Robert Fisk: The cost of war must be measured by human tragedy, not artefacts

What does heritage matter in the face of such tragic desolation?

Share

What is a child’s life worth against all the antiquities of Syria? 

Any reflection of Syria’s architectural disasters must include this question.  The child, a humanitarian must say, is worth all the columns of Palmyra and mosques of Damascus.  The child, a cold-hearted historian might suggest, could be sacrificed for the heritage of all future children.  The pragmatist must announce that both the child and the heritage should be saved.  Alas, both are being destroyed in Syria.

The inner burning of the Omayyad mosque in Aleppo, the city’s soukh, the Roman Dead Cities of northern Syria – which have acquired new ghosts as thousands of refugees now hide in the tombs and ruins of antiquity – are the latest victims of the war of archeology.

And Emma Cunliffe of Durham University sums up the dilemma succinctly in the latest issue of ‘British Archeology’.  If there are 60,000 – 70,000 – dead, with winter snow burying refugee tent communities, with gas and power shortages in shattered cities, “what does heritage matter in the face of such tragic desolation”?

Cunliffe, who is developing ways to monitor damage to Middle East archeological sites – more accurately, I hope, than the UN puts together the human variety – has produced a remarkably even-handed report which lays blame on both the regime and the rebels for the damage to Syria’s heritage.  While still not on the post-2003 Iraqi scale, “there now appear to be established networks (on the opposition side) that circumvent official inspection…Seizures of several thousand unmarked artifacts on the Syrian border, including pottery, coins, mosaics, statues, sculptures, writings and glassworks suggest the extent of looting could be vast.”  Perhaps, Cunliffe says, the trade in stolen Syrian antiquities now stands at more than Pounds Sterling 1.25 billion, Cunliffe. 

In Palmyra, however, it appears to be government army bullets that have scarred the Roman pillars and government army tracks that have used the Roman roads – not unlike the American Humvees which blithely crushed the highways of Babylon in 2003 – while in Homs (and Cunliffe does not apportion blame here), the Cathedral of Um al-Zennar, one of the city’s oldest churches “now lies in ruins, its worshippers, dead and scattered, its ancient Aramaic liturgy silenced.”  It was one of the world’s oldest churches, its site dating back to AD59, containing a belt said to belong to the Virgin Mary.  If you want to search for responsibility, I suppose, then you must ask:  who was the first to use firearms in this Syrian bloodbath?

Ever since the Independent on Sunday first gave large-scale publicity to the destruction of Syria’s heritage, both sides in the war have used the damage in their own cause.  Free Syrian Army officers have vouchsafed to prevent all looting – a dubious claim since the Jordanian markets are now flooded with Syrian gold, mosaics and statues – and have even used Roman Palmyra in a propaganda U-tube.  Produced by the ‘Media Centre for the city of Tadmor (Palmyra)’, a horseman gallops across the screen bearing the FSA’s green, white and black flag in front of the Roman columns of the city’s Via Maxima.

Interestingly, however, the Syrian government’s own minister for antiquities, Professor Maamoun Abdul-Karim, has appealed to all Syrians – whatever their attitude to the Assad regime – to protect the country’s architectural treasures because “it is everyone’s responsibility (to) work together to protect those antiquities.”  While acknowledging severe damage to some Roman heritage sites in the north, he praises local villagers for driving away looters and diggers.  The locals, it would appear, realise that a town without antiquities is a town that will never earn tourist money in post-war Syria.

There are a few intriguing notes in Abdul-Karim’s appeal.  Government forces, he claims, have confiscated 400 items, beads, coins, statues and mosaic panels “though some of them were fake”.   Where, in heaven’s name, did the fakes come from?  The minister also assures us that the vast bulk of treasures have been secured in “safe places”.  But where are all these ‘safe places’?  And if they are so safe, why do the internally-placed refugees not flock to them?

Deir ez-Zour, now a deserted city in largely rebel hands, seems to have suffered disproportionately as looters assaulted the Acropolis, excavated sectors of the Temple of the Rock – from Bronze Age Ebla (middle of the 3 millennium BC) – and bored down through the rock for earlier artifacts.  One prominent Lebanese archeologist in the region tells me – and this one of the most disturbing characteristics of this tragic treasure-hunt – is that the smugglers are now working for the same networks created by the Iraqi looters.  A taste for treasures has now been acquired internationally – and buyers are now asking Iraqi gangs to use the same methods in Syria.  The Washington Post has been investigating rebel smuggling trails, and insurgents told the paper that an average haul can net $50,000 for weapons purchases.  “Some days we are fighters;  others we are archeologists,” an Idlib rebel told the paper, after claiming to have discovered Sumerian tablets from Ebla.

Several archeologists (the legal kind) have suggested that their approaches to NATO – even the British Ministry of Defence – led to attempts by pilots to avoid damaging Roman heritage sites in Libya in 2011, even switching munitions to avoid shrapnel spray while targeting Ghaddafi’s legions.  But there are no NATO planes over Syria, and I doubt if Syrian government pilots carry Minister Abdul-Karim’s appeal in their cockpits.   So same old question:  what is a child’s life worth?

Robert Fisk on Algeria

Buy the new Independent eBook - £1.99 Two decades of reportage on a tragic conflict the West can no longer afford to ignore - by one of the world’s great foreign correspondents

kobo iBooks Amazon Kindle

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence