Old Queen Zenobia came to Damascus the other day and was winched into place in a prime spot on Umayyad Square, opposite the al-Assad national library. The replica brass statue of the 3rd-century heroine was representing Palmyra, her realm on the eastern edge of the Roman empire, now in the hands of Islamic State. Zenobia’s ceremonial arrival in the capital was a pledge that Syria’s heritage has not been abandoned.
The destruction wrought by Isis on the desert city hauntingly known as the ‘Venice of the Sands’ horrified a world fatigued by a conflict that has claimed 250,000 lives and made millions homeless. And the tragedy was cruelly personalised by the fate of Khaled al-Asaad, the archaeologist who devoted his long life to Palmyra – and who was tortured and beheaded after refusing to reveal where its treasures had been hidden.
Abdulkarim, who is of Armenian and Kurdish background, embodies the cultural diversity of which Syrians were once proud – and which he remains determined to defend in the face of disintegration and hatred. He came to the antiquities job in the “catastrophic” summer of 2012, when rebel attacks seemed to threaten the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. His first decision was to close down all the museums in the country, to safeguard both collections and visitors. “I always say that I am the unhappiest director-general of antiquities in the world,” he quipped with a self-deprecatory smile.
“We began to hide things and then as the war intensified we decided to move the maximum possible to Damascus,” he said. In early 2013 some 30,000 objects were brought by air from from Deir ez-Zor, then, as now, under siege by anti-Assad forces. The evacuation accelerated in 2014 after the fall of the northern Iraqi town of Mosul to Isis and the first shocking images of destruction of ancient monuments. That meant the relics of Syrian Mesopotamia were saved. “Now we hide things in Damascus, but if Damascus falls, what can we do? We are not supermen.”
In scenes that echoed the second world war story of the Monuments Men who saved artworks from destruction or looting, 24,000 objects were also brought by truck from Aleppo earlier this year. The heroine of that operation was a 25-year-old Syrian archaeologist who stayed with the army-escorted convoy for a hazardous 11-hour journey: she has to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted by armed groups who would kill her for cooperating with the state.
Abdulkarim insists he is not a politician and sticks strictly to the heritage script. But it is clear that irreparable damage has been done by government forces as well as their enemies – in the battle for the Crusader castle of Krak de Chevaliers and the magnificent 14th-century Madina souq in old Aleppo.
“Aleppo is like Warsaw in the second world war,” he said. “It is in the process of being destroyed. If the war continues for another year we will lose almost the entire city. The situation in Aleppo is even worse than in Palmyra. We are losing one of the most important cities in the Islamic and Arabic worlds, for all humanity.”
The good news is that thousands of historic sites and artefacts have been secured and preserved, for example the mosaics in Busra al-Sham in the south, where non-jihadi groups are in control. Residents in Palmyra, Abdulkarim revealed, tried to persuade Isis not to destroy the Roman temple of Bel, explaining that it had served as a mosque for centuries – but they blew it up anyway. “They said ‘We are afraid that one day the world will return to paganism’ – so they destroyed it. It’s utter ignorance. They are barbarians.”
Isis, however, is just one problem. “Only Isis has destroyed statues, tombs, monasteries, churches for ideological reasons. It has also taken coins, jewels and vases and sold them. But other groups have done that too,” Abdulkarim said. Long before the jihadis took Palmyra, the site had been looted – as demonstrated by the funerary statues laid out forlornly on plastic sheets on the ground floor of the museum: these were stolen and sold in the illicit trade that has flourished since the war began and eventually recovered with the help of the Lebanese authorities – whose national antiquities body is the only one to have cooperated closely with its Syrian counterpart.
In fact, wider international cooperation has improved significantly in recent months. “In 2012 and 2013 the whole world cut off relations with us and stopped doing projects with us. We were boycotted and isolated. People would not deal with us because we were a public body. Thankfully that has now changed. If you have a problem with the Syrian government you shouldn’t have a problem with helping save Syria’s heritage.” Unesco and the EU have both helped, as has UN action to prevent terrorist groups from benefiting from the trade in antiquities.