I argue in a Saturday Op-Ed that one way to think about the iconoclasm of so-called Islamic State militants is to value the art they would destroy:
The Islamic State militants destroy art to send a powerful and destructive message: that learning, beauty and the transformational power of art has no place in any so-called Islamic State. We can expose the lie in this message in one simple way: by supporting ancient and contemporary art from the region.
Our city demonstrates how effective an ambassador art can be. Houston stands proud as one of America’s emerging cities for terrific art from all over the world, especially art from the Middle East. Works of art that formed the Houston-based FotoFest 2014 Biennial are currently on display at the Emirates Palace Gallery in Abu Dhabi. Also, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) has an outstanding collection of Islamic art spanning the 9th to early 20th centuries; beautiful calligraphy and other decorative art that demonstrates the region’s commitment to learning and beauty.
We should encourage the MFA and other museums to responsibly display more works of Islamic art from this troubled region. By countering the vile message of the Islamic State by consuming and valuing Islamic art, we value and preserve what they would destroy.
Daniel Silas Adamson has an outstanding longread which lays out the 19th century history of the three figures who were largely responsible for rediscovering Assyrian civiliztion: George Smith, Hormuzd Rassam, and Austen Henry Layard. He also puts the current destruction of art by the so-called Islamic State in context. Here’s a terrific account of the emergence of the epic of Gilgamesh:
There has been a series of reports which shows self-declared Islamic State militants causing severe damage to antiquities and heritage sites in Iraq and Syria: at the museum in Mosul, perhaps causing destruction at sites such as the Nergal gate in Ninevah, perhaps destruction at Hatra, and maybe even damage to the ancient city of Ninevah as well. The volume of reporting is hard to digest fully, but the news is almost all very very bad.
Reporting on these events is exceedingly difficult as these areas are controlled by the so-called Islamic State. When we consider that foreign reporters and aid workers have been kidnapped and killed in public executions when their ransoms are not paid, we can see how precarious and difficult it will be, and how patient we all must be in waiting for confirmation of destruction.
Three academics (Amr Al-Azm, Salam al-Kuntar, and Brian I. Daniels) who have been training Syrian preservationists in Southern Turkey have some more anecdotal insights into how deep the connection between ISIS and the illicit antiquities trade is in an OpEd appearing in the International NY Times:
In extensive conversations with those working and living in areas currently under ISIS control, we learned that ISIS is indeed involved in the illicit antiquities trade, but in a way that is more complex and insidious than we expected. (Our contacts and sources, whom we cannot name for reasons of their safety, continue their work under the most dangerous of conditions.)
ISIS does not seem to have devoted the manpower of its army to the active work of looting archaeological sites. Rather, its involvement is financial. In general, ISIS permits local inhabitants to dig at these sites in exchange for a percentage of the monetary value of any finds.
The group’s rationale for this levy is the Islamic khums tax, according to which Muslims are required to pay a percentage of the value of any goods or treasure recovered from the ground. ISIS claims to be the legitimate recipient of such proceeds.
The amount levied for the khums varies by region and the type of object recovered. In ISIS-controlled areas at the periphery of Aleppo Province in Syria, the khums is 20 percent. In the Raqqa region, the levy can reach up to 50 percent or even higher if the finds are from the Islamic period (beginning in the early-to-mid-seventh century) or made of precious metals like gold.
The scale of looting varies considerably under this system, and much is left to the discretion of local ISIS leaders. For a few areas, such as the ancient sites along Euphrates, ISIS leaders have encouraged digging by semiprofessional field crews. These teams are often from Iraq and are applying and profiting from their experience looting ancient sites there. They operate with a “license” from ISIS, and an ISIS representative is assigned to oversee their work to ensure the proper use of heavy machinery and to verify accurate payment of the khums.
But how much exactly does this amount to? The answer is difficult to quantify. As Sam Hardy points out, the recent claim that ISIS has garnered $36m from antiquities looted in its territory is likely inaccurate:
I can only reiterate that it is (literally) unimaginable that the Islamic State is making $36m from a 0.2%-0.4% share of the market value of the antiquities that have been looted from one district under its rule (as $36m from a 20% khums tax on looters’ and traffickers’ own 1%-2% share would imply a trade value of $9b-$18b of antiquities from al-Nabk alone).
NPR yesterday featured an interview with Christopher Dickey, foreign editor for the Daily Beast, discussing the risks posed to antiquities in Mosul:
Well, what’s at risk are some beautiful monumental sculptures, these winged figures, lions and bulls, with the faces of bearded men – Kings, that clearly were idols in the time of the Assyrians. But that are now part and parcel of the history of Western civilization and biblical history especially. And then we’ve also got gorgeous gold jewelry which certainly will go onto the black market and all kinds of smaller pieces of sculpture, earthenware, the kinds of things that give you the texture as well as the beauty of life in that period. So it’s a rich museum but all of that collection is now in the hands of ISIS.
Museums and the field of archaeology often have an uneasy relationship. Archaeologists deal in context, unearthing the history with careful study. Museums have varied missions. Some display fine art, some focus on amassing as many masterpieces as possible, others attempt to teach, or aim to give an overview of a certain period of art, or even all of human history in the case of the massive “universal” museums. But few museums grapple with archaeology in a meaningful way; and few archaeologists, apart from those who work to prevent the illicit trade in antiquities, concern themselves with museums.
That is a shame I think. The preservation of archaeological sites needs financial and material support from governments and non-governmental organizations. That support must be demanded by an interested public. Archaeologists cannot simply work in isolation without engaging the broader public in what it is that they do. Forward-thinking archaeologists would be wise to examine a powerful exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago: The Way of the Shovel: Art as Archaeology.
A glimmer of good news from Iraq, where cultural heritage has sustained so much damage. Martin Bailey reports for the Art Newspaper that the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad could reopen as soon as next year. The museum (and other in Iraq) were shuttered during the 1991 Gulf War, and have only intermittently reopened in the subsequent two decades.
The main obstacle given to reopening the Baghdad museum is the lack of a new entrance building, needed to strengthen security and provide facilities, such as a café. Initially it was to be a replica of the Ishtar Gate at Babylon, but this idea was dropped as it was thought to be too gimmicky. Building work has now started on a more conventional entrance building. The tense security situation in Baghdad has also contributed to the decade-long delay. Most of the Baghdad museum’s curatorial and administrative staff of 130 are working on a database of the collection, which Eden said numbers more than 500,000 objects (around half are antiquities and the remainder individual coins). Only 50,000 items have been added to the database after years of work, so at this rate it will take many decades to complete. The labelling of antiquities in the galleries is rudimentary and needs improving.
And there are even plans to convert one of Saddam Hussein’s many palaces to a new museum with antiquities and exhibits describing Sumer, Babylon and Ashur.
The first phase of the building work involving the palace’s exterior and installing security measures was completed a year ago, but the second phase has been delayed because the lengthy process of electing a new governor for Basra province has slowed down the tender process. Qahtan Al Abeed said that the museum’s interior should be completed in a year.