The War to Save Syria’s History

Posted October 28th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

[Published in Foreign Policy.]

DAMASCUS, Syria — Antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim will sound the alarm to anyone who will listen. Palmyra, a symbol of Syria’s ancient culture, will be completely destroyed after six more months under Islamic State control, he warns. Bitter enemies like Bashar al-Assad and the Free Syrian Army can fight it out elsewhere, but Abdulkarim wants them to make an exception there, joining forces against the Islamic State to save what’s left of Queen Zenobia’s historical kingdom.

“Politicians have the right to talk about the rest of the Syrian crisis but not when it comes to Palmyra,” he said, with a flash of anger in his office at the shuttered Damascus National Museum. “Palmyra is the cultural capital of Syrian civilization. We must support anybody who will help save Palmyra from ISIS: the Syrian Army, the Russians, the Americans, even the moderate Syrian opposition.”

Such talk isn’t heard anywhere in the part of Syria controlled by President Bashar al-Assad, especially not in a government official’s office. In some quarters of government-controlled Syria, it would be considered treason to advocate teaming up with the opposition for any cause. But Abdulkarim is unlike most Syrian government figures, and so is his mission.

“I am in charge of saving the patrimony of Syria,” said Abdulkarim. He’s on leave from a professorship at Damascus University and has refused to take a salary from the government. “I work for free. I have the right to say what I want.”


Abdulkarim, an archaeologist by training, has undertaken the profoundly frustrating — if not entirely doomed — job of trying to save Syria’s cultural patrimony during a time of war. But while the Islamic State’s destruction of some of the famous artifacts in Palmyra momentarily galvanized world opinion, the major actors in Syria’s conflict have largely responded with a shrug.

For Abdulkarim, the world’s indifference to the destruction of Syria’s ancient culture has transformed the war into an epochal, but entirely avoidable, historical tragedy.

“After some years, the war will be over,” he said. “And we’ll cry and say, ‘Because of your political differences, you allowed Palmyra’s destruction.’”

The Islamic State swept into Palmyra in May, and today its henchmen are digging up whatever they can sell and systematically blowing up the rest. An oasis city that sat astride ancient trade routes connecting Rome and Persia, Palmyra is the site of the some of the best-preserved artifacts of those ancient civilizations, beloved by archaeologists and travelers alike. The Islamic State has condemned Palmyra’s structures as idolatrous, even parts of the site that never had a religious use. Since May, the jihadi group has destroyed some of the ancient city’s best-known artifacts: the temples of Baalshamin and of Baal and the triple arch that celebrated Rome’s victory over the Persians. Syrians also cherish the memory of the 3rd-century figure Queen Zenobia, who led a rebellion against Rome and called the city her capital.

When war broke out, Abdulkarim was an archaeology professor at Damascus University who had never expressed any interest in working for the government. But when the fighting spread and began to destroy celebrated historical sites in Aleppo and elsewhere, he reconsidered. He had watched with a sense of shame the plunder of Iraq’s antiquities a decade earlier, after the U.S. invasion in 2003.

“I didn’t want the same thing to happen here that happened in Iraq,” he said. He accepted the job after securing a promise of complete autonomy.

At first, he said, many archeologists and NGOs avoided him because of their boycott of Syrian regime figures, but he has doggedly touted his independence.

“Politics [change], but patrimony remains for [generations] to come,” Abdulkarim said. “We were founded in 1919. Many governments have changed since then. We are doing the same work.”

Abdulkarim envisions a global alliance joining the battle against the Islamic State for humanity’s conscience. But he is also practical man and exasperated that neighboring countries don’t help in small ways to fight the trafficking of historical artifacts. Of all Syria’s neighbors, he said, only Lebanon has cooperated with the Syrian government to fight smugglers. Countries like Turkey and Jordan, which shun any contact with Syrian officialdom, could still thwart the illicit trade in other ways, he said, such as publishing photographs of confiscated artifacts so that independent archaeologists could track the locations of looting.

From an archaeologist’s vantage point, all the major players in Syria’s proxy war are but a blip on history’s radar. Islamist fundamentalists, supporters of Assad, even superpowers like Russia and the United States are newcomers compared even to the youngest monuments in Syria.The country’s best-known sites span almost every major period of recorded human history since the invention of writing five millennia ago, from a vast trove of early tablets roughly 4,000-years-old to the desert kingdom of Palmyra that reached its apex approximately 2,000 years ago to the stunning artifacts of the Crusades and the Islamic era.

All of it is up for grabs. Once destroyed or dispersed on the world’s underground market, it will be forever lost to scholars, visitors, and to the Syrian people who have derived some of their sense of identity from the layers of history in their land. A Dartmouth University studypublished last month in Near Eastern Archaeology claims that at least a quarter of Syria’s archaeological sites have been looted since 2011. While the Islamic State appears to be the worst offender, the study found, there have been extensive losses from sites nominally under the control of the Syrian government and anti-Islamic State rebel forces.

Abdulkarim tries to keep track of it all and is ecumenically angry at any group that smuggles antiquities. Most nights, the 48-year-old archaeologist said he can’t sleep, plagued by anxiety about thousands of historical sites under his supervision that he feels powerless to protect. His employees continue to work all over Syria, including in areas controlled by the Islamic State, as well as less extreme factions.

Before the Islamic State took the city, archaeologists had moved all the smaller artifacts to Damascus for safekeeping. It wasn’t possible to take the 15-ton Lion of Athena statue, so they hid it on the Palmyra site in a metal box packed with sand. The Islamic State carefully unpacked the statue so they could wrap it in explosives and destroy it.

“We protected it from accidental damage,” Abdulkarim said. “We were never expecting intentional destruction.”

Abdulkarim’s guardians of Palmyra’s heritage still operate there on the government’s payroll — but surreptitiously. Their local guru, archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, was widely beloved in Palmyra and was beheaded by the Islamic State in August.

The men in Palmyra watching over the city’s heritage send Abdulkarim photos and reports by WhatsApp. He was in the middle of a conference in early October — paradoxically, the subject was post-war planning to rebuild and repair Syria’s monuments — when he learned by chat message that the Islamic State had destroyed Palmyra’s triple arch.

In some locations, Abdulkarim said, employees of his office, the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, have mobilized locals to protect heritage sites from rebels and, in some cases, have persuaded rebels themselves to help. In others, they have simply documented the destruction.

“Look at these, for example,” he said, pulling up a chat thread on his smartphone. He swiped through a series of photographs of broken statues and artifacts from a site in Idlib province. The names of rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Shaheed were spray-painted on the walls. “I can’t publish these yet, in order to protect my informant.”

But even as much of the country remains beyond his grasp, Abdulkarim has set about preserving whatever artifacts he can get his hands on. His first act was to close every museum in the country and ship every portable object into secret vaults for safekeeping. As a result, he said, 99 percent of the artifacts from the museum in Palmyra were spared the looting and destruction of the Islamic State.

The bare exhibition halls of the National Museum in Damascus are now a staging ground for teams of archaeologists and workers who process the rescued artifacts. One of Abdulkarim’s former students, archaeologist Mayassa Deeb, put on hold her doctoral dissertation to supervise a team that photographs and then carefully packages artifacts from around the country.

“Because of the war, they asked all the archaeologists to work,” Deeb said. Many of her colleagues have fled to Europe, and the government’s rescue effort is short-staffed. “They need us.”

In Deir Ezzor, now an Islamic State stronghold on the Iraq-Syria border, employees of the antiquities and museums directorate hurriedly wrapped 16,000 cuneiform tablets in paper towels, packed them in plastic boxes, and shipped them to Damascus. For the last five months, Deeb’s team has been processing them: Each one is photographed, added to a database for researchers, and then carefully wrapped in linen. The tablets are placed in small Tupperware containers, which are then packed in wooden crates lined with thick foam for storage in a safe location.

Today, Abdulkarim’s desultory agenda reflects the sad state of Syria’s civil war, which has engulfed almost every community in the country. He tries to keep track of what sites have been destroyed, damaged, or looted. In areas restored to government control, like the Krak de Chevaliers castle and some other Crusader sites on the coast, he has already begun repairs. And for those areas heavily damaged, like the Old City and Citadel of Aleppo and Palmyra, he resolutely coordinates plans so that restoration can begin immediately upon the end of hostilities.

If plans and personnel aren’t in place to immediately secure heritage sites, Abdulkarim fears the post-war period could cause even more damage, as looters move in or returning civilians build on or accidentally deface important sites.

“We have two choices,” he said, his voice rising. “Either we stay as we are in silence: sad, passive, watching. The second choice is the Syrian army must advance on Palmyra with the help of the international community: Russia, the United States, everyone.”

Although he’s talking about one ancient city, it also sounds like he’s talking about his entire country — a place where a secular Muslim with Armenian and Kurdish ancestry like himself could make a career out of studying the millennium-old civilizations that had their roots in the Syrian landscape: “All the world must save a civilization that is in the process of getting wiped out.”

Why ISIS’ destruction of antiquities hurts so much

Posted March 11th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

THE ISLAMIC STATE long ago pushed beyond society’s boundaries with its shocking acts of violence and repression. In choreographed, well-documented acts clearly intended to horrify people under its control and across the world, the militant group, also known as ISIS, has produced a parade of horrors: It has enslaved Yazidi women. It has murdered hundreds of defenseless people on camera after all manner of torture. It has thrown homosexuals to their death from towers.

And yet, when the movement’s brazen fundamentalists took sledgehammers and bulldozers to the remains of the ancient Assyrian civilization in Nineveh province at the end of February, the sense of outrage and loss that they provoked was astounding. Here was a totalitarian movement that had banned everything from smoking to the teaching of biology in the sprawling, nation-sized territory under its control, and which had produced so many televised murders that close observers had become inured. So what was it about the slow-motion video of glassy-eyed fundamentalists smashing statues to the ground that elicited such a pained reaction? Why did the attack on the Mosul Museum hit such a nerve?

On the day that the footage first began to circulate of the rampage in Mosul, I was with a Lebanese journalist who has spent more than four decades absorbed in war, either living through it or covering it obsessively. She has watched countless videos of murder, torture, and combat from the Syrian war as part of her job. Despite all that, the museum’s destruction was too much for her. Not a drop of blood had been spilled, but it opened in her the floodgates of hopelessness.

“That’s it, it’s gone. When they’re done, all our culture will be gone,” she said, in tears. “If I want to see the great history of my region, I’ll have to visit a museum in London.”

Her reaction wasn’t unique. The Islamic State’s acts of cultural destruction have prompted profound grief among people who already are deeply engaged with the loss of human life: humanitarians, activists, politicians, scholars, journalists — the small community that has continued to pay attention to the conflict even when most of the world hasn’t been interested.

Over and over, I encountered hardened observers of the Middle East who admitted to breaking into tears upon learning of the Mosul Museum’s fate. Iraqi-American constitutional scholar Feisal Istrabadi choked up, unable to speak for several minutes in recalling his reaction. “Why, when we’ve seen people burnt alive, murdered in ways that you wouldn’t butcher an animal, does this resonate to much?” he said finally. “I can’t explain it.”

Why does the nihilistic effort to wipe out an ancient civilization echo so strongly? For people in the region already reeling from the epic human cost in families divided, displaced, and grieving so many murdered, the answer begins with a senseless loss of life now accentuated by a crude erasing of the historical record.

“They are killing the diversity of this region,” says Hélène Sader, an archaeologist at the American University of Beirut who has spent her career studying the ancient Assyrian civilization whose most precious artifacts and sites might have been annihilated in the last few weeks. “This is ethnic cleansing. You throw the people out, erase their history, and you can claim they were never there.”

ACCORDING TO still-emerging reports from the ancient cities of Nimrod and Hatra, members of the Islamic State group have bulldozed some of the Middle East’s most impressively preserved excavation sites, including entire temples and some of the most familiar ancient symbols, like the winged-bull statues that stand at the gates of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II.

In the video circulated at the end of February, a deadpan Islamic State member intones what he claims is the religious obligation to destroy all false idols, a museum gallery in the background. “Since God commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey,” says the unnamed narrator of the video, which, like most ISIS propaganda offerings, is slickly produced.

Footage then shows a crew rampaging through the Mosul Museum with sledgehammers, knocking statues to the ground and pounding them into rubble, and tearing other artifacts from their wall mountings. Slow-motion replays show the artifacts shattering. The video ends with what appears to be a pair of ISIS members taking power tools to an enormous statue at the entrance to Nimrod, a sprawling ancient site outside Mosul.

This symbolic destruction goes hand in hand with a very tangible decimation of the minority communities of northern Iraq, including the Assyrian Christians who identify as direct descendants of the people who once occupied Hatra and Nimrod.

There were as many as 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Islamic extremists began targeting Christians for kidnapping, beheading, and assassination. Hundreds of thousands fled to Syria and the West. Today, an estimated 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq. ISIS militants have massacred another, smaller minority, the Yazidis. Any survivors have been enslaved.

The Islamic State has openly embraced an extreme project: to establish a fundamentalist realm unlike any ever before encountered in the history of Islam. Some minorities would be permitted to live in submission, but others, specifically members of religious sects considered deviant, would be wiped out, including Shiite Muslims or mainstream Sunnis who reject the vision of the Islamic State.

“It’s a remarkable form of monotheism,” Elliott Colla, a professor of Arabic literature at Georgetown University who has written about conflicts over antiquities in the Arab world, said in an e-mail. “They attack any objects that people worship, be it tombs where Shiites venerate saints or temples where non-Muslims worship. In this context, it is natural that they would also target museums, since these also represent false forms of worship.”

The gleeful nature of the propaganda suggests that perhaps the Islamic State leaders know that the destruction of antiquities will provoke the kind of global outrage the organization seems to relish. Those who don’t fit — conservative Sunni tribesmen who refuse the authority of the ISIS “caliph,” smokers, alleged homosexuals, religious minorities, intellectuals — are gruesomely executed, often in videotaped ceremonies that are then widely broadcast to others.

Nuri Kino, an Assyrian now living in Sweden, founded the group A Demand for Actionto call attention to the plight of minorities in Syria and Iraq. Stretching back to the Ottoman genocide against the Armenians in 1915, Kino points to an unending cycle of attacks on Christians in the Middle East. The Islamic State, in his view, has just accelerated a dismal trend.

“We are fleeing from one place to the other. We have been doing it for 100 years,” Kino said. “Yes, Muslims are, of course, also heavily affected — and killed — in the war, but there is a difference: They want to erase us, our history, people, and religion.”

NATURALLY IT’S a shock to contemplate another unfolding genocide, especially for a generation raised with the slogan “never again” and a living memory of the Nazi Holocaust, which was followed for complex reasons by the departure of most Middle Eastern Jews from Arab countries.

And the loss of antiquities should pale in light of the human loss in the region. It would be easy, then, to dismiss the outpouring of concern as a kind of vanity, or worse, as inhumanity.

Countless Syrian activists have suggested as much, lamenting that some Westerners appear to care more about the smashing of a winged lion than about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings. “When did we start caring about history? Now we want to carve our new history, so we forgot our old one,” said an activist in Homs reached by Skype, who goes by the pseudonym Abu Yamen because he is still fighting the Syrian regime. “I don’t understand why the whole world feels sorry for the destruction of a couple of statues and not for the people who are being killed every day.”

But that doesn’t change the pain caused by the iconoclastic destruction of Hatra, Nimrod, and the Mosul Museum collection. Nor explain it.

One theory offered by several close observers has to do with the crime of erasing history. Murder, mayhem, and terror reverberate throughout the ages, says Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi, but attempts to purge a group and its memory entirely out of existence are relatively rare. Before the rash of genocides in the 20th century, he said, the next previous crime of equal magnitude might have been the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258, when Hulagu Khan burnt the library, slaughtered so many people that the Tigris ran red with blood, and erected a pyramid of skulls to deter others who might resist him.

“The spectacle of destroying a 2,500-year-old statue is meant to telegraph naked power,” Khalidi said in an interview.

The Islamic State, he added, has invented an entirely new, ahistorical vision of society, misleadingly packaged as Islamic and which it is willing to go to any length to force into being.

Traditionally, conquerors in history absorb subjected populations, incorporating their architecture, culture, even some of their religious practices or deities. The Islamic State is bucking that path with its outright assault on the historical record. Murder and warfare are the organization’s central tools, but the willingness to transcend taboos respected for millennia adds another level of horror.

“They are postmodern authoritarians,” Khalidi explained. “These are people from the belly of the beast: a snuff movie, war game, YouTube, and Google beast. This is not a Middle Eastern beast.”

Then there’s also the rift between the Islamic State and the Muslims it purports to represent.

The Islamic State has undoubtedly found some support within the Sunni community, some of it from true believers and some from opportunists in Syria and Iraq who see the group as a convenient spearhead. It has taken advantage of that support to accumulate power and wealth, which it has used to trumpet a vision of a pure, monotheistic, and fiery society without any precedent Islamic history. The Prophet Mohammed shattered the pagan idols that were being worshiped in Mecca and which directly competed with his new monotheism — but the century of Islamic conquest that followed left intact the monuments and relics of other faiths. Only the 18th-century fundamentalist Wahhabis of the Arabian Peninsula went after symbols with similar zeal, but they weren’t operating in an area as packed with historical artifacts as northern Iraq.

There’s plenty of reason, too, for tolerant Middle Easterners to feel their identity is under assault from many directions. Sectarian militias dominate Iraq and Syria. Torrents of money from the Arabian Peninsula promote the intolerant strains of Wahhabi-inflected Salafi Islam, the progenitor of the Islamic State’s ideology. Secular and nationalist identities are in retreat, while narrow religious and sectarian ones are ascendant.

Salafi sheikhs in Egypt have suggested demolishing the pyramids and Sphinx, or covering the faces of “idolatrous” Pharaonic statues with wax, acts of iconoclasm endorsed in a 2012 fatwa. Mainstream religious scholars around the region have decried the destruction in Iraq and warn against its replication elsewhere.

In just one week of massive historical vandalism, the Islamic State has produced a stark coda to a century that has transformed the Middle East from one of the world’s most diverse and cosmopolitan regions into a sterile, ethnically cleansed patchwork.

“It’s never about artifacts. It’s about people’s right to exist, their right to live in their homeland,” says Zainab Bahrani, a Columbia University archaeologist who has worked as an antiquities adviser for the Iraqi government. “You destroy people’s history by destroying their monuments and artifacts. It’s similar to having the Athenian acropolis destroyed, or thugs going to Versailles and blowing up the whole palace.”

Bahrani was one of the first to sound the alarm about the importance of cultural objects in 2003, when the Baghdad Museum was looted during the US invasion. At the time Istrabadi, the constitutional scholar and her cousin, recalls telling Bahrani that the overthrow of the tyrant Saddam Hussein was worth the loss of some prized objects.

Bahrani got angry: “This is our entire historical identity,” she told him.

Now, more than a decade later, both cousins have left Iraq. Their extended family exemplified a mid-20th century ideal of cosmopolitan, secular Sunnis who felt at home throughout the Arab world and beyond, choosing their friends without regard to religion or nationality.

Istrabadi has come around to his cousin’s way of seeing things.

Iraq, the place that gave the world written language and the first code of law, today plays host to its most savage nihilists — and as much as he would like to think otherwise, Istrabadi believes that there is some constituency for the Islamic State’s program of destruction and cultural erasure.

“For those of us who hold a belief in the ascent of man, it refutes the idea that we’re heading to a better level of humanity,” he said. “It’s just incredible to watch. I feel helpless. ”

The statues, for Istrabadi, were the final straw. For everything else, he said, you can fool yourself “we can have a better tomorrow, we can turn back the sectarian tide,” he said. “Someone destroys a 3,000-year-old statue with a sledgehammer, there’s no bringing that back. There’s no fooling yourself. It’s proof that these people are not a transient phenomenon. They will be defeated, but they will leave a residue behind.”