Podcast: Syria’s art heritage – Forgotten victims of the conflict

The ancient city of Ebla near Aleppo by Klaus Wagensonner, Flickr

A discussion about the ongoing and deliberate destruction of the historical heritage of Syria. Download the podcast here or go to the VoR site using the link below. Is this the new iconoclasm?

From Voice of Russia UK hosted by Brendan Cole

With more than 100,000 people now dead, the lines have become more blurred between insurgents fighting Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Islamic fundamentalists who have started to destroy some of the country’s greatest treasures. These include archaeological treasures such as Byzantine mosaics and Greek and Roman statues. Brendan Cole hosts a discussion.

Syria’s cultural treasures – gallery

Last month the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), an al-Qaeda-type movement controlling much of north-east Syria, blew up and destroyed a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa on the Euphrates.

Brendan is joined by:

Malu Halasa, an editor and writer in London, author of ‘Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline’

Dr Halla Diyab, Syrian writer and journalist

Dr Richard Clay, senior lecturer in History of Art at the University of Birmingham and expert in iconoclasm

Dr Emma Cunliffe of the UK Committee of the Blue Shield


Malu Halasa: “I think people should realise that Syria, Damascus and Aleppo are both considered the oldest inhabited cities in the world, so the archaeological treasures, the architectural treasures are ancient and ageless. People don’t realise that the conflict that’s going on there has destroyed quite a lot, and that there’s also been a lot of looting of these sites. Specific sites have been targeted also by various extremist groups. Whatever their reasons are for doing that, or that they are doing this because it happened in Afghanistan also by various Islamic groups, remains to be seen. It is a great loss what is going on in Syria at the moment.”

Dr Halla Diyab: “In general, in the Middle East and even in Syria, if we look at a decade or so ago, there was not a lot of awareness among Arabs or Syrians about the importance of cultural heritage, especially the culture of museums, of visitor centres and attractions. Because of this kind of relationship between the citizens and the government, when it came to dependency, as the citizens of Syria used to be more dependent on the government for protection, electricity, water and protection of their culture, they were not raised on the awareness that it is the responsibility of the individual to protect their cultural heritage.”

“When the conflict happened, the turmoil that’s happening in Syria, especially all this militia, armed forces, thugs, hijackers of the Syrian revolution, targeted a lot cultural sites mainly because of al Qaeda groups or fundamentalist Muslims who believe in Salafi, Wahhabi Islamic ideology, who do not believe in statues that portray humans – also monuments or even archaeological sites. We saw this in Afghanistan, and Syria, before the revolution, had a majority of Sufi Muslims. What happened is not only that there was a revolution against a dictator, it is also the Talibanisation and a sectarian war. The Salafi group want to supress this mosaic of diverse culture in Syria.”

Malu Halasa: “These various sites and monuments existed for so long because Syria is like the birthplace of civilisation! Various groups have always lived together quite peacefully. We’re talking about ancient Christian groups, ancient Muslim groups – they’ve always been there and they’ve always protected those sites – they’ve co-existed, appreciated the culture. The Salafi view is that they think of Islam as being quite separate. Really, if you look at the Sufi influences over Syria, but also what they call ‘Shami’ Islam, it is much more moderate Islam where everyone’s included. I’ve travelled quite a lot in Syria and I was never looked upon or treated any differently, so I think those attitudes also go towards cultural heritage.”

“Cultural heritage is not something that belongs to one group or another, it belongs to the people.”

Dr Halla Diyab: “I think there is a kind of spatial dynamic happening in Syria in relation to the regime and the main cities. The Syrian regime always focused on the big cities, especially Hama, Aleppo, and Damascus. In Hama there was bitterness because of the massacre that happened in the 1980’s and all this ambiguity, mystery can be seen through a mysterious dynamic between the people of Hama and the regime. Also, there was not a lot of focus on the North East of Syria: Raqqa, even Deir ez-Zor or Daraa, and I remember, when I lived in Syria there was no easy transportation, even if you wanted to go from Damascus into the North cities. Looking at the dynamic of spatial domination by Islamic states or the Salafis, or the extremists, they went to the North East of Syria. In Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, the regime didn’t focus on these cities before the revolution and there were a lot of archaeological sites there, which have not been kept or protected.”

“Even Asma al-Assad, when she built the Children Discovery Centre in Damascus – Massar Museum, was concentrating more on the big cities, and there was little consideration for the remote cities of Syria.”

Dr Richard Clay: “It [iconoclasm] is a super-complicated term and is used by some people to mean really only the destruction of religious objects, but actually it’s got much-much wider usage nowadays. We talk about people attacking the opinion of the Prime Minister and say they’re an iconoclast. It’s a 17th-century term and it comes from the Ancient Greek – it just means ‘image breaking’. So, is destroying a building – an act of iconoclasm? Some people would say no, and some historians won’t write about breaking buildings because it isn’t iconoclasm. I’m comfortable to say that all of the kinds of activities that we’re talking about, which are symbolic ‘breakings’ are iconoclasm. It just makes sense to talk about them in relation to each other.”

“It seems to me, like many westerners become more familiar with Syria as a culture because of this awful disaster that it’s living through – it’s been brought to my attention. Syria has always been a diverse culture, but the big difference today, is there’s mass availability of weapons that can damage buildings – that changed in the twentieth century, that industrialises iconoclasm. There’s also mass media and I think that some of the iconoclasm that’s been carried out by extreme Muslims is actually partly driven by their doctrine, but partly, by an awareness of the fact that if you cut somebody’s head off, you’re not going to get on the news; if you cut the head off a statue, you will.”

Dr Emma Cunliffe: “Just a couple of days ago one of the radical extremist groups placed a new video online threatening the Citadel in the centre of Aleppo, which is part of the World Heritage Site, and parts of that Citadel are about five thousand years old. Now, the only reason to do that – partly it might be a factor of religious beliefs, but it’s not a particularly religiously symbolic site, there are far more religiously symbolic sites around there, and at the end of the day, it is just attention seeking.”

“There are also a lot of communities fundamentally involved in religious wars, so we’ve seen at Ma’loula for example, which is a Tentative World Heritage Site, some of the oldest Christian sites in the world and Aramaic is still spoken there, which is the language of Jesus. It’s not until we’ve seen this very strong increase in the number of extremists pouring into Syria that we’ve started to see sites like that targeted. It’s actually stayed out of the conflict and only, really since last September, we’re now seeing it targeted very heavily. The churches are being destroyed, the nuns have been kidnapped, and the items are for sale on the international market – not, I should add, legally. But it’s also a time sequence that’s come into Syria – the rise of these attacks increase, which is a terrible thing to witness, but so incredibly hard to stop.”

Dr Halla Diyab: “What’s happening in Syria is a sectarian war and they want the future Syria to be either Shia or Sunni. That is why the Salafi extremists try to dispose of any variety or mosaic in Syria, whether it is the minorities with Christian representation in Syria, even the Sufi and Shia symbols. It’s about the future Syria becoming Salafi – like Afghanistan, and about deleting Syria’s past, its’ diversity.”

Malu Halasa:“I was thinking of the Umayyad Mosque – one of the oldest mosques, where Muslims have been praying for time immemorial. Within the setting, the mosque itself is quite ornate and beautiful. I think Muslims would be very upset [to see it destroyed]. “

“This idea that somehow, and yes, the Salafi, definitely have a very stark view of Islam, but if you look at the representation and the art that’s come out of Iran, the history and visual culture in, for example, the Shia religion – there’s a lot of representation, there is human form, they have a long tradition of murals; so this idea that, somehow, across the board, Islam doesn’t like representation is wrong. I think that the people who are destroying these objects, these mosaics, these monuments in Syria, definitely have a very narrow view of Islam.”

“I’m also wondering if it’s not just that the destruction comes from a religious view point. It also comes from the view point that these people are completely divorced from what cultural heritage means.”

Dr Halla Diyab: “There were quite a few assassinations of Sufi scholars in Syria. If you look at the dynamic of the Middle East, there is always a conflict between Sufi and Salafi Islam. Salafis look at Sufis as being non-Islamic, because Sufism is about singing, self-development, spirituality, about visiting monuments of Ahl al-Bayt, those who come from Prophet Muhammad.”

“However, having said this, there are some people who are destroying places in Syria because they are just thugs, traffickers, thieves. They just want money. All these fractions on the ground in Syria make it very difficult to understand the future vision for the country.”

Dr Richard Clay: “How do we measure value? You and I, I would hope, would be interested in these objects because they’re aesthetically attractive and historically valuable. For these people [thugs], they’re privileging overall other value of the fact that they can exchange these goods in a global art market.”

“They are thieves, but they’re also extremely well organised, and they’re selling this art. So, there’s a whole network of blame here, and if we point the figure at these people, we have to ask who’s buying this stuff. From the reports I’ve been reading, it’s actually often being stolen to order, effectively; and you’ve got thefts going on not just at religious sites but at museums too, and then you’ve also got unlicensed archaeology taking place, where the thieves are discovering new things by digging recklessly in historically significant sites. Do they value the objects? Yes, they do.”

Dr Emma Cunliffe: “You can, but it’s extremely difficult [to combat trafficking of precious art objects], partly because, when you say – what is something worth, it’s worth what someone is willing to pay for it.”

“In Iraq, for example, cylinder seals were being taken, which are about the size of your thumb, and can sell from anything from 1000 pounds to 250,000 thousand pounds. So, if you think of how many of those would go through the market, catching them, when they’re so tiny, is incredibly difficult. When you look at where you would actually have to focus your energy – we need tighter laws. I would definitely agree that the international antiquities market is not as tightly regulated as it needs to be, to deal with this trade; although, it would actually have to be practically draconian to achieve something. How do you balance that in a country with decreased security, where the looters can access sites quite easily? Some sites have been 80% destroyed and these are hugely significant sites, but we can’t get to them to stop them.”

“It’s not enough just to rescue these items once they’ve reached the international market, and reclaim them, because once they’ve been ripped out of their context, you don’t actually know what was taken and where it was from – you can’t even trace the information about that object. It just becomes an object of art. Whereas once it might have been part of the earliest library in the world, suddenly it just becomes text.”

“A lot of recommendations were made following Iraq. Not all of them were enforced, unfortunately. The illegal antiquities market follows many of the same paths as illegal trade in drugs and arms, and there are very strong connections between the three of them. Antiquities are being traded for the same reason guns are being smuggled in and out of the country.”

Malu Halasa: “One of the reasons why these places are being destroyed is to strike terror into the hearts of the civilians. For example, in Raqqa, Isis took down a crucifix that was on a church and in the middle of the night non-violent activists, young men, stole the crucifix back and they put it back on the church; then Isis blew up the church the next day. It really is about striking terror, about what the future Syria will be, what form this Islamic state will take.”

“What is being destroyed is the heritage of all of us.”

Dr Halla Diyab: “It’s the cultural values, it’s the historical values – it’s rewriting the history of that part of the world. People during a civil war become very vulnerable and they become engaged in violence as a way of expressing their resistance, a kind of rejection to what they witness; the loss of their families pushes them to violence.”

“It will take time for the rehabilitation of human souls from destruction, but I think that it’s not without the support of the international community, which has a big responsibility towards preserving the national heritage and culture of Syria.”

About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
This entry was posted in Byzantium in the News and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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