Does Aleppo prove that we westerners should keep the world’s antiquities?

If the Aleppo room was still in Aleppo, and not a museum in Berlin, it might well have been destroyed, burned in the indulgence of fire which consumed much of the old city two years ago when even the great mosque and minaret of the Omayad crashed to the ground

Robert Fisk
Thursday 01 December 2016 12:04 GMT
The Ishtar Gate comes from Babylon in modern-day Iraq. Would it have survived the 1991 war on Iraq?
The Ishtar Gate comes from Babylon in modern-day Iraq. Would it have survived the 1991 war on Iraq?

The Aleppo room comes from a Christian home in the northern Syrian city; built in around 1600 it is probably the oldest surviving painted panelled room from the Ottoman empire. It is a blaze of red and ochre and crimson and inlaid doors. Hundreds of years later, the Beit al Wakil would become a hotel and this reception room was, like most ancient Syrian homes, built around a courtyard. It was a “divan”, a place where guests removed their shoes and sat on low cushions amid opulent furnishings, a unique memory of the greatest civilisation of an equally unique empire.

And what a moment, as Aleppo’s tragedy is being played out to the end, to walk around this extraordinary place. The fact that the Aleppo room belonged to a Christian family – then, as now, a minority in this great and tortured city – makes it especially valuable. Painted on the wall panels are Jesus as a child, the Last Supper, Salome dancing before Herod and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac – a scene familiar to Muslims and Jews as well as Christians – and there are five illustrations of the Virgin Mary. But there are Islamic motifs as well as wrestlers and dragons and a mythical Persian bird, tulips and hyacinths and the animals of the Creation.

Of course, if the Aleppo room was still in Aleppo, it might well have been destroyed, burned in the indulgence of fire which consumed much of the old city two years ago when even the great mosque and minaret of the Omayad crashed to the ground. But in 1912, the old Syrian Wakil family sold their Aleppo room to the Kaiser’s Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin – wood panelling was by then regarded as passé – and so this magnificent structure, a symbol of Christian-Muslim culture and probably painted by a Persian, moved to the capital of the Reich.

Aftermath of airstrike in Aleppo

Was this a blessing, a prescient saving grace that allowed this small divinity to travel thousands of kilometres to Germany and thus spare its immolation today? The massive Pergamon museum in present-day Berlin does not specifically says so – but archly implies just that. For outside the room, on the wall, the curators have affixed an aerial photograph of the ruins of the old city of Aleppo taken only last year. It shows bomb craters and roofless houses, and on the photograph is the very location of where the Aleppo Room would have stood – or not have stood – had it not been removed just over a century ago and sent to the sanctuary of civilised western Europe. It’s a perspective that is well worth dwelling upon.

For me, there was a special irony when I presented my museum ticket to the Berlin official whose job was to let me through the main door. He was not German, as I had guessed at once. I asked him in Arabic where he was from and his face lit up and he said: “Syria. I am from Qamishleh.” Ah yes, Qamishleh, cut off by pro-Syrian Kurds to the east, a hostile Turkey to the north, Isis to the south around Hassakeh, defended by a Syrian army tank unit and a parachute regiment, a mixed Sunni-Christian town where once, in the 1920s, at about the time the Wakils sold the Aleppo Room to Berlin, a certain General de Gaulle was based as a young officer in the French mandate.

But needless to say, my wicked mind had already framed the lesson of this brief encounter; a Syrian had been hired to check visitors – including me – to the European museum which had nicked his country’s antiquities in one of the biggest cultural heists of modern history. Well, hold on, you might say. The Aleppo Room was sold to the Germans – true – and many of the massive artifacts in the Pergamon would have been lost forever or destroyed in situ had they not been originally excavated at great cost by 19th- and early 20th-century Germany archaeologists. The Ishtar Gate and Processional Way – yes, you can actually see the very 6th century BC brick gate and walls painted with lions and bulls and dragons through which Nebuchadnezzar II himself must have walked – was brought in tiny fragments to Berlin after their discovery in 1902 and pieced together over many years. The Ishtar Gate comes from Babylon in modern-day Iraq. Would it have survived the 1991 war on Iraq? Or the 2003 invasion? Or the looters of 2004 and 2005 and 2006 who have gutted so much of Iraq’s southern archaeological heritage?

Yes, there is a special obscenity in merely discussing physical artefacts when Syria’s tragedy and Iraq’s tragedy approaches such horrific human dimensions of pain and death. But it remains a bleak fact that our artefacts outlive us and should exist for future generations, especially for the children of those who die in wars. So back to the Pergamon.

There are statues from the plain of Ninevah which surely would not have survived the cult-like iconoclasm of Isis – certainly not in the past two years. The vast Mshatta Palace façade is a massive 8th century Umayyad construction with a delicate weave of animals, acanthus leaves and grapevines and geometrical designs which spreads across a whole floor of the Pergamon and comes from the Syrian-Jordanian desert. It was a gift from Sultan Abdul Hamid II to Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902. Suffice it to say that despite his artistic generosity, Abdul Hamid was the Sultan who gave his name to the Hamidian massacres of at least 80,000 Armenians less than a decade earlier – and Wilhelm was the chap who lost the First World War and helped to doom the very Ottoman Empire which so admired him.

But behind both the artifacts and their history lies, as I said, this dark suspicion of racist supremacy: that we civilised western folk are far better qualified to look after these magnificent relics than the locals who keep fighting each other and overturning their regimes. Look at the Egyptian treasures stolen during Mubarak’s overthrow. If the Germans had “saved” Palmyra’s Temple of Bel and Triumphal Arch in the 19th or early 20th century, we would still be able to see them – albeit in Berlin – rather than finger their explosive-blasted slivers of stone as I did a few weeks ago in Palmyra. I suppose Isis would have blown up a colonnade instead.

But it’s not just Germany we are talking about here. We Brits have clung on to the Parthenon frieze – from a Parthenon used as a gunpowder store in the 17th century and subsequently blown up – because Lord Elgin grabbed the sculptures in the 19th century and sent them back to England, again with the indulgence and permission of the Ottomans. We could never send them back because the Greeks had nowhere to put them. And when the Greeks did build just such a museum, we still didn’t send them back. The French still keep the Rosetta Stone; after all, it was M Champollion who deciphered its hieroglyphs, not the local Egyptians. And museums as far away as Belfast have their clusters of Egyptian mummies.

So do we not have a right to these treasures, if only to spare them the destruction at the hands of their own descendants in faraway wars? Well, there’s a few telling moments in Berlin’s own history books and there’s a revealing page in the Pergamon’s own guidebook which shows the state of the great museum after the RAF had staged their thousand-bomber raids on Berlin. The roof has collapsed. The great Mshatta Palace façade had to be reassembled and restored all over again after bombs had smashed it apart. Perhaps the most impressive of all architectural remains in the Pergamon – the Roman Miletus Market Gate, standing well over 50 feet tall with intricate tracery and columns – was smashed to pieces in one RAF raid and had to be “restored” all over again – which must have taken quite a bit of “imaginative” recreation given a photograph taken after the destruction. Then the East Germans made a botch of some of the “restoration” – and the whole thing had to be “restored” once more!

So I’m not so sure than the “civilised” West really has the right to claim a “safe” reception area for the world’s treasures. London couldn’t protect its Wren churches from the Nazis, Warsaw’s great archives and museums were dynamited by the SS. The Germans squirrelled away a lot of their museum masterpieces in the Second World War – that which they could physically move – and kept them safe (along with a mass of looted treasures from other people’s museums) but that’s no guarantee. And when it comes to Ottoman artefacts, we couldn’t stop the Croat army destroying the magnificent bridge linking Muslim to Christian districts in the Bosnian city of Mostar in 1993. And that was in Europe, not the Middle East.

But walking round the Aleppo room, I wonder. Would we really want to send this masterpiece back to a rebuilt Aleppo? Would we risk it? Syrian Muslims and Christians can still see it in Berlin, you may say – yes, but only if they have a visa. I suppose last year’s million refugees can go and see it. But does it belong to us? Or are we merely its gatekeepers, its temporary – yes, colonial – “protectors” until the Middle East proves it can behave itself and we lordly westerners can hand it back before we go to war with each other again. No, I don’t think the Arabs of the Levant are in any shape to build new museums right now. But even if Putin is an art lover, I don’t think Mr Trump would care much about the heritage of Aleppo – unless, I suppose, he could install it in Trump Tower. We have our wars too.

An unhappy ending to such thoughts; right now, I fear we’d better keep what we have and leave their future ownership open. In one sense, they all “belong” to us, Europeans and Arabs alike. Maybe we can one day decide whose wars destroy more treasures than the others. In the meanwhile, yes, we must admit. At least the Aleppo room is safe.

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