Civilisations for Sale

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A photographer holds his 2014 picture of Palmyra’s Temple of Bel in front of the remains of the historic temple in March 2016, after it was destroyed by the Islamic State in September 2015

Cataloging the art casualties of war

Text Sa’eda Kilani

Not many people in the Middle East have the freedom to enjoy art and marvel at their cultural history. This fear has been cultivated by certain doctrines which state that the admiration of artistic work is heretical. There is a link in some Middle Eastern cultures between statues and the worship of idols; the appreciation of statues is therefore often construed as blasphemous in some religious sects. The rampant looting of centuries-old artefacts and the ongoing destruction of thousands of years of antiquities have brought about a sense of deep loss and bewilderment for many people, in the Middle East, and abroad.

Beyond the horrors of war, the recent looting and destruction of important cultural sites such as the Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq and the oasis city of Palmyra in Syria has shocked and devastated the international archaeological community, as has the sight of sledgehammers breaking through statues in the Mosul Museum in Iraq (even if some of the pieces were not original, as it was later revealed after the initial reports). Surely nothing will compensate for the destruction of the 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph in Palmyra in Syria at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS), nor the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, which were blasted away by the Taliban. According to UNESCO’s assessment of the extent of damage done to the World Heritage Site of the ancient city of Aleppo in Syria, some 60 percent of the old city has been severely damaged, with 30 percent totally destroyed.

In a video showing the destruction of the Mosul Museum, the militants state that their devastating actions served as a reminder of the Islamic teachings on the subject of statues: “These ruins that are behind me, they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. The so-called Assyrians and Akkadians and others looked to gods for war, agriculture and rain to whom they offered sacrifices… The Prophet Mohammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.” From this, some believers have inferred that all statues are forbidden, regardless of their artistic, cultural or historic value. Such warnings through brazen acts of destruction have reproduced aftershocks: According to this interpretation, anyone is allowed – moreover, encouraged – to break statues and works of sculpture, and destroy artefacts with impunity.

This thinking has permitted – indeed, advocated – that nothing is off-limits when it comes to vandalising statues and sculptures in the name of anti-idolatry. As a result, several statues of iconic figures in Arab history have been desecrated.

It’s not only ancient statues that have been subjected to attacks backed by such dogma: The effigy of celebrated Egyptian singer Um Kalthoum was covered with a veil, and the statue of Taha Hussein – the first Arab author nominated for the Nobel Prize – mysteriously disappeared. In the Syrian city of Idlib, the statue of the famous Muslim philosopher Abu Ala’ Al Maer’i was destroyed. In Iraq, the statues of renowned Abbasid-era poet Abu Tammam and musician Abu Osman Al-Mosuli – as well as the famous “Spring Girl” monument – were obliterated. A bomb was used to destroy the statue of Abu Jaafar Al Mansour, the founder of the Abbasid Caliphate.
In Jordan, college art projects have also been targeted. One graduate went to collect her artwork from university, only to find that her sculpture project – along with 10 others – had been torn down.

It seems that the Arab Spring “has turned sour”, writes journalist Osama al-Shariff, continuing: “Now is the time to say no to those who want to impose their dogma on us – to rediscover the thinking of Hussein and Al Maeir’i; to doubt and ask questions, and to celebrate our free thinkers, not join in the ritual defacing of their statues.”

But in societies imbued with numerous cultural and religious taboos, this voice of reason can be drowned out. Despite the strong condemnation of such acts from the international community – as well as from many renowned Muslim clerics – acts of aggression taken out on heritage sites, and artwork in general, have accelerated. However, this destruction is not always driven by religious principles; it also has to do with lucrative business. Many valuable items from raided museums and heritage sites have been looted for smuggling into the art black market – and there are many willing buyers waiting in the wings.

Art buyers are purchasing antiquities at depressed prices, with the pieces having passed through the hands of smugglers and middlemen, in turn spurring incentive to loot and fuelling demand. In a report published in the Guardian, US Customs noted that there was a 145 percent increase in imports of Syrian cultural property and a 61 percent increase in imports of Iraqi cultural property between 2011 and 2013.

The demand for antiquities in Western art markets is fuelling the demand for looted artefacts from the Middle East, while simultaneously providing an additional source of income for looting factions, such as ISIS. The group profits from selling the bounty, and regulates the black market. The good news is that activists and experts have not sat back and lamented such damages without action. Numerous legislators are working to implement better laws and monitoring systems that aim to curb this influx of plundered artefacts. One means of doing so is to ensure that the objects traded without a clear record of source and previous ownership fetch lower prices. But, when trading is occurring outside the parameters of legal trading, there is little to stop the unprincipled buyer.

Beyond improved legislation, activist groups have worked to come up with creative means of salvaging heritage sites. Several projects seeking to protect, preserve and archive threatened heritage sites and lost artefacts are working to ensure that history is not lost – or at best, can be recreated.
One such effort involved a projection of the lost Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 (IMAGE © SHUTTERSTOCK)

Built in the 6th century, these ancient sandstone carvings were the world’s tallest Buddha statues until they were destroyed by a bomb placed by the Taliban in 2001. Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar justified the deliberate destruction of the statues on religious grounds, saying that “These idols have been gods of the infidels”. Recreating the Buddhas involved using three-dimensional laser projection technology to recreate the statues as a hologram, filling the empty cavities in the cliffs with the projections. According to a report in The Atlantic, the holograms were the work of a Chinese couple who had been struck by the destruction of the statues. Having experimented with their projections on a mountainside in China, they received approval from UNESCO and the Afghan government to bring their hologram projection of the statues to Afghanistan in 2015.

UNESCO is doing a lot of work to ensure the safeguarding of Syrian cultural heritage. One such measure is employing digitisation for organising the inventories and archives of cultural property in Syrian museums inorder to simplify the identification and registration of missing artefacts.

A campaign called “Save Syria’s History” was launched to raise awareness of the current looting of museums and illegal excavation of archaeological sites. UNESCO states that the initiative “serves to remind all Syrian people, regardless of their political allegiance, of the importance to protect their rich cultural heritage for the benefit of future generations”. The campaign disseminated posters and audio-visual material across Syria to convey this message, and created a network of volunteers from local communities to come together all over the country. The project works to help museum staff move archaeological artefacts to safe and secure places, while also providing added security around archaeological sites at risk of being illegally excavated.

Replicating the tombs, statues, temples and archaeological sites is happening even without the support of international organisations. Artists are reconstructing the past. In Iraq, Ninos Thabet, an 18-year-old who studied art at Mosul University, is putting his creativity to good use. He is working on creating miniature replicas of the statues destroyed in the 3,000-year-old Assyrian city of Nimrud, south of Mosul, when it was overrun. Thabet fled Mosul with his family to the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and has since created more than 50 miniatures of the now lost statues. In Jordan, Syrian artists in the Zaatari refugee camp came together for a special project aimed at reconstructing Syrian artefacts and cultural sites destroyed during the war.

Obaidi’s toppled statue of Saddam Hussein. He threaded a rope from the monument to stolen artefacts in order to tell the story of the destruction of Iraq (Image: © Mahmoud al Obaidi)

Further afield in Italy, replicas of several masterpieces vandalised or destroyed in Syria and Iraq have been recreated. The replicas have been featured in a UNESCO-sponsored exhibit called “Rising from Destruction”. One such replica is the life-size human-headed winged bull that once stood outside the palace at Nimrud – the former capital of the Assyrian Empire. The original was flattened by ISIS in 2015. Specially trained technicians copied the original works from photographs to create smaller models. The team then used 3D printers and layers of real stone to create the life-sized replicas. Such commendable efforts and rescue initiatives are giving rise to a new world of art.

Despite efforts to salvage and recreate the remnants of ongoing cultural vandalism, the thinking that supports such demolitions has not dissipated. Moreover, the black market for smuggled antiquities is flourishing. Efforts at promoting the abandonment of illegal artefacts trading on the grounds of moral impetus is weak where integrity is not considered a worthy bargaining chip.

In the end, it’s not only valuable artefacts that are threatened: The cultural memory of these parts of the Middle East is under siege. Ultimately, understanding the crisis goes beyond an implementation of new legislature: Addressing and understanding the mentality that condones such acts is part of the process of seeking solutions.

For more stories and photographs from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 124, 2017

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