Geographically, the oasis of Palmyra is the heart of the present state of Syria. Centrally located between the coastal region of Damascus and the Euphrates valley, it has been an important commercial centre since prehistory. But cultural and socio-politically it is also pivotal, and of great importance: the local population act as the buffer, so to speak, between the urban coastal zones to the west and the rural population flanking the Euphrates. Moreover, as a UNESCO heritage site, Palmyra is home to ruins which are considered one of the most important cultural sites in the Middle East.
In the ancient Roman theatre of Palmyra the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” has played out a terrifying show, publically executing at least 20 people. At the same time the fighters have begun to destroy statues at the UNESCO site. In a DW interview, Stefan Weber Director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, and coordinator of the Syrian Heritage Archive Project – speaks of the importance of Palmyra not only for Syrians but the entire world. “This heritage for the Syrians is lost.”
DW: The fighters of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) have likely begun to destroy ancient statues in Palmyra. If that is indeed true, what threatens to be lost to humanity? What is Palmyra?
Stefan Weber: We have tales of the city in Syria over thousands of years. There is evidence that Palmyra already existed two-three thousand years BC. And not only that, Palmyra was, for many hundreds of years, the intersection of the eastern Mediterranean region, the Greco-Roman world, the Mesopotamian, the Iranian. To this day you can see both temples of the Mediterranean gods, as well as a god of the Phoenicians beside a God of Mesopotamia there. The decorations on grave reliefs are both Roman and Persian. Palmyra is not only extremely significant for many Syrians but also because Zenobia reined there, a regional queen who rebelled against the Romans.
What does Zenobia represent?
I’ve lived a long time in Syria. If you ask there about Zenobia, everyone immediately can tell you something. This local heritage is strongly anchored in the consciousness of the Syrians. The terrible thing is that this heritage for the Syrians is lost. The country is torn, the objects are destroyed and now perhaps even deliberately destroyed by IS. The destruction of the cities is also the destruction of Islamic culture that has developed in these cities. That is not only a loss for the whole history of human civilization between East and West, it is also an incredible loss, a huge wound for the people of Syria itself.
To what extent should the rest of the world be concerned, if Palmyra should actually be destroyed? It is said that is the cradle of civilization. Is that a correct assertion?
Palmyra is of course part of our world history. Nevertheless, it is the Syrians who experience the loss. IS knows that we feel moved by the destruction of cultural property as part of our historic heritage and cultural memory, in particular. About 400 people who have been slaughtered in Palmyra would hardly be reported if it hadn’t happened at this exact location. Strangely, it seems, murder scares us less than the destruction of old stones. It is on this tender spot IS wants to press, as it knows it can achieve an outcry – and therefore a propaganda success. We saw it the first time with the Taliban in Afghanistan at Bamyan. The more cameras there the more certain they would blow Bamyan into the sky. This is now what is happening with IS.
But we cannot stay silent while this cultural heritage is destroyed, can we?
I think we must try, even if it is a loss to the world, even if it is a loss to Syria – to remain calm and not let ourselves be so affected. That’s exactly what they want. The more we cry out, all the more that they have won. It is a perverse strategy. But it works and will continue to for a while. Thank God, the Syrian antiquities office evacuated many precious statues from the local museum. But there are still objects that have been destroyed according to IS-propaganda. What happens to the ruins of the city, we don’t know. According to the local IS commander they want to spare them. But the IS will let us know.
What IS does not show is in its propaganda videos is that the objects that sell well can be passed on to the art trade. It can make good money. Therefore it is indeed looted. Unfortunately we know this madness has logic. During the illicit excavations, oriental antiques are specifically removed and sold. This is profitable for the war chest and big business. Meanwhile, hopefully it’s arrived in the public consciousness that it’s not acceptable to have antiques from Syria in the living room. A change of consciousness has taken place, like with animal furs. Now as everyone knows that furs are not chic it’s also not chic to have Syrian antiques on display in your house. It once was the sign of a cultural assiduous person, which is understandable. But today it suggests that you have become part of the chain financing war. This attention is very good.
You’ve looked at the art market much longer. What do you see there?
Interestingly, much less is available on the market than we thought. It is still not the case that everything is looted and the market flooded. Most of the objects found are from the ancient orient, less from the period of the Islamic Middle East, but also the Roman Hellenistic period can be found. Much of it will probably go directly to private customers. There are quite new markets in both Turkey and the Gulf states, where relatively wealthy people buy objects of cultural heritage for the home. The German Federal Criminal Police Office, with whom we are in contact, assumes that the large pieces only come to the market if no one is talking about Syria and international attention is focused somewhere else. This can still happen.
The German Archaeological Institute and the Museum of Islamic Art created, with funds from the Foreign Office, a project to help protect Syrian heritage three years ago. How exactly does this look?
We firstly wanted to get out of the shocked paralysis. All we had been able to do was to witness for two years how everything fell apart. In this project we now do what we can do – namely to digitalize the objects of decades long research on Syria and bring onto the internet via a system, so that on the day of reconstruction there will be at least a documentation of Syrian antiquity. We now also document the destruction. And we look at the art trade, investigate where who sells what to see where we can contribute to ensuring a clean trade, but also report known looted goods.
Can you therefore protect this cultural heritage for the future?
These are projects which are of course important, however they cannot ensure Syria is protected in the future. This would take much larger initiatives. One should try to support local authorities, in regions where states do not exist or are very weak. And you would have to try to counterweigh the disintegration of society through cultural education, especially in the asylum camps, by getting people closer again to their cultural heritage, which is multi-religious and multi-ethnic, so they can became proud of their heritage again.
Stefan Weber spoke with Sönje Storm