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?

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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

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