Op-Ed: Syria will need its culture

The Temple of Baal Shamin, in kappier times
The Temple of Baal Shamin, in happier times Photo: Joseph Eid

In yesterday’s Houston Chronicle, I argued that Museums and arts patrons need to follow the example of the Menil Foundation and offer safe harbor for works of art: Continue reading “Op-Ed: Syria will need its culture”

Profile of Syrian Preservation Group

“A human life doesn’t have much value without culture to go with it” says Markus Hilgert, director of the Pergamon Museum. He’s interviewed in a CNN profile of Heritage for Peace, a group working to document the destruction taking place there. The group walks a delicate line, trying not to take a stand in the dispute. The group has limited funding and works with a number of volunteers with founder Isber Sabrine:

A 29-year-old archaeologist from a village near the Mediterranean coast in western Syria, Sabrine is using modern technology to trace and document the looting and destruction of his country’s ancient heritage.

Working from Berlin, he runs a network in Syria of around 150 volunteers — archaeologists, architects, students and simply concerned citizens — who often pose as antiquities buyers to see what has been stolen in the course of Syria’s now more than four-year uprising. He communicates with them via Skype when the Internet in Syria is working, which isn’t often.

“They go to the locals and they say look, we are interested. They cannot buy, but at least they make photos and they send us photos,” says Sabrine. “Like this we have a list of looted materials from Syria.”

That list is shared with law enforcement, auction houses and collectors. CNN asked if we could publish some of those photographs — we saw statues, mosaics and coins — but Sabrine declined for fear the photos might expose the volunteers.

After years of chaos, the market for stolen antiquities is flooded, and dealers are holding back some of their most valuable items. “We know that the most important objects don’t go to market now,” says Sabrine. “The big dealers are waiting, maybe two, three or four years, and then when the opportunity is right, they will sell.”

  1. Ben Wedeman, Syria’s Struggle to Save the Past – CNN.com, CNN.

The lack of options to combat heritage loss in Syria

A bust from the Palmyra Museum, likely representing Odenaethus are ruler of Palmyra in the second half of the 3rd century who fought a successful campaign against Persia.
A bust from the Palmyra Museum, likely representing Odenaethus a ruler of Palmyra in the second half of the 3rd century who fought a successful campaign against Persia.

In remarks marking the opening of the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany yesterday, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova asked for help from the international community:

Heritage is under attack today. In Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, we see the brutal and deliberate destruction of heritage on an unprecedented scale. This is a call for action . . . Our response to ignorance and criminal stupidity, must also have a cultural dimension: knowledge, the sharing of Islam’s millennial learning and wisdom, sharing the message of Palmyra, the ‘Venice of the Sands’, that is like a bridge between the legacies of ancient Greece and Rome, the Persian Empire and the Arab culture from ancient times to the present. . .

That is a wonderful sentiment, and one I endorse, but note also that there are not calls for much in the way of concrete action. And that’s because short of military intervention there really is not much that can be done to dissuade those bent on erasing heritage. In a statement today the UNESCO World Heritage Committee stated its deep concern about the situation in Palmyra:

Intentional attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes and historic monuments may amount to war crimes . . .

So it may amount to war crimes, yet the International Criminal Court has no good opening to bring charges even if it wanted to. That’s because neither Syria nor Iraq has signed on to the ICC convention, and the individuals who commit this destruction are not high-profile enough it seems to warrant an ICC investigation and prosecution anyway. And so the end result is there is an accountability gap for this destruction.

Marina Lostal arrived at the disappointing conclusion that prosecution of ISIS iconoclasts is difficult under current law:

[T]he legal bases for prosecuting individuals for violations of the 1954 Hague Convention and the World Heritage Convention are largely absent. Those responsible may be prosecuted under the Syrian Antiquities Law, a law that was presumably approved independently of those conventions and hence present a number of caveats explained above. If the Chautauqua Blueprint is successful, it would turn a blind eye to three major causes of damage (viz. looting, use for military purposes, attacks against sites that constitute military objectives) allowing those behind this vicious circle of violations to “walk away.” This is especially frustrating if one takes into consideration that the driving force behind the adoption of conventional laws for the protection of cultural property has mostly been motivated by a desire to hold individuals accountable. The accountability gap shown in the case of Syria should serve those involved in the implementation of cultural heritage laws (e.g., UNESCO, the World Heritage Committee at the international level) as a warning that the 2003 UNESCO Declaration, or any other instrument before that, did not manage to have consequences for Bamiyan or beyond.

So if there is one thing that can be done, it may be to consider reforms to the current laws to hold those who destroy heritage individually accountable. But that change would have little impact on the current conflict in Syria.

DAVID RISING Associated Press, UN: Islamic State Destruction of Heritage Sites a War Crime, ABC News (Jun. 29, 2015), http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/islamic-state-destruction-heritage-sites-war-crime-32100589.

United Nations News Service Section, UN News – As World Heritage Committee opens session, UNESCO urges protection of sites targeted for destruction, UN News Service Section (Jun. 28, 2015), http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51279.

Sangwon Yoon, Islamic State Is Selling Looted Art Online for Needed Cash, Bloomberg.com, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-28/isis-has-new-cash-cow-art-loot-it-s-peddling-on-ebay-facebook.

Derek Fincham, Display of Islamic Art Exposes Terrorists’ Lie, Houston Chronicle, Apr. 3, 2015, http://www.chron.com/opinion/outlook/article/Fincham-Display-of-Islamic-art-exposes-6178172.php.

Marina Lostal, Syria’s World Cultural Heritage and Individual Criminal Responsibility, 2015 International Review of Law 3 (2015).

 

Palmyra as Propaganda Success

Thge Temple of Bel complex in Palmyra Syria, taken in 2010, one of the best-known at-risk sites in Syria
Thge Temple of Bel complex in Palmyra Syria, taken in 2010, one of the best-known at-risk sites in Syria

“We must try . . . to remain calm”.

So says Stefan Weber, Director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin in an interview with Sönje Storm of DWThe entire interview is well worth a read, but of particular note are his comments on how we can prepare for the time after the armed conflict in Syria, and how paying too much attention to the destruction at Palmyra can distract us from the human suffering taking place there, and also gives ISIS more credibility:

Continue reading “Palmyra as Propaganda Success”

Bauer on the Implications of the Destruction in Syria and Iraq

Thge Temple of Bel complex in Palmyra Syria, taken in 2010, one of the best-known at-risk sites in Syria
The Temple of Bel complex in Palmyra Syria, taken in 2010, one of the best-known at-risk sites in Syria

Alexander Bauer, Chief Editor of the International Journal of Cultural Property has written an editorial arguing the destruction in Iraq and Syria though tragic also allows new approaches which can move beyond the old entrenched cultural property arguments. From the introduction:

In the dozen years I have edited the IJCP, I have chosen not to write editorials, as I have preferred to let the content of the journal speak for itself. As this issue was going to press, however, a series of events unfolded that I felt needed to be addressed. Over the past months, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (“IS”)—an armed militia with neo-medieval political aspirations in war-torn Syria and Iraq—has undertaken a direct assault on the archaeological remains of northern Mesopotamia, claiming that such art is idolatrous and thus forbidden in Islamic law. While looting of archaeological sites has been widespread and systematic in the region for at least the past two years, the destruction garnered international headlines in February and March 2015 when IS put sledgehammers to Assyrian statues and other artifacts in the museum of Mosul, then proceeded to bulldoze and ransack the spectacular sites of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra, among others. The wantonness and scale of these destructive acts have been shocking, and certainly for anyone concerned with the preservation of cultural heritage, a terrible tragedy. This almost immediately brings to mind parallels with the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, whose destruction fueled a resurgence of arguments in favor of Western museums’ collection of antiquities in order to “save” them from a similar fate. Of course, the Bamiyan episode was not so straightforward, and in some ways, the efforts of Western organizations to intervene on the Buddhas’ behalf may have made matters worse.  Arguably, the destruction in Iraq and Syria is even more widespread, insidious, and complicated. It is thus difficult to know how best to respond to it, and what the implications of any responses will be.

In spite of the complexity of the situation, I want to address and critically confront three reactions that are likely to develop or be reinvigorated within current debate on how to respond to such destruction. It is my hope that we can use these terrible events to discuss new ways of approaching the issues of heritage acquisition and preservation rather than fall back into old and counterproductive positions.

It’s an important statement, and one that the Journal has made publicly available free of charge.

Alexander A. Bauer, Editorial: The Destruction of Heritage in Syria and Iraq and Its Implications, 22 Int’l J. of Cultural Prop. 1 (2015).

 

 

 

One Way to Counter Art Terrorists

Destruction of an unidentified king of Hatra by militants in 2015
Destruction of an unidentified king of Hatra by militants in 2015

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.

The full piece is here.

Continue reading “One Way to Counter Art Terrorists”

The men who rediscovered Assyria

An Assyrian lamassu being removed under the direction of Austen Henry Layard
An Assyrian lamassu being removed under the direction of Austen Henry Layard

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:

Continue reading “The men who rediscovered Assyria”