Eakin on the destruction at Palmyra

Louis Vignes, Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, Syria (1864)
Louis Vignes, Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, Syria (1864)

In an essay in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Hugh Eakin criticizes the actions of UNESCO, the United States, and Russia in the wake of the retaking of Palmyra from the Islamic State.

For all the pageantry, the retaking of Palmyra has served as a powerful reminder of how detached from reality the international campaign to save Syria’s endangered cultural heritage has been. Chastened by the damage wrought in recent wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mali, Western leaders, cultural officials, UNESCO, and even the UN Security Council have for several years now devoted unprecedented attention to the threats to sites in Syria by ISIS and other extremist groups. Millions of dollars have been spent to document, with the best satellite technology available and other resources, the current condition of archaeological monuments in the areas of conflict; legal scholars have called for war crimes prosecutions against those who intentionally damage historic sites and monuments; while top officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and French President François Hollande, have long warned of the cost of Western inaction. Above all, a continuous series of initiatives have been aimed at cracking down on the international trade in looted Syrian antiquities, often described as a major revenue source for ISIS.

He argues instead that the best progress will likely come as a result of action done by local populations:

For many Syrians, the international response has been baffling. While speaking constantly of ISIS, whose destructive acts they can do little about, Western leaders and cultural officials have mostly overlooked the grave damage that is occurring in many other parts of Syria—often in areas where preventive steps can be taken. And for all the extraordinary expressions of concern for the fate of the country’s museums, monuments, and artwork, hardly anything has been said about the relation of these sites to the communities surrounding them, which are often deeply attached to them. (One of the few Western scholars who has is the historian Glen Bowersock, who observed last year in the NYR Daily that there is a “tradition of Palmyrene achievements that really means something to the Arab world.”)

. . .

During the civil war in Beirut (1975–1990), when the National Museum of Beirut was on the front lines of the conflict, it was the museum’s own curator, Emir Maurice Chehab, who saved much of the collection, including Phoenician sarcophagi and monumental statuary, by encasing them in concrete in the basement. In Afghanistan, the Bamiyan Buddhas were lost, despite huge international outcry; but the National Museum’s Bactrian Hoard—more than 20,000 extraordinary gold, silver, and ivory objects from a Bronze Age burial site—was quietly saved, thanks to the courage and ingenuity of a group of Afghan curators who kept them hidden for years in a vault under the Central Bank in Kabul. And in Timbuktu, when jihadists overran the city in 2012, intent on wiping out the city’s extraordinary medieval Islamic heritage, it was local librarians who spirited away to safety thousands of rare manuscripts—by truck and canoe.

  1. Hugh Eakin, Ancient Syrian Sites: A Different Story of Destruction, The New York Review of Books, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/09/29/ancient-syrian-sites-palmyra-destruction/.
  2. Claire Voon, Getty Research Institute Acquires 150-Year-Old Photographs of Palmyra and Beirut, Hyperallergic (Oct., 2015), http://hyperallergic.com/241541/getty-research-institute-acquires-150-year-old-photographs-of-palmyra-and-beirut/.

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