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Palmyra and the Political History of Archaeology in Syria: from Colonialists to Nationalists

The Sun of Syria’s power went down in might,
On Freedom’s tree there rained a withering blight,
Glory to proud Palmyra sighed adieu
And o’er her shrines Destruction’s angel flew.

‘Palmyra’, Nicholas Michell (1807-1880) 

‘Palmyra’ (Tadmor), as it exists within western imagination, was not destroyed in 2014 by ‘ISIS’(Daesh). Palmyra, and for that matter all archaeological remains in non-European countries, have always represented abandon and decay to the colonial explorer/tourist/academic –despite the fact that many of these ruins were inhabited at the moment of their ‘discovery’.

The renewed destruction of monuments at Palmyra by Daesh led to an international outcry and social media frenzy; images of piles of disjointed architecture suddenly became clickbait, a surprise for the archaeologist whose interests in ruins is usually deemed nerdy and irrelevant to the present age.

Yet what is tied up with spontaneous concern for the destruction of ‘world heritage’ are European neo-colonial interests and Syrian State’s agenda—the two being great mirrors for one another.

Andrew Bossone shared this link

how archaeology has been used for colonial, imperial and nationalist missions

When tears are wept for the destruction of ‘Roman’ antiquity (the temple is dedicated to a Near Eastern god), there is no thought to the destruction of Syrian Islamic…
mangalmedia.net

The Colonial Legacy

It is impossible to write a history of archaeology in Syria without addressing European colonialist interests. Archaeological excavations intensified in the 19thth century, and during the 1923-46 mandate period were directly funded by the French government (though the French created the Syrian Department of Antiquities before their ‘official’ involvement, in 1919).

Late Ottoman governors complained to the sultan about increasing looting and illegal antiquities trafficking, exacerbated by European tourists excited about the newest finds.

Explorers competed to be the first to find and record unchartered territories of the exotic Levant, as archaeologists of different colonial powers (German-French-British) competed to publish sites under the aegis of their respective nationalities.

Chagar Bazar and Tel Brak by Mallowan (U.K), Mari by Parrot (France), Ugarit by Schaeffer (France), and Tel Halaf by Oppenheimer (Germany) are all historical excavations that boosted the national museums in these respective countries with objects from the ancient Orient, the ‘origin of European civilisation’.

It is within the context of ‘competitive archaeology’ (term coined by Elena Corbett) that the history of Palmyra should be viewed.

Documented by Italian, then French, Swedish, and German explorers since the 17th century, it was first excavated in the 20th  century by Germans, then Czech, mandate-period French, Swiss and Polish archaeologists, in partnership with the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities.

Competition for collaboration with the directorate at big important sites such as Palmyra is a big deal for foreign archaeologists.

At a recent symposium on Palmyra at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first official talk was ‘After Thirty Years of Syro-German/Austrian Archaeological Research at Palmyra’.

The idea of ‘competitiveness’ in Syrian archaeology is brought to the fore within conservation discourse, with article after article describing a ‘race’ to save ‘world heritage’ (that happens to be in Syria).

Indeed, there is an urgency to preventing sites from being irreversibly destroyed, yet why aren’t people ‘racing’ to stop war?

The rhetoric is similar to that used in the late 19th-early 20th century, when the French, English, and German were racing against each other to excavate the most prestigious sites and discover the most remarkable artifacts, destroying much archaeology in the meantime by the poor quality of speedy excavations.

Expediency is destructive, even by those who claim to want to ‘save Syrian heritage’.

There has been a proliferation in recent years of digital technologies 3-D modelling artifacts and architecture that has been demolished by Daesh. The reconstruction of the ‘Arch of Triumph’ in Trafalgar Square in April of this year is a case in point.

The haste in the restoration project is evident: the 3-D model was constructed from a pixelated online photograph.  This is not the only case in which designers desperate for material have appropriated the Syrian plight and created horrid fabrications: this palm tree with a light bulb  was not only sold as a ‘Palmyra Lamp’  but also incorporated an orientalist discourse:

‘even in the destructive hands of ISIS, Palmyra “the Venice of the Sands” lives on in one respect’. And so Palmyra lives on in a palm tree with a light bulb—this is a worse symbolic destruction of history than Daesh could ever imagine).  This is but one example.

Another project to reconstruct the Arch of Triumph out of squares of neon plexiglass (yes, squares of neon plexiglass) raised $130,000.

The discourse also denies the autonomy of professional Syrian archaeologists: the west can’t wait around for the war to end and for Syrian restorers to commence such a time-consuming restoration project.

In Britain, we have funds to make a 3D model here and now, we might as well do that first.The desire to ‘be first’, to appropriate Syria’s own need to restore its heritage by transcending time and space boundaries is eerily reminiscent of the mandate-period restoration project of the Dome of the Rock in Palestine.

Commander David Hogarth believed quality tiles could only be produced in Europe, for ‘the East is quite incapable of doing again what it has done before’.

In the end, once the English realized how much capital would be actually needed to finance a quality project, they abandoned it, and the money was raised by the local Supreme Muslim Council picked up the project, fundraising and all.

Disdain for present-day cultures in the Near East over its ‘glorious past’ is just as present today as it was in the 19th-20th centuries.

Whereas the archaeologists explicitly described Syria’s ruins as the torch of civilization having passed from the East to the West (and thus no longer in the East), today there is just an underlying intuition: that Palmyra must be saved (rather than Islamic sites).

The complete disregard for people over monuments (why spend millions to ‘rebuild Palmyra’, as certain British politicians would like, and not to accommodate refugees), also has colonialist roots.

The photo below shows the lovely architectural intermingling between the early 20th century traditional mudbrick housing and the Roman style columns. It was destroyed under the direction of the mandate-period French archaeologist Henri Seyrig, who ordered to move the village to excavate the Temple of Bel (the latest issue of Syria, a French Journal published since 1922, is entirely dedicated to his career and persona).

Instead of being eclipsed from Antiquity until its European ‘discovery’, as its story is told in the media and in popular history books, Palmyra was actually reused and inhabited by later Christian and then Muslim populations.

Ancient temples were converted into Byzantine churches, and later into mosques; the Temple of Bel contained a mihrab. When tears are wept for the destruction of ‘Roman’ antiquity (the temple is dedicated to a Near Eastern god), there is no thought to the destruction of Syrian Islamic history which is taking place simultaneously.

The Syrian State

Colonialist infatuation with Near Eastern archaeology left its mark on the region’s own heritage policies—for the worse for authentic engagement with archaeology.

When heritage is nationalized by an elite minority, wrapped up in governmental bureaucracy, presented through the lens of a corrupt state, it effectively becomes a symbol of the nation-state.

When the nation-state’s authority comes under attack, so does its nationalized archaeology –ruins are no longer ruins, but emblems of state power.

Journalistic articles express shock at the destruction of archaeology in Syria and frame it within a discourse of iconoclasm and barbarianism. In fact, in addition to the monetary and propaganda interests in destroying sites, Daesh does so for modern political reasons: they couldn’t care less about ancient pagans, what they wish to do is simply to inflict violence upon sites of governmental power.  And ruins happen to be those sites, and increasingly so.

<img src=”https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5767ac7e29687f6102b18153/t/57ef818e15d5dbf1ae2c026e/1475314085955/” alt=”Palmyra displayed on Syria’s most banal objects” />Palmyra displayed on Syria's most banal objects

Palmyra displayed on Syria’s most banal objects

Archaeology was institutionalized by a reification of the past into governmental branding, such as through images of Palmyra on the national currency, or school textbooks.

Although Palmyrans wrote and probably spoke in Aramaic, they are frequently called ‘Arabs’ by Syrian regime historians.

Ancient ruins, intrinsically free of ideology, were thus saddled with  the institutionally approved secular, Syrian-Arab nationalism of the Assad regime.

This ideology is specifically designed to suppress expressions of dissenting mainstream Syrian identities. Hatred of and desire to destroy archaeological ruins comes from the frustration on the part of disenfranchised  Syrians who were first forcefully moved out of their dwellings to make room for French archaeologists subsequently never identified with regime discourses of archaeology, which they saw as an extension of the colonial disregard for their livelihoods.

In a much under-noted paper written on the eve of the Arab uprisings, Laurence Gillot took a look at the actual social impact archaeological practices by foreign excavators linked to governmental agencies had on local communities in Syria:

On the one hand, these groups [Syrian private cultural and tourist groups, as opposed to institutional researchers] are still considered to be intruders and not stakeholders, and their activities are still regarded as a threat to heritage conservation.

On the other hand, the recognition and tolerance of alternative views about heritage (other than the official and archaeological one) remains low. Consequently, archaeology is, at the same time, regarded by Syrian society as a tool of cultural imperialism by the European and Western countries, and as an instrument in the service of the Syrian regime, as part of the imposition of an official national memory and identity.

These negative perceptions are illustrated by various behaviours, such as the refusal to acknowledge a national heritage, the plunder of archaeological sites, or indifference towards their preservation.
from: http://www.archaeologybulletin.org/articles/10.5334/bha.20102/

Vacant theatricality;  regime ideology setting the stage for demonification of archaeology.

The past 200 years of large-scale archaeological excavations in Syria have been mainly dominated by patrimonial French, British, and more recently American excavators in partnership with the Syrian government’s supervision, the overwhelming majority of whom were interested in the region’s pre-Islamic past.

There is a basic lesson here: associating archaeological sites with a repressive regime, archaeological institutions causes people to hate historical sites.

Neither the Syrian nor the Russian government cares any more about historical knowledge than does Daesh (they both are in fact responsible for much unrecorded and unspectacular destruction), and their desire ‘to preserve’ has been accepted with open arms by European and American news agencies, politicians, and even archaeologists ‘protecting the past’.  (A lot of bullshit in this passage)

Yet by re-capturing Palmyra and re-infusing the site with Syrian state apparatus, history is only repeating itself. The travesty of the Russian concert on 2016 May 5th (Why it must be a travesty in this case?) was followed by performances by the Syrian National Symphony, the National Ensemble for Arabic Music, the Mari Orchestra, and al-Farah Choir— all government funded.

Much like the Persepolis festival celebrating 2,500 years of Iranian kingship on top of Iran’s most iconic ruins, the Palmyra concert used an ancient site to glorify  Western-styled music, secularism, Ba’ath nationalism, all in all, the triumph of ‘civilization’ over ‘barbarism’.

Two years after the Persepolis festival, the revolution of the ulamas overthrew the shah, archaeology was banned from universities, and the site was vandalized.

The speeches at the Palmyra concert may have promulgated a victory, but the theatrical display of the Syrian regime’s definition of ‘civilization’, supported by UNESCO attendees, only means its eventual demise at the hands of the disenfranchised ‘barbarians’.

The hypocrisy is well described in the words of Michel-Rolph Trouillot: “Celebrations straddle the two sides of historicity. They impose a silence upon the events that they ignore, and they fill that silence with narratives of power about the event they celebrate.”

The ceremony’s closing speech was conveniently translated into English, and provides a good idea of the regime’s conception of Syrian geography, in which cities are imaginarily subordinated to the power structure:

I can see all towns and villages walking on a way that connects my country’s soil to the stars.
Aleppo [huge cheers from the crowd] is weaving on its loom the cotton of the north…
The Syrian coast bringing water to Palmyra
Homs is collecting the roses of Dara’a to make a shawl for our country
Hama is offering its water wheels to Damascus to quench its thirst, and water Asswayda vainyards
Green Idlib has a thousand tales about the flag flown above Quneitra
I can see my Syria wearing the crown of victory.

The speech emphasizes the obvious fact that the classical music concert could not be divorced from Syrian State policy, and that by re-taking Palmyra they were on their way to Aleppo, which metaphorically demonstrates its servitude to the State in the speech. (If that kind of poem was said in a western State to boast about their nationalism, would it be fine?)

In her book ‘The Ambiguities of Domination’, studying performance of allegiance to Hafez al-Assad’s regime, Lisa Wedeen concluded that most gestures of subordination and consent to power were inherently ritualistic and did not reflect the performer’s true political beliefs.

I messaged some of the musicians who took part in this concert on Facebook, to see whether they believed the ideology promoted by the State or if there was any dose of skepticism.

What was so weird was how normal it all seemed to them; one violinist has the concert picture as her Facebook cover photo. (What’s so weird, please?)

There didn’t seem to be anything interesting to talk about; they went on about ‘the sound of music is life’; ‘it was my dream to play here and after what isis did’; ‘Our mission was to reborn the life to Palmyra with our music our passion’ which made me cringe a bit, but only as much as I normally do whenever I have to sit and listen to someone tell me about their ‘passion’.

Then the cringe-bomb came (the emoji. the emoji.):

It’s safe to say that when we think of Aleppo (if we know #whatisaleppo at all), we don’t think ‘oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a classical music concert there!’.
Most of us who possess a fundamental level of conscience, think of ordinary townsfolk setting tires ablaze to defend their homes against aerial bombardment from an occupying air force.  I suppose it’s natural for a country at war to dehumanize the civilians who happen to be living in enemy territory, that one would look forward to the odes of victory. Yet.
The 21st century. If you google Aleppo, even from Damascus, you will not find images of an intact citadel (unless it’s a before/after shot).The Syrian regime has taken on the same role as the western archaeologists within its country. Archaeology, as a symbol of prestige, national unity, and locus of performance is given primacy over human lives.

And while this may seem natural for a flashy anti-humanitarian regime to do, what is disquieting is how nicely it matches Euroamerican conceptions of cultural heritage.

As important as it is to list all the awful things the Syrian regime has done, there is critical work to be done in acknowledging what an  apt pupil it has been to the self-proclaimed free and civilised world.

 

A Jewel in Syria Where

‘Ruins Have Been Ruined’ by ISIS

A Times photographer traveled to Palmyra, Syria,
to see what remained of its archaeological treasures
after almost a year of Islamic State control.

We captured a whole town and houses from them, and they recaptured sand and destruction.” ISIS leader

Syrian Officer Gave a View of War. ISIS Came, and Silence Followed.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Ours was an unusual, sometimes operatic, correspondence that unfolded over more than a year.

Abu al-Majd, a Syrian police officer who was being deployed more and more often like a soldier, texted at all hours, sending news from the front lines and grumbling about boring, sunbaked patrols, his complaints sometimes punctuated by expressions of terror, pride or doubt.

For us, it was a critical window into the raging war in Syria that we were too often forced to follow from afar.

For him, it seemed about having a connection to people who lived outside the claustrophobia of war, yet cared about what he was going through.

On May 19, 2015, Abu al-Majd sent a pair of snapshots. One showed him in fatigues, smoking a water pipe and starting to smile, as if a friend had just walked in; two cups of Turkish coffee, still foamy, stood on a table

He was about to board a bus to Palmyra, the Syrian desert city that was in the process of falling to the Islamic State.

Many government troops had fled, but Abu al-Majd and a few dozen others had been ordered to fight what he believed to be a doomed battle.

He had taken the photos specially. “These,” he texted, “might be the last pictures.”

We did not hear from him again. Six weeks later, his parents received a call from a man who identified himself as a soldier and warned, “Don’t be hopeful.” Then he hung up.

They went to a security office, where a bureaucrat handed them a piece of paper that said: “Missing.” That stark label, it turned out, masked a terrifying tale of a fighter’s desperate bid for survival, and his struggle between duty and fear.

We had met Abu al-Majd more than a year before, on a reporting trip to Palmyra in April 2014. We were among the last international journalists to visit the city and its imposing ancient ruins, some since blown up by the Islamic State. He was then 24, part of a comically large entourage assigned to guard us — and monitor us.

Palmyra, also known as Tadmur, had lost its main livelihood, tourism, and on its grid of concrete-block streets, men sat around with little to do. Islamic State militants were just a few miles east, while Syrian Army tanks occupied the medieval citadel above the ruins.

Women whispered to us of relatives who had been kidnapped, or had disappeared into government custody after a local rebellion was quashed.

Some of our escorts were jumpy, and a few shopkeepers stared at them with icy eyes. For junior officers like Abu al-Majd, our visit was rare entertainment. At the ruins, they clambered over huge slabs of limestone, striking playful poses.

A month later, Abu al-Majd texted just to say hello. Later he opened up, talking about things he missed, like pomegranates and grapes from the volcanic soil of his family’s ancestral village in the Golan Heights.

As the conversations grew deeper, he seesawed between pride in his national duty and fear, boredom, even anger at the injustices and incompetence he saw in the government’s prosecution of the war.

Checking in regularly, he joined several hundred contacts we maintain inside Syria by telephone, Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other media: army defectors, Islamist insurgents, activists, government officials, business owners, doctors, commanders on all sides.

There are people who support the government, people who loathe it, and people from what they call “the gray middle,” who just want the war to end.

Abu al-Majd — we are using his nickname, and not publishing his photograph, to protect his family — provided insight into the lives of rank-and-file government fighters.

He came from an important subgroup, Sunni loyalists. Syria’s large Sunni majority dominates the insurgency, and also the army conscript pool.

Many quiescent civilians and state employees are also Sunni; if all Sunnis had rebelled, it is less likely that President Bashar al-Assad would still be ruling.

A Quiet Loyalist

Abu al-Majd grew up in Yarmouk, the bustling Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus where many Syrians also live. Not long after the uprising began with political protests and security crackdowns in 2011, his family lost its home to clashes, and moved to another neighborhood, then another.

He was a loyalist — the son of a retired, low-ranking army officer — but not someone who plastered his Facebook page with Syrian flags or pictures of dead insurgents or pledges of allegiance to President Assad. Mostly, he shared photos of his friends and nephews.

He had joined a regular police unit at least a year before the uprising, chasing drug dealers and prostitutes. But as war put pressure on the army, many police units were sent into the fray. Abu al-Majd was deployed to front-line checkpoints and patrolled for insurgent activity east of the central city of Homs, around Palmyra.

With supplies scarce and the Syrian pound plummeting in value, he joked that his salary, around $100 a month, was barely enough to keep him stocked with his favorite apple-flavored tobacco.

He was secretly in love with one of his cousins, but now worried that he could never afford to marry her. The isolation ate at him.

“Please, tell me the latest news,” he wrote in September 2014. “We don’t have TV here, no electricity, I’m living in exile. I’m dead, dead.”

When he got leave, Abu al-Majd went home to cosmopolitan Damascus. He was jealous of troops serving in the capital who could drink and go out with women and enjoy relatively regular electricity, he once said, “as if they are in Europe.”

He confided that he consoled himself with the music of the Lebanese pop artist Wael Kfoury; one of his favorite lyrics was, “I wish I could bring you a gift the size of my love.”

Once, he told us, he dreamed that the Islamic State had arrested him. Soon after, the group attacked security posts in the nearby Shaer gas field, killing several of his friends. In November, he wrote that he was at a cold, rainy post surrounded by militants, waiting five days for reinforcements.

“If I die,” he asked, “would you say, ‘God bless his soul?’”

He shared a memory from 2012 that haunted him. He had been on the phone with a friend whose fighting position was being stormed by insurgents.

“I could feel the knocking on his door,” Abu al-Majd recalled. “Do you know that feeling when someone you know, and you like a lot, will be killed in a few minutes, and you don’t know what to do?”

He complained that Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen backing the government earned more than Syrian fighters, and that troops at busy checkpoints farther west raked in bribes while on the desert front, he said, “we are eating air.”

Something Called Patriotism’

In spite of his frustrations, Abu al-Majd felt that “one shouldn’t turn against his government whatever they do.”

“There’s nothing called ‘with’ or ‘against’ Bashar,” he explained, referring to the president. “There’s something called patriotism, nationalism, loyalty — something called ‘we are Syrians and we should defend our nation.’ You are either with the state or with the terrorist groups.”

He said he wished he would wake up in his old house to find the war had been a dream.

“If I had known how deep was the sea, I would never have swum,” he said, quoting the Damascene poet Nizar Qabbani. “If I had known my end, I would never have begun.”

Last March, his frustration boiled over. He picked a fistfight with aid workers in Damascus, who he said were hoarding or misdirecting food aid with the help of local officials.

“They’re giving two families one portion,” he told us later. “Not only that, they are saying dirty words to people, as if the civilians are beggars.”

The next month, he was outraged after his cousin, a new conscript, was sent to Idlib Province, where the army was losing ground.

One day, Abu al-Majd said, the cousin called to report that he and nine others were surrounded, without vehicles, and digging a hole to hide in. Over the sound of gunfire, he asked Abu al-Majd, “What should we do?”

Abu al-Majd was beside himself.

“We need 10,000 soldiers, not just 10,” he said. “Imagine, they put them in that place to meet their fate.”

On May 14, Islamic State fighters swept into Sukhna, an outpost not far from Palmyra. Troops there, running out of bullets, sent hair-raising farewells.

‘I’m Committing Suicide’

Abu al-Majd was on leave in Damascus as the extremists reached the edge of Palmyra. His mother tried to keep him there by hiding his ID card. He debated asking for a transfer, testing the sincerity of a presidential declaration a few months before that gave men the option to serve close to home.

“I’m not a coward, but I’m a human being who sometimes gets scared,” he said, adding, as if looking for approval, “Am I right?”

But the next day he decided to go back out. He soon learned his unit would be sent to Palmyra; the commanders said they would report anyone who did not join

 “I’m walking on my feet toward death, but I can’t do anything. Don’t ask me what time I’m leaving; I hate this question. I wish I wouldn’t wake up tomorrow

May 16: He shared a Facebook post from a friend: “O God, homeland, your heroes are living in graves, and your thieves are in castles.”

May 17: He reached Homs, and went to a fortune teller. She saw him moving to a pleasant place, “green, with trees all around.” Paradise?

May 18: A reprieve. Land mines on the road to Palmyra had forced his bus to turn back.

May 19: The last snapshots.

Then: nothing.

We had followed many battles, but Palmyra was different.

It was resonant as the home of Syria’s most magnificent antiquities, and we had been there recently. We knew archaeologists, antigovernment activists, tribal leaders, tea shop owners and security men. We even knew a fighter with the invading Islamic State force. Together they gave us an up-close, real-time view of a city falling

The Islamic State beheaded government employees in the street, shot soldiers in an ancient amphitheater and gave bread to residents.

Government warplanes dropped bombs, as officials incorrectly declared that all civilians had been evacuated. Activists opposed to both Mr. Assad and the Islamic State went into hiding.

A young intelligence officer we had met in Palmyra — he had shown us pictures of himself in a helicopter loaded with the barrel bombs often dropped on rebellious neighborhoods — told of escaping with nothing but his gun.

Another police officer, with a reputation for torturing suspects, described walking for a day and a half across the desert to reach safety. Before fleeing, he said, he had seen Abu al-Majd at the military airport, wounded in the leg and shoulder.

Abu al-Majd’s social-media status was frozen at “I am in Tadmur,” or Palmyra, followed by a frowny face. “Precious, don’t be sad for me. We are from God and to God we return.”

It was July 23 when we heard from Abu al-Majd’s family that he was officially missing. They gave up on learning more from security officials — “dogs,” one relative called them — and, presuming he was dead, hosted mourners and received condolences.

We needed to know more.

How It Ended

In the ensuing months, we reached two police officers who had stayed in touch with Abu al-Majd to the end and three Palmyra residents who had witnessed his fate, and we compared notes with relatives. This is what we learned.

On May 19, about 60 officers and soldiers had boarded unarmored buses bound for Palmyra, with flak jackets but no weapons. Abu al-Majd was terrified to go, but unsure of what punishment he might face in a country where people could go to prison and simply disappear, was also terrified not to.

“He kept calling all the way from the bus, ‘We’re going to die,’ repeating those words,” one of his fellow officers recalled. “I told him to give the driver any excuse, like he wants to buy cigarettes, and then run away, but he never listened to me.”

The bus dropped the men at the military airport on the outskirts of Palmyra, which was attacked that night. Many were killed; the others fled. Abu al-Majd hid in the house of a family he knew.

He called Damascus daily from the land line, speaking softly, begging friends to send a car. His father told him not to surrender; his uncle advised him to read the Quran.

But the Islamic State was threatening to kill anyone who harbored a government fighter.

After eight days, Abu al-Majd felt he could no longer endanger his hosts, and fled down the street in a borrowed robe and loose pants, trying to pass for a resident.

He must have walked down the same cinder-block streets where he had accompanied us a year earlier, lined with cellphone shops and bakeries. He went unnoticed until the call to prayer.

The Islamic State requires men to attend prayers, so he entered a mosque. Inside, a fighter approached and asked Abu al-Majd if he was with the police.

“He said, ‘Yes, I’m here and I’m praying and I didn’t do anything,’” recalled a Palmyra resident who was there.

The fighter responded, “Now, you remembered to repent?”

On the street outside, the militants announced his arrest, using his full name.

“I saw 10 Daesh fighters with their horrible faces, one holding the sword,” a local woman told us later, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “They beheaded him in front of my eyes.”

The body lay in the street for several days, according to three witnesses. Last month, family members said security officials had told them they had a video of the killing, but did not share it.

“I blame the government,” one relative said. “What can 200 soldiers do against 2,000 Daesh? I don’t have a problem with death, but with the way he died.”

As we were investigating Abu al-Majd’s death, the Islamic State started destroying antiquities in Palmyra. In August, they blew up the site’s grandest structure, the Temple of Baal.

It is where we remember Abu al-Majd. In our pictures, the stone is glowing golden, and he is grinning and playing on the rocks.

Anne Barnard has been the Beirut bureau chief of The New York Times since 2013, leading coverage of the Syrian civil war.

Hwaida Saad, a Lebanese journalist who lived through her country’s civil war and has been chronicling Syria’s since it began in 2011, has worked for The Times as an interpreter, news assistant and reporter since 2008.

 

Fearing cultural atrocities: ISIS advancing on Palmyra?

To me Zennoubiya  (Zeinobia) is more famous than Palmyra.   Zennoubiya  was the last Queen who ruled over Palmyra and its vast empire that stretched to Egypt. A roman emperor managed to defeat her and take her prisoner to Rome.

Tadmur is the name in the Amourian and Aramaic languages, which means the invincible.

The ruins of Palmyra have long enchanted visitors, its famous queen Zeinobia occupying the same iconic status for Syrians as Cleopatra does for Egypt.

But the once-bustling Silk Road hub (built 1,200 years BC) and known in antiquity for its community of artisans and merchants of varied ethnicity and religion is now in the crosshairs of the terror group Islamic State, whose fighters have looted and destroyed historical and cultural artefacts in Iraq.

“Palmyra constitutes one of the most beautiful and impressive panoramas to have survived from classical antiquity,” said historian Tom Holland. “Its ruins are as beautiful as they are well-preserved.

“More than that, though, it is a monument to the great melting pot of cultures that bordered the eastern flank of the Roman empire: the same melting pot that would ultimately serve to incubate Islam. Its destruction is too awful to contemplate.”

Palmyra’s fall does not appear imminent – the Syrian regime has repelled the initial incursion into the city, which is also of vital strategic and political significance. But government resources are stretched thin and the historic city remains in danger, with Isis renewing its assault on its eastern border and consolidating its hold on nearby towns.

An assault on ancient Palmyra would have symbolic value for Isis, targeting one of the remaining markers of unity that could be valuable in a postwar Syria.

Calls to “save” the historic city, made by the chief of Unesco, raise questions about the international intervention against Isis in Syria, with western officials seemingly more concerned about the loss of ancient artefacts than the daily death toll in the hundreds

Still, local activists and experts agree the loss would be incalculable.

“We know the world cares because there are so many historical artefacts even though people are dying every day from oppression,” said Ahmad al-Nasser, the pseudonym of a pro-opposition activist in the Local Co-ordination Committee for Tadmur, the modern name for Palmyra.

“The ruins of Tadmur are symbols of civilisation that generations in Syria were raised with, and the most important thing for Syrians is to preserve these artefacts that tell the history of every Syrian.”

Syrian officials warned on Thursday that Isis was just a kilometre away from the historic city, endangering the Unesco world heritage site’s magnificent ruins

But on Friday fighters from the militant group appeared to have pulled back from the eastern outskirts of the city to positions two miles away. The Assad regime launched over a dozen air strikes against Isis positions east of the city, and Syrian state TV said regime troops had pushed the militants back.

Activists said both the regime and Isis had summoned reinforcements, but that the battle was likely to be drawn out.

While government forces are stretched thin after recent losses to northern rebels in Idlib, and Isis may rely on suicide bombings and possible sleeper cells in the city, Assad’s army is determined to hold on to it.

The loss of the city would open the road to Damascus and Homs, which fell to the regime after an excruciating two-year siege, and would sever supply lines to the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, where the regime is struggling against the encroachment of Isis.

But what distinguishes this particular battle from the dozens that take place all over Syria every day is the setting: ruins that are the pride of Syrians of every ethnicity and sect. The story of Zeinobia who stood up to the “conquerors” of the Roman empire resonates with Syrians today.

“Obviously I’m deeply concerned, very frightened, very afraid that once Isis gets its hands on Palmyra, which they may well do so sooner or later, that this is going to have a catastrophic effect on one of Syria’s most important sources of heritage,” said Amr al-Azm, a pro-opposition former Syrian antiquities official. “To see that destroyed is, I think, a deep blow to this sense of identity, and it will be an irreplaceable loss.”

Isis has destroyed numerous cultural artefacts and heritage sites in Nineveh in Iraq, after sweeping through the province last summer in a lightning offensive. The advance on Palmyra has triggered fears of similar “cultural atrocities”.

Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco, appealed to all parties to protect the site from destruction, but analysts say it would be difficult to drive back the militants without air strikes by the US-led coalition, which would directly aid the Assad regime. Intervention to protect the ancient ruins would also risk appearing to minimise the previous suffering of millions of Syrians that did not prompt international action.

Experts also say that outrage over Isis attacks on cultural heritage encourages the militant group to continue its desecration of historical sites and plays into its narrative.

“Damaging the site is also an act of psychological warfare,” said David Wengrow, professor of comparative archaeology at University College London, whose work focuses on the Middle East.

“Then there is also the element of calculated provocation, to show the world that people elsewhere care more about ancient temples and statues than they do about their fellow human beings, that we are the true barbarians and idolaters.”

Azm said the combination of the impotence of the international community, the impunity with which Isis acts in destroying and illicitly trading in historic treasures, and the rhetorical outrage over its acts, convinces the terror group of the value of targeting the region’s heritage.

“It’s like when a thief enters your home and holds you hostage and they’re looking for something valuable and you keep staring at that one spot under your bed,” he said.

For many Syrians, the destruction of historical sites goes beyond tearing down bricks and stones. “This conflict is going to have to end one day,” said Azm. “When it does, Syrians … will look to common denominators that helps them identify what makes a Syrian Syrian – the incentives that make them live together.

“And they’re going to look for the symbols that help hold their society together, and cultural heritage in general is one of the few areas they do agree on, that they can rally around and use as a focal point to rebuild and restructure their lives,” he added.

Destroying Syria’s past is also destroying Syria’s future.”

Andrew Bossone shared this link

“Then there is also the element of calculated provocation, to show the world that people elsewhere care more about ancient temples and statues than they do about their fellow human beings, that we are the true barbarians and idolaters.”

Ruins that are the pride of Syrians of every sect are in danger, threatening the basis of any future unity, but western intervention would be seen as suspect
theguardian.com|By Kareem Shaheen

 


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

April 2021
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