Michael Jansen: A common heritage at risk

Last month more than 80 leading archeologists and scholars issued a public letter calling on the UN Security Council to prohibit trade in Syrian antiquities which are being dug up, stolen from key sites, and sold on the international black market to provide funds for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other extremist groups.

“Our shared world heritage in Syria is being looted and turned into weapons of war,” the letter stated. “Ancient sites dating back to the very earliest moments of human civilisation are being crudely dug up and sold to foreign collectors.”

The signatories made the point that Syria possesses six world heritage sites, including Damascus, the Old City of Aleppo, and ancient sites in Idlib, Aleppo, and Raqqa provinces. The object of the letter is to exert pressure on the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution prohibiting the trade in Syrian antiquities, a measure similar to that passed in 2003 after the US invaded and occupied Iraq, opening the country to a massive assault on the cultural heritage of that country.

The heritage under the hammer is Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic and 20th century colonial. Both Aleppo and Damascus claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the face of the globe.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is following the example of Iraqi professionals who, after 2003, encouraged farmers and local villagers to harvest antiquities from sites and to pay the professionals – and now ISIS – a percentage of the proceeds. In Iraq, professionals and local chiefs even used to hire buses to take workers out to sites for daily gleaning of the fields of artifacts covering the entire history of that ancient land. ISIS not only gains large percentages of the take in tax (the ISIS version of khums) but also controls export routes through Turkey.

In Iraq, black marketeers are entering areas controlled by ISIS or adjacent regions to purchase artifacts. When ISIS fighters secured control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June, they also captured 1,800 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites. They now are free to loot the ancient cities of Kalhu, Dur Sharrukin, Nineveh, and Ashur which served, over different periods, as the capital of the Assyrian empire. The greatest damage has been inflicted on Kalhu, where King Ashurnasirpal II reigned in the ninth century BC. Looters are using chain saws to carve reliefs depicting scenes from daily life from the walls of the palace and selling pieces. There is the fear that ISIS will invade the Mosul museum and pillage its collection of Assyrian treasures.

In Syria, Assyrian treasures are also being destroyed. ISIS militants have demolished Assyrian statuary at Tel Ajaja.

ISIS is not the only group involved in the antiquities trade. A young Syrian archaeologist told The Gulf Today that she had been offered a valuable Roman coin by a fighter with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

Al Qaeda’s official Syrian branch, Jabhat Al Nusra and its allies laid waste to and pillaged the Syrian town of Maaloula, home to the Orthodox Christian convent of Saint Thekla and the Catholic convent of Saints Sergios and Bacchus. Before the assault on the town by extremists in December 2013, Maaloula was the only town where Aramaic, the language spoken 2,000 years ago in the Levant, was spoken and taught.

While the Department of Antiquities in Damascus has mounted a major operation to prevent looting and preserve antiquities and sites, official archaeologists can do little in areas outside the government’s controls, particularly in heritage rich Idlib and Raqqa.

In a bid to assert a presence in the north, the moribund opposition National Coalition has helped establish a Cultural Heritage Task Force in cooperation with the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Centre in Philadelphia, the Smithsonian Institution, the US Institute of Peace, and the Day After Association based in Belgium. The aim of the task force is to train people on how to preserve Syrian heritage.

However, this effort is unlikely to succeed in a war zone where the party in control is ISIS which is eager to gain revenue from pillage and the sale of antiquities. Experts attempting to “save” Syrian heritage are likely to meet the same fate as anyone who stands against ISIS: beheading. Professor Maamoun Abdelkarim, head of the official Antiquities Department, said he has lost three of his staff, one to a sniper attack, the second to a bomber and the third to an executioner who decapitated him. Abdelkarim told The Gulf Today in an interview last year that the department is relying on local staff and rangers to protect heritage sites and antiquities.

Despite the conflict, the officials from Department of Antiquities and members of the Task Force have met to discuss how best to rescue or preserve Syria’s treasures.

Speaking at the Metropolitan Museum in New York recently, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the pillage of the heritage of Syria and Iraq is “one of the most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage that perhaps any of us have seen in a lifetime.” He blamed ISIS for putting “our shared cultural heritage in gun sights.” It was the US which put the “shared cultural heritage” of Iraq and Syria in “gun sights” when the Bush administration invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, unleashing massive pillage.

It is a bitter irony that he made this declaration in the Metropolitan Museum, the repository of loot of many civilisations, including that of Iraq and Syria.

It is an irony because the museum was built on the basis of a collection of looted ancient and Hellenic artifacts stolen from Ottoman-occupied Cyprus by Luigi Palma di Cesnola, an Italian soldier of fortune who fought in the US civil war and became US consul on the island. His Cypriot collection became the first display of archaeological material when the museum opened in 1879. He became the museum’s first director, a post he held until his death in 1904. There is little doubt that at least some of the loot from the current war in Syria and Iraq will end up in the collections of US museums and private personalities.

The only way to save what is left of Syria’s and Iraq’s shared cultural heritage is to end the war that begun when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and restore security in the region.
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The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict