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How ISIS’s Palmyra ‘Erase’ Trap Was Foiled

The Islamic State “spared” some ancient ruins at Palmyra as part of a trap to blow up the antiquities after their liberation, scheming to kill hundreds of Syrian army troops and “erase” the treasures for all time, reports Franklin Lamb.

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Something just didn’t feel quite right to Syrian army brass as they penciled in final plans to liberate the ancient city of Palmyra in early March 2016. They debated how best to drive the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) out of the city and into the surrounding unwelcoming desert. But some generals were puzzled.

“Why did Daesh not do even more damage at the ancient ruins, given their widely broadcast iconoclasm and their targeting as heresy ancient pre-Islamic sites,” one officer remembered asking his colleagues. The jihadists certainly had the means and a perverted Koranic motivation to destroy the whole area of ancient ruins but left much of it intact.

This puzzlement was widely held by Syrian officials and military strategists who increasingly wondered what was really going on as it became evident that the Islamic State’s military positions at Palmyra were untenable and ISIS forces faced certain defeat.

A tour guide in front of the ruins of the Temple of Baal blown up by the Islamic State. He’s holding a drawing of the temple as it used to appear
A tour guide in front of the ruins of the Temple of Baal blown up by the Islamic State. He’s holding a drawing of the temple as it used to appear

The drama of the Islamic State’s occupation of some of the world’s most valuable antiquities had begun eight months earlier. ISIS forces reached Palmyra on May 20, 2015, and in the following days, most of the local population fled by any means available. Many evacuated with the Syrian army as Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) removed as many of Palmyra’s treasures as possible.

Led by Dr. Maamoun Abdul Karim – affectionately known as “Dr. Maamoun” in Syria – the DGAM’s staff worked indefatigably to preserve and protect as much of Palmyra’s cultural heritage as possible. Together with the Syrian army and local residents, the DGAM’s staff was able to protect more than 80 percent of the exhibits at Palmyra’s museum, including transporting a large truck full of antiquities at great personal risk less than 24 hours before ISIS invaded and surrounded the city.

Among the 500 or so people left behind in Palmyra, some did their best to stop ISIS’s destruction of the treasures. On Aug. 18, 2015, after refusing – even under torture – to give ISIS information about the location of certain artifacts, Khaled Ass’ad, the former Director of Palmyra Antiquities and Museums, was accused of being an “apostate” and was brutally murdered near the Palmyra museum where he had labored for decades.

Massive Cultural Crimes

ISIS committed massive cultural heritage crimes, including damage to the Arc de Triumph, Temple of Bel, and Sella (the central part of the temple where the statue of the God Bel was located). Besides destroying historic sites, the Islamic State gloried in other atrocities. At Palmyra’s historic amphitheater, 22 Syrian soldiers were hanged – one each from the massive Roman-era columns.

Yet, partly because of the heroic acts by protectors of the antiquities, the Islamic State’s damage to Palmyra’s archeological sites was more limited than widely believed. Contrary to many media reports, only five percent of the cultural heritage area was damaged by ISIS.

A Russian orchestra performing at Palmyra’s Roman theater on May 5, 2016, after Syrian troops, backed by Russian air power, reclaimed the ancient city from the Islamic State. Image from RT’s live-streaming of the event
A Russian orchestra performing at Palmyra’s Roman theater on May 5, 2016, after Syrian troops, backed by Russian air power, reclaimed the ancient city from the Islamic State. Image from RT’s live-streaming of the event

But why? That was the mystery that Syrian generals pondered as they closed in on Islamic State positions in and around Palmyra.

Clearly, the Islamic State saw advantages in leaving many of the ruins in place, knowing that they provided a degree of safety for key personnel since the Syrian military and its Russian allies were loath to destroy the treasures.

At Palmyra’s National Museum, Syria’s second most visited collection of antiquities after the National Museum in Damascus, ISIS members methodically chiseled off the faces and hands of each of the museum’s 74 statue heads, including those in what is called the “Head Room,” but didn’t destroy the museum in total.

Instead, ISIS housed key leaders, its Sharia court and ISIS records among the remaining statues inside Palmyra’s museum, realizing that they would be fairly safe astride the “Bride of the Desert.”

The Islamic State’s calculation about Syria’s hesitancy to inflict more damage was correct. Before waging the final assault to re-take Palmyra, the government of Bashar al-Assad ordered the army not to shell near the ruins. The Syrian air force was similarly instructed not to bomb the close-in area.

So, the army – at the cost of losing the lives of more soldiers – did not attack from the south into the area of the ancient ruins. Rather the army surrounded the whole area and fought close-in street battles, mainly in the “modern” city area. “Tadmur, (Palmyra) was taken piece by piece to avoid damaging the ruins,” one officer told me.

Suspicious Activity

Despite recognizing how the Islamic State saw the ruins as a relatively safe zone – which was one explanation for why more of the antiquities weren’t destroyed – Syrian military officers were still uncomfortable.

“We felt something was wrong with this picture,” one expert who has worked at Palmyra for the past two decades explained. “Did Daesh (ISIS) explode certain sites mainly for publicity and was it not interested to cause more lasting destruction and erase the surrounding area?”

Map of Syria, showing “Tadmur” also known as Palmyra in center
Map of Syria, showing “Tadmur” also known as Palmyra in center

After razing the Arc de Triumph, Temple of Bel and Sella, ISIS did not inflict further damage or remove the chunks of the blown-up columns and structures. The pieces were left at the base of the structure and ISIS must have been aware that despite the iconoclastic destructions, the columns and structures could be put back together.

As the fight for Palmyra reached its conclusion, Syrian army intelligence admitted that it did not have many agents among the remaining population, which was tightly controlled by ISIS. But army intelligence did receive some reports about seemingly odd middle of the night activity among the ruins. The activity, local sources claimed, increased toward the end of the eight-month ISIS occupation.

The local rumors about nocturnal activities turned out to be accurate. ISIS had developed an elaborate plan to plant explosives among the ruins and detonate the bombs after Syrian troops had reclaimed the ruins, as I learned from interviews, piecing together various comments.

ISIS laid what seemed like a few miles of wires directly connecting virtually every column and structure of ancient Palmyra to massive amounts of buried explosives that included more than 4,000 bombs among the ruins and another 1,000-plus in the town of Palmyra.

Plan to ‘Erase’

Using sophisticated technology and triggering devices, ISIS intended to “erase” the whole area in a massive explosion. Indeed, the ISIS plan, which was apparently referenced in a document later recovered from the museum, was dubbed “Erase.” (“Mahaqa” in Arabic). ISIS planned to “Erase” the whole area of ancient ruins and hoped to kill at least 1,000 Syrian troops.

Syrian army intelligence discovered the plan just a couple of days before the army was to enter the area of the ruins in force. One archeologist who has worked for many years at Palmyra said the scheme involved some of the latest American technology, but another source told me there was nothing used by ISIS that the Syrian and Russian ordnance disposal specialists were unfamiliar with. Still, the breadth and detail of the wiring and explosives that ISIS placed hidden among the ruins were found to be very sophisticated.

A Russian orchestra performs a concert at Palmyra’s ancient Roman theater on May 5, 2016, after Syrian troops, backed by Russian air power, reclaimed the ancient city from the Islamic State. Image from RT’s live-streaming of the event
A Russian orchestra performs a concert at Palmyra’s ancient Roman theater on May 5, 2016, after Syrian troops, backed by Russian air power, reclaimed the ancient city from the Islamic State. Image from RT’s live-streaming of the event

Syrian and Russian experts discovered that ISIS planned to trigger “Erase” by employing one of two means. Plan A was to detonate the massive explosions by using a mobile phone from as far away as between 5 and 10 kilometers. A backup Plan B to trigger the explosion was tied to landline phone lines.

Arriving Syrian forces acted fast. The first measure they took was to have the two Syrian phone services Syriatel and MTN shut down all the phone lines in and around Palmyra. “Erase” was disabled. If ISIS had a Plan C, it did not work either.

The dangerous and tedious unexploded-ordnance-disposal work began in earnest on March 29, 2016, and continued until April 30. The teams of demolition experts were other unsung heroes of Palmyra’s liberation, including 100 Syrian and 200 Russian unexploded-ordnance specialists and 11 Russian explosive-detecting dogs. Some robots were also deployed as part of the massive around-the-clock bomb-clearing operation.

During the 30 days, two soldiers were killed and others were wounded. No fewer than 4,000 booby-trap bombs were defused and removed from among the world’s cultural heritage ruins at ancient Palmyra.

A week later, on May 5, a Russian symphony performed in Palmyra’s famed amphitheater. Still visible atop one column was a rope used to hang one of the 22 Syrian soldiers. The next day, May 6, Syria used the same site to celebrate Martyr’s Day.

Plans to Restore

Since the city’s liberation, experts have formed three units specializing in engineering, archeological evaluations and restoration of damaged artifacts. It is now believed that 95 percent of Daesh’s damage can and will be restored. Some archeologists believe the percentage of restoration may be even higher.

According to one participant, visiting UNESCO officials from Paris recently engaged in very useful discussions of two often misunderstood concepts, restoration vis a visrebuilding. Syria plans restoration at Palmyra, using the original matrix fragments, not rebuilding which suggests using materials from elsewhere. UNESCO agrees with DGAM and has promised major help once security conditions allow. So have many others internationally.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addressing the audience at a concert for Palmyra via a satellite link on May 5, 2016. Image from RT’s live-streaming of the event
Russian President Vladimir Putin addressing the audience at a concert for Palmyra via a satellite link on May 5, 2016. Image from RT’s live-streaming of the event

Why such optimism? Is it misplaced? Experts in Syria think not. At virtually all the sites that ISIS did destroy, the large pieces of the fallen structures are on the ground. And they can be restored to their original position.

One Japanese scholar from Osaka University said that by employing recently developed technology, similar in some respects to what Japanese experts used to “look inside” Egyptian pyramids a few years back, the 325 pieces in a pile of rubble from one ISIS-destroyed arch can be put back exactly in place.

According to the Syrian general who commanded the neutralization of the ISIS “Erase” project (and who generously gave me hours of his and his staff’s time), Palmyra and the close-in surrounding area are now cleansed of bobby-traps and are safe. The general proclaimed that Palmyra and its cultural heritage sites are ready to again receive foreign visitors.

By: Franklin Lamb

 Author Franklin Lamb is doing research in Syria and Lebanon and volunteers with the MSRCL and the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program. His latest book, Syria’s Endangered Heritage.

Source: Consortium News

توثيق الانتهاكات الآثارية في مناطق سيطرة القوات الكوردية في سوريا

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في حوار أجرته “شبكة كوردستريت الإخبارية” مع مدير هيئة السياحة وحماية الآثار في مدينة الحسكة “عدنان بري” حول المناطق الأثرية في المنطقة الكوردية في سوريا، وأثر الحرب الدائرة في سوريا منذ سنوات عليها وتأثيرها؛ أفاد بري بأنه ومنذ اندلاع الأزمة السورية أصبح هذا التراث يعيش خطرا حقيقيا حيث بدأ الخط البياني لتدمير ونسف ونهب وتخريب المواقع بالظهور والارتفاع منذ مراحله الأولى حتى وصل به الحال إلى درجة “كارثية” تهدد بطي صفحات خالدة من عمر الحضارة الإنسانية. وبحسب قوله فإن أنظار تجار وسماسرة الآثار باتت تتجه نحو سوريا، حيث تشكلت شبكات تهريب عالمية فيها يسرت عمليات التنقيب وسهلت من نقل وبيع القطع الأثرية إلى البلدان المجاورة ومنها إلى البلدان الأخرى، حيث الأسواق السوداء ودور المزاد العلني لتصبح مصدرا لدخل الأفراد وعونا لبعض المنظمات المقاتلة حسب تعبيره .

هذا وأوضح باحث الآثار السوري بأن عدد المواقع والتلال الأثرية في سوريا تزيد عن العشرة آلاف موقع تتوزع في عموم سوريا منها أكثر من ألف موقع في منطقة الجزيرة، مشيرا بأن “مناطق حوض الخابور العلوي” وحدها تشكل جزءا أساسيا من بلاد سوبارتو العظمى “ميزوبوتاميا” والتي تعد من أغنى مناطق العالم بالتلال والمواقع الأثرية، موضحا اهميتها التي كانت محط أنظار الكثير من البعثات والهيئات والمنظمات العالمية التي تسابقت لدراستها، والكشف عن تاريخها وإبراز معالم حضاراتها على حد وصفه.

وأضاف بأن منطقة الجزيرة التي لم تسلم من الدمار كانت الأقل ضرارا من باقي المناطق من ناحية المواقع الأثرية في سوريا، موثقا كلامه بما ورد في التقرير الصادر عن معهد الشرق الأوسط للآثار الأمريكية، مؤكدا بأن أكثر موقع كان عرضة للانتهاكات والتخريبات في الجزيرة هي تل عجاجة “شاديكاني”، حيث تعرض الموقع لعمليات تنقيب ممنهج وتخريب وتدمير للسويات والطبقات الأثرية وسرقة محتويات التل من التماثيل والمنحوتات واللقى الأثرية الأخرى من قبل الجماعات الإسلامية “المتطرفة” والمتاجرة بها. كذلك تعرض لعمليات تجريف واسعة على أطراف التل عبر استخدامهم لآليات ثقيلة وذلك من الجهة الشمالية والشرقية والجنوبية الشرقية، تخللتها مجموعة كبيرة من الأنفاق والحفر كذلك تعرض سطح التل لمجموعة كبيرة من الحفريات وذلك بأشكال وأحجام واعماق مختلفة تجاوزت عددها ال١٠٠حفرة على حد ما أشار إليه .

من جانب آخر أكد “بري” أن مكتب الجريمة المنظمة التابعة لهيئة الداخلية في الجزيرة عثرت على العديد من القطع واللقى الأثرية المستخرجة من “تل عجاجة” كانت معدة للتهريب خارج سوريا في معمل غاز الجبسة والذي كان تحت سيطرة “مايسمى” تنظيم الدولة الإسلامية، منوها بأنه تم توثيق هذه القطع واللقى وحفظها في مكان آمن، ومن جهة أخرى أوضح مشيرا بإن التنقيبات النظامية كانت بين أعوام ١٩٨٠-١٩٩٠م من قبل البعثة السورية الألمانية والتي كشفت عن قصر اشوري وسور وعدد من التماثيل ك”الاسود والثيران المجنحة “اللاماسو” إضافة إلى العديد من المنحوتات والبلاطات الحجرية “الاورتوستات” المصنوعة من الحجر الكلسي التي تستقدم من جبال شنكال كما كان يقول عالم الآثار الفرنسي “جاستين ماسبيرو” إلى جانب الكشف عن فخاريات ورقم مسمارية.

وختم بري بالقول بالإشارة إلى اعتزام مديريته إقامة متحف في المنطقة الكوردية في سوريا تحفظ فيها آثار المنطقة التي تدل على عظم الإرث الإنساني فيها. منوها بأن هذه الخطوة سابقة لأوانها بسبب الظروف التي تشهدها البلاد، وبانهم لا زالوا يبذلون كل الجهد لتوثيق جميع المواقع التي تقع تحت سيطرة القوات الكوردية وإرسالها للمنظمات المعنية ومنها منظمة اليونيسكو التابعة للأمم المتحدة، ومعهد الشرق الأوسط للآثار في أمريكا ليتم إدراجها في إطار اتفاقيات حماية الآثار و صونها.

 

المصدر: كورد ستريت

How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 Dogs Out-Witted ISIS and Saved Palmyra

The photo above, taken 6/22/2016 by Mr. Wael al-Hafian of the Homs Directorate of Antiquities, illustrates that at ISIS-bombed structures, the broken archeological pieces are all still at the site. This is crucially important. The whole ruins area is being guarded by the Syrian army. One very interesting and charming Japanese gentleman excitedly exclaimed that by employing recently developed technology, similar in some respects to what Japanese experts used to “look inside” Egyptian pyramids at few years back, he has ‘seen’ in the pile of rubble shown above approximately 325 pieces of the bombed arch and that every piece can be put back exactly in its place. This is very good news and one hopes that the gentleman from an Osaka University is correct
The photo above, taken 6/22/2016 by Mr. Wael al-Hafian of the Homs Directorate of Antiquities, illustrates that at ISIS-bombed structures, the broken archeological pieces are all still at the site. This is crucially important. The whole ruins area is being guarded by the Syrian army. One very interesting and charming Japanese gentleman excitedly exclaimed that by employing recently developed technology, similar in some respects to what Japanese experts used to “look inside” Egyptian pyramids at few years back, he has ‘seen’ in the pile of rubble shown above approximately 325 pieces of the bombed arch and that every piece can be put back exactly in its place. This is very good news and one hopes that the gentleman from an Osaka University is correct

Something just didn’t feel quite right to Syrian army brass as they penciled in final plans to liberated Palmyra in early March 2016 and as they debated how best to drive Daesh (ISIS) out of Palmyra and deep into the surrounding unwelcoming Syrian desert. This, according to army intelligence officials and commanders who this week briefed this observer at various locations around Palmyra.

Some generals were puzzled. “Why did Daesh not do even more damage at the ancient ruins, given their widely broadcast iconoclasm and their targeting as heresy ancient pre-Islamic sites,” one officer remembers asking his colleagues. Daesh (ISIS) certainly had the means and their perverted Koranic motivation to destroy the whole ancient ruins area. This puzzlement was widely held by officials and military strategists who increasingly wondered what was really going on as it became evident that Daesh’s military positions at Palmyra were untenable and they surely would be driven out. Many archeologists and others wondered the same thing as the horrors shown on ISIS U-tube videos began to appear on the Internet.

The Syrian army was soon to learn the answer to their question of why didn’t the Islamic State (Daesh) do more damage among the acres of ruins?

A bit of background. Before waging its final assault to re-take Palmyra, Damascus issued orders to the army not to shell near the ruins. The Syrian air force was similarly instructed not to bomb in the close-in area. So the army, at the cost of losing some troops, did not invade from the south into the area of the ancient ruins. Rather they surrounded the whole area and fought close-in street battles, mainly in the “modern” city area. “Tadmor, (Palmyra) was taken piece by piece to avoid damaging the ruins”, one officer who took part in the fighting explained to this observer.

It is now known why sparing the “ruins area” from close-in fighting may have been alright with ISIS, for what they had carefully planned, as discussed below, was a deadly surprise for the anticipated and hoped, for more than for 1000 Syrian troops they calculated would soon arrive and advance into the ruins.

ISIS had correctly assumed that the Syrian military would not bomb Palmyra’s National Museum, Syria’s second most tourist visited collection of antiquities after the National Museum in Damascus. For this reason ISIS housed key leaders and its Sharia court and archives among the remaining statues inside Palmyra’s museum and were fairly safe during their 8 month occupation of the “Bride of the Desert”. This, as they methodically chiseled off the faces and hands of each of the 74 statue heads, including those in what people here refer to the Museum’s “Head Room.” It was in the basement of the museum that ISIS planned for the fate of the acres of our cultural heritage ruins.

The above photo taken by this observer on 6/22/2016 at the Palmyra Museum illustrates the ISIS results of chiseling off every face and hand (I counted a total of 74) on statues they found in the Museum.
The above photo taken by this observer on 6/22/2016 at the Palmyra Museum illustrates the ISIS results of chiseling off every face and hand (I counted a total of 74) on statues they found in the Museum

ISIS damage to the Palmyra Museum and its content would have been much worse according to eyewitnesses had it not been for the work of Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) led by Dr. Maamoun Abdul Karim. “Dr. Maamoun” as he is affectionately known is Syria, is an international patriot to whom all people of good will are indebted for his indefatigable labor on behalf of all of us to preserve, protect and restore our shared cultural heritage. Every Abdul-Karim initiative since the start of the current crisis was solidly implemented by DGAMS competent staff of hundreds, as well as the frequent close-in support of the Syrian army and crucially, the local population across Syria, many of whom this observer has been honored to meet the past few years. Together they were able to protect more than 80% of the exhibits at Palmyra’s museum. Their most recent mission of transporting a large truck full of Museum contents was undertaken at great personal risk and less than 24 hours before ISIS invaded and surrounded the city.

There has been much understandable confusion and also a bit of misinformation about the degree of damage to Palmyra’s archeological sites. Contrary to many media reports, only five percent of the area of our cultural heritage archeological treasures was damaged by ISIS.

Experts at Palmyra have recently formed three units specializing in engineering, archeological evaluations and restoration of damage artifacts. As noted above, it is widely believed here that 95% of damage caused by Daesh can and will be restored. Even a higher percentage can be restored some archeologists working here estimate. And 95% of all the ruins were untouched. Why?

These assertions are not meant to minimize the massive cultural heritage crimes that ISIS committed, including but not limited to the Arc de Triomphe, Temple of Bel including its cella ( this being the central part of the temple where stood the statue of the God Bel), and other archeological sites visited by this observer in the company of experts from Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museum (DGAM) including my new friend Mohammad Assa’ad, the much cherished son of the hero of all of us, Khaled Assa’ad, who on August 18, 2015 was brutally murdered near the Palmyra Museum where he had labored for decades. Khaled Ass’ad was accused by ISIS of being an “apostate’ for refusing to give them, even under torture, the information they were seeking about the whereabouts of certain artifacts.

The nagging question persisted into March 2016. Why the limited destruction? What was ISIS up to? Some archeologists and military strategists had been wondering and watching since the ISIS occupation and atrocities began. Another question being asked was why at locations such as the Arc de Triomphe, Temple of Bel and its sella, ISIS did not damage or remove the chunks of the blown up columns and structures. They were left at the base of the structure and ISIS must have been aware that despite its iconoclastic destructions, the columns and structures could be put back together. “We felt something was wrong with this picture” one expert who has worked at Palmyra for the past two decades explained. “Did Daesh (ISIS) explode certain sites mainly for publicity and was it not interested to cause more lasting destruction and erase the surrounding area?” The gentleman’s use of the word, “erase” was soon to have more significance than this observer initially attached to his word choice.

Visiting UNESCO officials from Paris recently engaged in very useful discussions here, according to one participant, of two often misunderstood concepts, restoration vis a vis rebuilding. Syria plans restoration at Palmyra which uses the original matrix fragments and not rebuilding which suggests using materials from elsewhere. UNESCO agrees with DGAM and has promised major help once security conditions allow. So have many others internationally.

Why such optimism? Is it misplaced? Experts here think not. As the photo below makes clear, at virtually all the sites that ISIS bombed, the large pieces of the fallen structures are on the ground. And they can and will be restored to their original position.

 So what was the Daesh plan for Palmyra and what went wrong?

We now know that any chance for restoration of our cultural heritage is not what ISIS had in mind as it prepared to evacuate Palmyra. Many details have emerged about their pre-liberation plans for the sites.

As soon as ISIS arrived to Palmyra on May 20, 2015 and in the coming days, the local population with some exceptions such as the family of the former Director of Palmyra Antiquities and Museums, Khaled Ass’ad fled by any means they could. Many evacuated with the Syrian army.

Syrian army intelligence admits that it did not have many agents in the area, whose remaining population of approximately 500 ISIS tightly controlled. But they did receive some reports about seemingly odd middle-of-the-night activity among the ruins. The activity, locals sources claimed, increased toward the end of the eight months of ISIS occupation.

To shorten a long story, this observer can reliably report that by piecing together bits of information and evaluating rumors, Syrian army intelligence discovered, just a couple of days before it intended to enter in force into the area of ruins, that ISIS had developed a very elaborate plan, using some of the latest American technology, one archeologist who has worked for many years at Palmyra explained. Another source told this observer that no, there was nothing used by ISIS that the Syrian and Russian ordnance disposal specialists were unfamiliar with. But the breadth and detail of the wiring and explosives ISIS placed hidden among the ruins were found to be very sophisticated. The ISIS plan which was also apparently referenced in a document later recovered from the Museum was dubbed “Erase.” (“Mahaqa” in Arabic). ISIS planned to “Erase” the whole area of our ancient ruins and ISIS hoped to kill at least 1000 Syrian troops who they assumed would be among the ruins when they were detonated.

The rumors from some locals turned out to be quite accurate with respect to unusual nocturnal activates among the columns and ancient structures. ISIS laid what must have been a few miles of wires directly connecting virtually every column and structure of ancient Palmyra to massive amounts of buried explosives that included more than 4000 bombs among the ruins and another 1000-plus in Palmyra town. Using technology and triggering devices some claim were not seen to be used earlier, the whole area was intended by ISIS to be “Erased” by a massive explosion, and as noted above hopefully killing large numbers of Syrian soldiers at the same time.

More details of the ISIS “Erase” project were uncovered when army investigators listened to local sources and began to poke around the ruins. Long story made short, Syrian and Russian experts discovered that ISIS planned to trigger “Erase” at their moment of choosing by employing one of two means. The ISIS Plan A was to detonate the massive explosions of “Erase” by using a mobile phone from as far away as between 5 and 10 kilometers to trigger the massive explosion. A backup Plan B triggering method was tied into landline phone lines. Discovered only a short period before the conflagration was likely to be unleashed, arriving Syrian forces acted fast and the first measure they took was to have the two Syrian phone services Syriatel and MTN shut down all the phone lines in and around Palmyra. “Erase” was disabled unless ISIS had a Plan C. If so, it did not work either.

The dangerous and tedious unexploded ordnance disposal work began in earnest on March 29, 2016 and continued until April 30, 2016. A week later on May 5th Russian symphony performed in the amphitheater where not too long ago 22 Syrian soldiers were hanged-one each on a massive column. Still visible is one of the hanging ropestied at the top of one column. The next day, May 6th, Syria used the same site to celebrate Martyr’s Day during a 7 to 10 p.m. ceremony.

The dangerous work of clearing the unexploded ordnance was performed by many to date unsung heroes; among them are 100 Syrian and 200 Russian unexploded ordnance specialists and 11 Russian explosive detecting dogs. Some robots were all deployed as part of the massive around clock bomb clearing operation.

At the end of the intense 30 days of heroic work, which claimed the lives of two soldiers and wounded others, no fewer than 4000 booby-trap bombs were defused and removed from among our cultural heritage ruins at ancient Palmyra.

According to the Syrian General who commanded the whole neutralization of the ISIS “Erase” project, and who generously gave these observer hours of his and his staff’s time, all of Palmyra and the close-in surrounding area are now cleansed of bobby-traps and are safe.

The General proclaimed just this week that Palmyra and our cultural heritage sites here are ready and waiting to again receive foreign friends.

Author is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program 
Source: CP

الثورة الرقمية تستعرض إمكاناتها في توثيق التراث

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تطاول الثورة الرقمية وما تقدمه من إمكانات مدهشة للتوثيق، مختلف المجالات، ومنها التراث المادي والصروح المعمارية التاريخية الخالدة. وللاطلاع على أحدث الأساليب المعتمدة اليوم في توثيق التراث المعماري والتحف الفنية، أقيم في «متحف الفنون والمهن»

(Musée des arts et métiers) في باريس، معرض يعدّ الأول من نوعه في العاصمة الفرنسية، تحت عنوان «الغوص في التراث». و»متحف الفنون والمهن» هو أقدم متحف مخصص للعلوم في فرنسا، تأسس عام 1794 وخضع عام 2000 لتغييرات مهمة جعلته مكاناً استثنائياً للتعرف الى الاكتشافات العلمية التاريخية والحديثة والمعاصرة في مجالات عدة منها الاتصالات والمواصلات والبناء والطاقة… أما معرض «الغوص في التراث» فقد سمح لزوار المتحف بالتعرف الى نتاج التعاون بين المتاحف الفرنسية والمؤسسات الفرنسية والعالمية المتخصصة في النتاجات الرقمية للتعريف بالمواقع والمتاحف الفرنسية والعالمية.

وتمثلت مفاجأة المعرض في الحضور البارز لمصر من خلال زيارة افتراضية لقبر توت عنخ آمون. التجهيز التقني لهذه الزيارة قام به معهد (eon reality) بالتعاون مع «مركز توثيق التراث الحضاري والطبيعي المصري» الذي أنشئ عام 2000 بمبادرة من الدكتور والمستشار الثقافي فتحي صالح لتوثيق التراث المصري المادي والمعنوي في شكل رقمي وإلكتروني.

التراث المادي، كما هو معروف، يغطّي كل ما هو ملموس كالآثار الفنية والمخطوطات والعمارة ومنها كل ما يتعلق بصروح الحضارات التي تعاقبت في مصر.

أما معهد (eon reality) فقد تأسس في ولاية كاليفورنيا في الولايات المتحدة العام 1999 وله فروع موزعة على دول ومدن العالم، ومنها في العالم العربي، وعلى سبيل المثال، جدة وأبو ظبي والدوحة ومسقط.

على شاشة كبيرة في المتحف، تمكّن الزوّار من مشاهدة رحلة افتراضية تختصر اكتشاف عالم الآثار البريطاني هوارد كارتر مقبرة الفرعون توت عنخ أمون عام 1922 في وادي الملوك، على ضفة النيل الغربية المقابلة لمدينة الأقصر. كان اكتشاف هذه المقبرة حدثاً علمياً وإعلامياً فائق الأهمية ولا تزال أهميته قائمة الى اليوم، لا بسبب الدور التاريخي الذي لعبه توت عنخ آمون، بل لأن مقبرته التي كانت مختفية عن الأنظار لآلاف السنين ظلت بمأمن عن لصوص القبور فوصلت محتوياتها وكنوزها التي تعد بالآلاف سليمة بالكامل، وهي اليوم موزعة على عدد من المتاحف المصرية.

اعتمد معدّو هذه الرحلة الافتراضية على كتابات العالم كارتر ومقالات الصحف الصادرة في حينها وأيضاً الصور التي اخذت بالأبيض والأسود لاكتشاف يعتبر من أهم الاكتشافات الأثرية في القرن العشرين.

ولا بد من التذكير بأن القاهرة استضافت مؤتمراً دولياً عن توت عنخ آمون أخيراً، وعرضت فيه هذه التجربة الافتراضية في المتحف المصري، في إطار نشاطات المؤتمر الذي شارك فيه خبراء من العالم أجمع.

من مصر إلى سورية حيث نتعرف في المعرض الى تجارب افتراضية جديدة منها تجربة مخصصة لمدينة تدمر أعدها الفريق الفني لشركة إيكونم (iconem) الفرنسية المتخصصة في استخدام التقنيات الحديثة في توثيق التراث الأثري، بالتعاون مع المديرية العامة للآثار والمتاحف السورية. وكانت الشركة الفرنسية قامت بمسح جوّي أظهر كل المباني التي تدمرت في المدينة التاريخية المسجلة على لائحة التراث العالمي.

وكان ممثل شركة «إيكونم» أكد في المعرض ان العمل مرّ بمراحل عدة. ففي البداية، جُمعت صور سابقة للمكان من المصادر المتوافرة، وبعدها جرى تصوير الأبنية كما هي في الوقت الراهن، ما سمح بإنجاز صور ثلاثية الأبعاد ستساعد العلماء في عملهم على الأرض.

بموازاة تدمر، عمل فريق «إيكونم» على مواقع سورية أخرى منها جزيرة اوغاريت التي لعبت دوراً مهماً في زمن الحضارة الفينيقية، والجامع الأموي في دمشق، والمسرح الروماني في جبلة، وقلعة الحصن من مرحلة القرون الوسطى بالقرب من حمص، والقصور الدمشقية التي ترجع إلى المرحلة العثمانية.

أهمية معرض «الغوص في التراث» أنه يؤكّد تطوّر الثورة الرقمية ودورها في عملية التوثيق. ولقد غيّرت هذه الثورة التقنية من نظرتنا إلى التراث المادي وتعاطينا معه ورؤيتنا له، كما يؤكد أنّ هذا التراث هو ملك للبشرية جمعاء وليس حكراً على شعب أو حضارة.

ومن هنا ضرورة الحفاظ عليه وتوثيقه والتعريف به على نطاق واسع، وإيصاله إلى ملايين البشر في القارّات الخمس، وذلك بفضل الاعتماد على الوسائل الجديدة وتطبيقاتها المختلفة، إضــافة إلى الاحتفاظ بصورة كاملة للآثار التي دمّرت في السنوات الأخيرة نتيجة الحروب المتواصلة في المنطقة العربية.

 

المصدر: الحياة

فنانون سوريون يعيدون من مخيماتهم الحياة إلى الآثار السورية

لا يملك هؤلاء الفنانون السوريون في مخيم الزعتري في الأردن إلا أدوات بسيطة مثل الخشب والصلصال ليصنعوا نماذج مصغّرة عن عدد من المعالم الأثرية التي دمرتها الحرب السورية.  قلعة حلب ومدينة تدمر الأثرية ونواعير حماة كلها مواقع تابعة للائحة للتراث العالمي.. وكلها دمّرت تحت وقع الحرب السورية..

إنها خسارة ليست لسوريا وحدها بل للعالم بأسره.. وهؤلاء الفنانون من اللاجئين يعملون على بناء ما فقدوه من أرض وطنهم.

 

المصدر: سي إن إن عربية

How Tomb Raiders Are Stealing Our History

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Seized by federal agents, an Egyptian coffin sits in a secret warehouse in New York

The lady in the striped wig with the staring eyes lies on a brightly lit table as the professor hovers a palm’s breadth from her face. “Still in remarkable condition … extremely well preserved,” the professor murmurs. As her gaze glides down the victim’s body, painted on the lid of her coffin, she points out a fresh cut across the upper thighs, and symbols of the god Amun, an ibis, and magic spells from the Book of the Dead. “And here is her name and title: Shesep-amun-tayesher, Mistress of the House. By reading it aloud, I fulfill her wish to be remembered in the afterlife.”

The Egyptian noblewoman has been dead some 2,600 years. Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is examining her inner sarcophagus, one of three wooden cases that, nested like Russian dolls, once cradled her mummified body, the odor of which lingers in the coffin. Looters sawed this sarcophagus into four pieces and shipped it by airmail to the United States, where an antiques restorer put it back together. Months later customs agents discovered the coffin stashed at the home of a Brooklyn antiquities dealer. It lies in a warehouse at a secret location in New York City, where federal authorities hold seized artifacts from around the world: a huge stone Buddha from India, terra-cotta horsemen from China, reliefs from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. All are orphans of the illegal antiquities trade, victims of the international battle over cultural heritage.

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Satellite images of Mari, an ancient Mesopotamian city in eastern Syria, show a dramatic increase in looting pits between August 2011 (Down) and November 2014. The structure at the center is a roof over the ruins of a once grand palace
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Paddling into the afterlife, Nile boatmen once accompanied an Egyptian on death’s long voyage. The artifacts were looted from a grave around 2009 and began a clandestine journey from Egypt to Dubai, then on to New York and Virginia, where they were seized by federal agents and eventually returned to Egypt

From murderous temple thieves in India to church pillagers in Bolivia to hundred-man bands of tomb raiders in China’s Liaoning Province, looters are strip-mining our past. Like most illegal activities, looting is hard to quantify. But satellite imagery, police seizures, and witness reports from the field all indicate that the trade in stolen treasures is booming around the world.

In Egypt, Parcak has pioneered the use of satellite imagery to measure looting and site-encroachment damage. Her research tells a grim tale: A quarter of the country’s 1,100 known archaeological areas have sustained major damage. “At the current rate of destruction, all known sites in Egypt will be seriously compromised by 2040,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Over the past two decades a series of high-profile court cases and repatriations have exposed the dark side of the antiquities trade, bringing to light criminal networks of diggers and traffickers who sell looted artifacts to Madison Avenue galleries and renowned museums. In 2002 Frederick Schultz, a prominent Manhattan dealer in ancient art, was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison for conspiring to receive stolen Egyptian objects. In 2006 the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under pressure from the Italian government, agreed to return the famous Euphronios krater—a wine-mixing bowl looted from an Etruscan tomb near Rome. And in recent years the drumbeat of war and turmoil in many antiquities-rich countries, culminating in the sack of ancient Mesopotamia by the Islamic State (ISIS), has sparked concern that the antiquities trade is helping fund terrorism.

Yet the debate about how to halt looting has reached an impasse. Archaeologists blame the antiquities trade for looting, claiming that many artifacts on the market were stolen. Collectors, dealers, and many museum curators counter that most antiquities sales are legal. Some argue that the ultimate goal of safeguarding humankind’s artistic heritage obliges them to “rescue” antiquities from unstable countries—even if it means buying from looters.

The story of Shesepamuntayesher gives these abstract questions a harsh clarity. By piecing together clues from Egyptologists, museum curators, and federal agents, I’ll retrace her journey from a grave somewhere in Egypt, through a complex network of antiquities smugglers, handlers, and dealers, to this high-security holding tank in New York City.

The first step is to locate Shesepamuntayesher’s likely burial place. Based on her coffins’ hieroglyphs and artistic style, Egyptologists at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that she lived around 600 B.C. A search of Egyptian coffin books and antiquities websites reveals a similar sarcophagus, of a woman with the same unusual name, reported to have been found at Abu Sir al Malaq, a site 60 miles south of Cairo.

In ancient times Abu Sir al Malaq, then called Busiris, was a prosperous city overlooking the floodplain between the Nile River and El Faiyum oasis. It was famed for its temples of Osiris, god of fertility and the afterlife, and for the splendid graves of its 4,000-year history. Today, in hazy sunlight, Abu Sir looks like a recently bombed battlefield. Craters and shafts gash the rolling sand where looters have rummaged in the earth with shovels, backhoes, and dynamite. In the process they’ve violated countless graves, leaving a grim scree of skulls and shattered bones around many looting pits.

Amal Farag, the head Antiquities Ministry official at Abu Sir and nearby sites, takes me on a tour of the site with five guards carrying Kalashnikovs. A slender, upright woman of 49 with a hard mouth and gentle eyes, Farag picks up strips of cedar with wooden nails and traces of red pigment—fragments of ancient sarcophagi. “The looters keep only the good pieces and smash or throw down the rest,” she says. “For every nice piece, they destroy hundreds.”

Farag leads me to a shaft tomb in a hillside, angling down into a dark chamber. Here, in April 2012, she confronted three looters. During a routine visit to Abu Sir with a colleague, she noticed a taxi parked near the tomb. Coming closer, the two women came face-to-face with three tall, muscular men in galabia robes.

“I told my colleague, ‘If you feel afraid, just pretend you’re very proud,’ ” Farag says. Pride did the trick: After glaring at them wordlessly for a moment, the men climbed into the taxi and drove off.

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Grave robbing in Egypt is as old as the pharaohs. The tomb of Ramses V and Ramses VI in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor was plundered about 3,000 years ago, during a time of economic crisis and foreign invasion.

Now Farag leads me into the tomb and points to the spot on the floor where she found two splendid sarcophagi that the looters had stashed under a blanket. As my eyes adjust to the gloom, I see niches cut in the rock walls of the chamber and tunnels leading to other chambers deeper in the hillside.

Perhaps Shesepamuntayesher was looted from a tomb like this. She would have lain in one of these niches, surrounded by the objects she’d cherished in life: jewelry, a walking stick, papyri containing magic spells, chests decorated with gods of the dead. Her ancestors and descendants would have occupied nearby niches, with their own treasures. If found intact, such a family tomb would open a bright window on the past. Even orphaned by looting as she is, Shesepamuntayesher is valuable because of her hieroglyphs and paintings, but properly excavated she’d be priceless—the difference between a page torn from a book and an entire book, set in a large library.

Farag and her colleague managed to haul the two coffins out of the grave and load them into their car so they could be moved to a safe place. On the drive back to ministry headquarters, they were chased by a Peugeot 504 that came within inches of their bumper. Finally, at an intersection, a truck cut off their pursuers and they escaped.

When we climb out of the tomb, the guards are scanning the neighboring fields and houses, assault rifles ready. Farag explains that local villagers feel no bond with ancient Egyptian culture and pillage their past in order to survive in the present. Poor residents of many archaeologically rich countries think this way, working as low-paid “subsistence diggers.”

Looting increased after the 2011 revolution, when government security forces melted away. But Parcak’s satellite analysis indicates that a major spike had already occurred two years earlier, when the global financial crisis battered the Egyptian economy, driving up food and gas prices and unemployment. Some jobless people turned to looting to survive.

The guards escort us to the highway, and Farag shakes my hand a long time. “Get off the roads by dark,” she says.

This still feels like a revolution.

Digging up the past for profit has been a profession for thousands of years. The earliest known trial of looters in Egypt took place in Thebes in 1113 B.C. A gang of looters led by an enterprising quarryman named Amenpanefer pillaged rock-cut tombs. The quarryman and his accomplices were convicted and probably executed by impalement.

Invading armies also have carried off Egypt’s antiquities. Roman conquerors sent entire obelisks back home in purpose-built ships. From the 16th through the mid-20th centuries, when Egypt was dominated by foreign powers, countless pieces of its past were sent to cultural centers abroad by means of gift, trade, and coercion. Foreign archaeologists received a portion of the artifacts found in their excavations through an official arrangement with Egyptian authorities known as partage, from the French for “sharing.” Travelers bought antiquities from licensed dealers in Cairo, Luxor, and elsewhere. Such transactions often went undocumented, because antiquities were widely considered personal possessions. Though laws already existed to protect antiquities, the modern concepts of cultural property—and looting—were still evolving.

Using toilet cleaner and a dental probe, middlemen clean antique coins dug up in Syria. Second-tier looters like these buy antiquities from diggers and sell them to smugglers and dealers, who resell them at a considerable profit.
Using toilet cleaner and a dental probe, middlemen clean antique coins dug up in Syria. Second-tier looters like these buy antiquities from diggers and sell them to smugglers and dealers, who resell them at a considerable profit.

Change in Egypt and beyond began in the 1950s, as colonial empires dissolved and former subject countries gained self-rule. Inspired by a new sense of national identity, many countries strengthened existing laws or enacted new ones to protect their past, which included still buried artifacts. In 1983 Egypt declared that all items of cultural significance and over a century old belonged to the state. In 1970 UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which to date 131 countries have signed.

Twenty miles north of Abu Sir, I meet Mohammed Youssef, director of the rich Middle Kingdom sites of Lisht and Dahshur. In the chaotic months after the revolution of January 2011, gangs of looters ravaged the sites, sometimes using earthmovers and digging at night under floodlights.

Youssef shows me the rock-cut tomb where, soon after the revolution began, he and one of his inspectors rescued two magnificent limestone reliefs stripped from another tomb. Two groups armed with machine guns were arguing over the reliefs. “When we approached, they shot their guns in the air. They weren’t afraid of us at all,” Youssef remembers. His team returned when the gunmen were gone, however, and recovered the reliefs.

Might makes right in unstable areas, especially in wartime. During the Cambodian civil war, the Khmer Rouge and other military groups often controlled looters working in their territory. Likewise in Syria today, ISIS takes a cut of looting profits, but so do groups affiliated with the armies of President Bashar al Assad, the Kurdish YPG, and the opposition.

Youssef says important locals play a key role in Lisht and Dahshur. “There are very well known people involved in the looting. They are wealthy, prominent, untouchable.” One family in a nearby village, Youssef says, commands a large private militia.

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A jumble of artifacts, some possibly fake, are offered for sale at an antiquarian dealer’s home in northwest Syria. Forged antiquities are a major industry in many countries, where they are fobbed off on unwary buyers, used to conceal real antiquities during shipment, and even substituted for original pieces in museums.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed Abdel Zaher, the short, broad, jovial chief of operations of the Egyptian antiquities police, explains that many looting networks in Egypt are structured like four-tiered pyramids. (“Pyramids, of course!” he chuckles.) The base, perhaps three-quarters of the manpower, is made up of poor villagers whose knowledge of the local terrain and monuments is essential to finding loot. The second tier consists of intermediaries who collect objects from local diggers and organize workers into crews. Third-tier players, Abdel Zaher says, spirit antiquities out of the country and eventually sell them to foreign buyers at the apex of the looting pyramid.

In Egypt, as in other source countries, profit margins rise steadily as artifacts move up the chain. Some second-tier looters have been reported to resell objects at 10 times the price they pay to diggers. “These are professional criminals, and antiquities are just one of the things they deal in,” Abdel Zaher says. He describes several recent drug raids in which police found antiquities alongside narcotics.

In unstable areas, antiquities may follow the same distribution networks used by arms traffickers. “I often found caches of antiquities together with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and other weapons,” says Matthew Bogdanos, a New York prosecutor and Marine Corps colonel who served in Iraq in the early 2000s.

Among the 50-odd ports, airports, and overland routes used to smuggle antiquities out of Egypt, I choose to visit Damietta. Shesepamuntayesher’s coffins were shipped to the United States from Dubai, in one instance hidden in a container loaded with furniture. Damietta is one of Egypt’s busiest containerports, doing a brisk business with Dubai, and is also the country’s furniture capital, where newlyweds go to furnish their first home. Port officials recently seized several shipping containers of furniture with illicit antiquities hidden inside.

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A huaquero, or tomb robber, offers a painted textile for sale in a cemetery in Huarmey, Peru. But is this an authentic artifact looted from a pre-Inca site nearby or a modern fake? Only an expert can tell.

It’s only 150 miles from Cairo to Damietta, but the drive takes me nearly five hours. The previous night insurgents had killed two police officers outside my hotel near Cairo, and sporadic RPG attacks have occurred on this road. Security is high, with regular roadblocks. I study the endless stream of trucks that pass them, piled high with onions, melons, caged chickens, and bales of wool. Any of these vehicles could have concealed Shesepamuntayesher’s coffin.

Once Shesepamuntayesher reaches Dubai, her trail finally grows clearer. On the basis of emails, customs declarations, and shipping manifests, prosecutors and federal investigators allege that three men were involved in sending her from Dubai to the United States: Mousa Khouli, a Syrian-born antiquities dealer based in New York City; Salem Alshdaifat, a Jordanian citizen based in Michigan; and Ayman Ramadan, a Jordanian based in Dubai. (Khouli eventually pleaded guilty to smuggling and making false statements to a federal agent and was sentenced to six months’ home confinement. Alshdaifat pleaded guilty to a false official writing misdemeanor and was fined a thousand dollars. Ramadan remains a fugitive.)

Documents produced in litigation show that Alshdaifat sent snapshots of Shesepamuntayesher’s coffin set to Khouli, and Ramadan and other parties eventually shipped the pieces—with misleading descriptions of the contents and value—to Khouli and a coin dealer in Connecticut. Khouli then used the same snapshots to resell the sarcophagi to a collector in Virginia. Investigators with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) allege that Ayman Ramadan handled antiquities looted from Syria, Jordan, and Libya. And emails between Alshdaifat and potential customers suggest his direct knowledge of looting in Egypt.

Brenton Easter, an ICE special agent who investigated the Shesepamuntayesher case, observes that international looting networks collaborate with each other far more successfully than law enforcement officials do with one another. He points out that the container that brought Shesepamuntayesher’s outer sarcophagus to the U.S. was shipped by Amal Star Antiques, a Dubai company. According to Easter, Amal Star is owned by Noor Sham, of the Sham family of antiquities dealers based in Mumbai, India. Investigative journalist Peter Watson, in his bookSotheby’s: The Inside Story, alleged that members of the Sham family ran a major looting and smuggling operation that brought temple sculptures from India into the U.K. in the 1990s, sometimes via Dubai, and consigned several prominent pieces for sale with Sotheby’s in London.

“I don’t always know the good guys around the world, the other law enforcers in different countries,” says Easter, surveying a world map pinned to his cube in the Department of Homeland Security’s headquarters in New York. “But the bad guys all seem to know each other. It’s like they’re on speed dial.” He says that a cooperator from the Middle East recently said that smugglers and dealers in the region are following his work carefully. He nods sharply, pursing his lips. “Guess that means I’ve got their attention. Good. Now I know I’m doing my job.”

Unlike other illicit goods such as drugs or arms, looted antiquities start dirty but end clean (at least in appearance), their illegal origins being laundered as they pass through trafficking networks. Without a detailed provenance—a documented chain of ownership—it’s impossible to know whether an object is fair or foul. Yet even many items that are collected legally lack a solid provenance, creating a dilemma that collectors, dealers, and museum curators face with every potential purchase.

Mousa Khouli sold Shesepamuntayesher to a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and antiquities collector named Joseph Lewis, who lives in Virginia. Lewis was indicted with Khouli and the others in May 2011 on charges that included conspiracy to smuggle and conspiracy to launder money. After nearly three years of intense litigation, he received a deferred prosecution agreement and the eventual dismissal of all charges. Lewis denies all wrongdoing, saying that he purchased the objects in the U.S. from a dealer who handled their importation.

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Looters in Cambodia often decapitate statues, as heads are easier to smuggle.

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Up: Dismembered statues await restoration at a conservation center near Cambodia’s sprawling Angkor Archaeological Park. Down: A 10th-century warrior known as Duryodhana once graced Prasat Chen temple in northern Cambodia.

If there is a collecting gene, Joe Lewis has it. His mother collected vinegar cruets, model elephants, and duck decoys, while his father fancied firearms. Lewis himself started bottling ants shortly after he learned to walk. Now his 6,500-square-foot house holds all his mother’s cruets, ducks, and pachyderms, together with his own 30,000-specimen insect collection and an important assemblage of Egyptian antiquities.

“If you give me two of anything, I’ll start a collection,” says Lewis, a trim, chipper man of 60 whose speaking voice is almost a shout. He shows me cherrywood cases with drawer after drawer of purple-winged grasshoppers, iridescent butterflies, and giant wasps, all pinned out in death. We see his remarkable Egyptian collection, which includes several stunning sarcophagi housed in museum-quality cases complete with climate control.

As we admire a magnificent painted wood statue of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, with his solemn golden face and mesmeric eyes, I feel the same pull that I’ve felt staring at a few other Egyptian antiquities, the same eerie sense of life stirring just below the surface. I understand the desire to own such an object, to live for a time beneath its calm, infinite gaze. Only a few months earlier I’d felt the same throb of wonder at Sotheby’s while standing before a black diorite bust of a priest from the Temple of Karnak and knowing that, for $500,000, it could be mine.

The future of antiquities collecting is threatened by the steady encroachment of U.S. and foreign laws, Lewis says, so he recently helped form an association to educate and defend collectors. He recites some of their tenets: Collectors, like museums, safeguard the cultural property of humankind, which source countries often fail to protect. Even when an antiquity isn’t excavated by archaeologists, it can retain significant scientific value. Many collectors add to public knowledge by sharing their antiquities with scholars and museums.

Through increased collaboration between the collecting and scholarly communities, a global registry of legitimate archaeological items could be compiled that would be a powerful tool against looting, Lewis believes. “If it ain’t on the list, it can’t be bought or sold,” he says of this hypothetical database. “If it’s not loaded, it’s looted. Done!”

Lewis is hardly the most outspoken advocate for collectors. James Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, says that many recent repatriations have been mistakes, since the mission of encyclopedic museums is to collect, conserve, and share world cultural heritage—and objects returned to conflict areas often are at risk. To this end, he says one shouldn’t rule out buying looted artifacts if doing so would help save them from loss or destruction.

“Would you agree never to negotiate with terrorists, even if negotiating might save hostages?” he asks. “Simply not taking part in a market doesn’t make the market go away. These are not simple, risk-free, black-and-white questions.”

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An employee at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo cleans a display case holding a gilded statue of King Tutankhamun hurling a harpoon. The statue was stolen and damaged during the first chaotic days of the Egyptian revolution in January 2011. It was later recovered, and conservators spent months restoring it.

While the antiquities trade may have saved many masterpieces from destruction, the gray areas in which it operates leave it open to accusations that it drives looting—and seems to encourage some of its participants to deceive themselves about where their cherished objects come from.

Lewis says he prefers not to talk about the Shesepamuntayesher case but explains that he bought her set of coffins only after Mousa Khouli, the dealer, supplied a provenance that seemed plausible. (Khouli claimed that Shesepamuntayesher’s coffins came from his own father’s collection.)

Here’s the rub: The UNESCO convention of 1970, patrimony laws, and the court cases and repatriations of the early 2000s all should have made a detailed provenance ever more de rigueur. Yet many collectors, dealers, auctioneers, and museum curators still seem to feel entitled to the same secrecy and anonymity that traditionally have cloaked the antiquities trade. Private sales at the major auction houses are on the rise, and vague provenances like “from a private Swiss collection” or “by inheritance” remain common.

Consider, for example, the statue of the priest that I admired at Sotheby’s. One week before it reached the auction block, Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist at the University of Glasgow, revealed that it was present in the “Schinoussa archive,” a photographic database compiled by a notorious looting and smuggling network. While being in this archive doesn’t prove an object is tainted, the auction house’s failure to mention this chapter in the statue’s provenance raises disturbing questions. (Sotheby’s calls Tsirogiannis’s claims “inaccurate and irresponsible.”)

“Since 2007 I’ve identified numerous objects from these [looters’] archives at nearly every major auction,” Tsirogiannis says. “The fact that the auction houses continue to sell them shows that they don’t really care to improve their behavior. They only care to continue to sell.”

Generic or nonexistent provenances have long been accepted at high-profile auction houses, even for art from looting-ravaged areas or war zones. From the 1970s to 2011, auction houses including Christie’s and Sotheby’s sold masterpieces of Khmer statuary, despite the evident risk that they had been stolen from jungle temples during and after Cambodia’s ferocious civil war. Major museums such as the Metropolitan and the Cleveland Museum of Art also bought or received Khmer statues.

“Those pieces should have raised every red flag in the world—no one could have bought or sold them in good faith,” says Tess Davis, a lawyer and executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. “Just a few years before, collectors had been lamenting the absence of Cambodian art in the U.S. But when a genocidal civil war broke out, magically the market was flooded by masterpieces—unprovenanced masterpieces with evidence of violent theft, sometimes cut off right at the ankles!”

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A guard at Abu Sir al Malaq surveys an ancient cemetery littered with human bones and looting holes. Looting is an old problem here, but pillaging surged after the global financial crisis and the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

Having followed the Shesepamuntayesher coffins through the criminal supply chain that brought them from Egypt to the United States, it’s hard for me to see buying artifacts that lack ironclad provenance as anything but willful blindness. Archaeologist Ricardo Elia agrees. “This is straightforward,” he says, invoking the basic laws of economics. “You pay money for looted objects, you drive more looting.”

The battle over cultural property continues, but there are signs of hope. In 2010 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts created a new job, “curator for provenance,” the first and only such position in the U.S. In 2013 officials at the Metropolitan Museum voluntarily repatriated two signature Khmer statues, a move later followed by the Cleveland Museum of Art and other U.S. museums. The Met subsequently held a major exhibit on Southeast Asian art, with the cooperation of the Cambodian government.

“This kind of collaborative work, which aims at long-term loans rather than outright acquisitions, is a powerful and positive step for museum curators,” observes Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul University College of Law who specializes in cultural heritage.

On April 23, 2015, Shesepamuntayesher’s coffin was flown back to Egypt, where it’s now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Meanwhile some museum curators, as well as collectors like Lewis, are calling for an antiquities database to help discourage looting and are proposing to meet with archaeologists in a search for common ground.

Finding this common ground is crucial, in source and consumer countries alike, says Sarah Parcak. Looting is likely to continue until diggers in Egypt and buyers abroad see antiquities not just as gorgeous objects but also as vital passages in the narrative of our past.

“Human history is the greatest story ever told,” Parcak says. “The only way we can understand it fully is if we uncover it together.”

CORRECTION: A caption in an earlier version of this story stated that the pictured basket of artifacts was sold in an antiquarian shop in northwest Syria. The artifacts were sold in an antiquarian dealer’s home.

Source: National Geographic