESCO 

'Islamic State is systematically destroying heritage sites, says UNESCO chief' Sydney Morning Herald August 22, 2015
Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq are engaged in the "most brutal, systematic" destruction of ancient sites since World War II, the head of the UN cultural agency said on Friday – a stark warning that came hours after militants demolished a 1500-year-old monastery in central Syria. The world's only recourse is to try to prevent the sale of looted artefacts, thus cutting off a lucrative stream of income for the militants, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova​ told The Associated Press. A series of recent attacks has stoked fears that IS is accelerating its campaign to demolish and loot heritage sites.
Since capturing about a third of Syria and Iraq last year, ISIL have destroyed mosques, churches and archaeological sites, causing extensive damage to the ancient cities of Nimrud, Hatra​ and Dura-Europos in Iraq, in May, they seized Palmyra. Images of archaeological sites all across the region show signs of widespread illegal digging and looting. Although in theory the international community "is stepping up efforts to halt the trade in looted antiquities from Syria and Iraq:, this seems more of an illusion than a reality.

Meanwhile, voices are being raised urging buying the looted items "to save them from destruction". Such calls come from museums people (Vikan for example) eager to get more 'trophy art' on the soil of their country. while they say they will repatriate it when it is safe to do so, what happened to the Iraqi Jewish Archive (which the US took in order to preserve it and then decided to hang onto it) suggests that this may be just a pretext. Dealers, eager to profit from the sales also emphasis 'ideology driven' destruction as a reason to accept freshly-surfaced stuff 'spirited out' of the Middle East on the market with open arms. And the collectors who buy the stuff also see a 'feel-good' opportunity in the machinations of their dealer pals.

Yet 'spiriting artefacts out' from under the noses of touchy militants with guns can be a sign of bravery, or stupidity - or more easily will involve working with them. ISIL will destroy what it wants, and will flog off (or for a consideration turn a blind eye to the smuggling of) what it wants - usually what the middlemen and dealers want to buy.

The "saving heritage" argument however ignores the fact that most of what ISIL are destroying is not individual artefacts, we only have documentation of the destruction of probably less than a hundred authentic statues and other objects - which have been trumpeted all over the media. The bulk of them are bigger pieces, needing a truck or more to transport them, and their smashing makes great marketing (or 'come and get us') propaganda. What they (and the Syrian and Iraqi conflict in general) are destroying are sites and monuments. Tombs, shrines, cemeteries, mosques, churches, monasteries (Mar Eilan the other day). That is what is going. A whole Assyrian palace at Nimrud. 'Saving' a lamassu head from one of the gates, a chandelier or colourful ceramic tiles from a wall of an entire demolished complex is no kind of 'rescue'. And its acquisition is potentially (at least) putting money into the pockets of those that wrenched it off before laying the charges.  The people who argue otherwise are the ones we want to STOP. They are aiding and abetting the propaganda of the militants.

By fetishising the statues and buildings, old and interesting though they be, and urging we put money into the pockets of the destroyers in exchange for some trophy art, the people urging buying anything freshly arrived on our markets from the region in order to fill OUR encyclopaedic museums with material in the name of 'better understanding other cultures' are drawing attention away from the real issue which is the attitudes towards other cultures their portablising onto the markets accessible to them are reflecting.

Frankly, I'd say anyone who wants to put money into the hands of any smugglers and middlemen profiting from this sort of thing are simply sick. Anyone who wants to buy stuff from the Middle East without doing a very thorough investigation into the documentation to make 100% certain they are not doing the same is equally reprehensible. Stuff them. Let us close off the opportunities for any of them to sell looted artefacts on the no-questions-asked markets. Now.

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