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Risking Their lives to Preserve our Global Cultural Heritage

The Brave Souls of Palmyra

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Palmyra, Homs Governorate, Syria

This observer, seemingly ever miscalculates life’s realities. For example, he deluded himself recently into believing that Hezbollah guys were about the wildest, luckiest and fastest drivers from the archeological sites in Baalbek in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, or for a fast trip from the charming village of Britel, to Beirut’s southern suburbs. Even if one takes a public passenger van (the fare is just $ 7.50) and the driver is pro-Resistance, which he usually is, the trip takes only a bit more than half the time than with a more “normal” Lebanese van driver. But these “H guys” as Americans living in Dahiyeh, often refer to them; remind one of some of the more snail-paced rural southern Iowan Sunday drivers compared to how some Syrian taxis drive these days, particularly at night, on the main highways of Syria, as I was just reminded.

During another 20-hour day (3/28/14) at certain critical moments dominated by my border-line insane, but disarmingly charming, taxi driver who I hired. The day began OK as we set out from Damascus at dawn for Palmyra, designated in 1980, as one of six UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria and located deep in the Syrian Desert. We were advised to take the M-5 Damascus to Homs highway and then head west toward Iraq even though it is more than 100 kilometers longer than the normal Damascus route to the archeological site. For many centuries, Palmyra (oasis with Palms) was a vital caravan stop for travellers crossing the Syrian Desert and it earned the title, Bride of the Desert for its beauty. In pre-crisis days when there were actually real tourists around here, hundreds a day would visit Palmyra’s archeological sites and tour buses used to take my preferred route. But nowadays Daish and Jabhat al Nusra types have cut the road and no way would this observer’s driver (or the Syrian army) agree to this shorter more direct route so I kept quiet.

Honored to be allowed to visit Syria’s damaged archeological sites during the current crisis, as part of a fascinating research project and often accompanied by Syrian army security, spending time touring Palmyra, founded during the 2nd millennium BC, with its Bronze Age to Ottoman Period antiquities, and its Greek, Roman and Arabic cultural artifacts is deeply inspiring. But no less inspiring, on a human level, in this cradle of civilization, is the dedication, painstaking and sometimes dangerous work, of the Syrian people to preserve, protect, and reconstruct, where possible, Patrimoine Syrient. The latter is also our Global Heritage of which the Syrian people are the custodians.

As is being increasingly well documented to the great credit of Syria’s Directorate General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM) of the Ministry of Culture, hundreds of Syrian World Heritage sites, including those listed by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as warranting international protections, are being  threatened, damaged and in some cases substantially destroyed.

In Homs Governorate, one of 14 Administrative Districts in Syria, there is extensive damage ranging from the Old City of Homs to the recently liberated Roman fortress, Crac des Chevaliers, 100 km west to Homs, and on to Palmyra, 200 km to east of Homs toward the Iraqi border. For ten months occupied by Islamist rebels but now it’s pretty much under Syrian army control. Even further east is Raqaa in the eastern Syria, near Iraq and reported to be under harsh, often drug fueled, Daish rule. Many other damaged antiquity sites still cannot be visited by representatives of the Ministry of Cultures Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) due to rebel control.

A main reason for this catastrophe is the short-term (and sometimes longer) loss of Government control over key areas, a predicament that leaves heritage sites vulnerable to vandals, thieves, and heavy equipment excavators, while also opening them up for militias to use as camps or firing ranges. Complicating preservation efforts further is despoilment by forgers and looters, smugglers of antiquities and black market operators, as well as extremist ideologues bent on the extirpation of priceless monuments. Such assaults have, in the main, been done with impunity, and the looting is continuing today. Without more awareness, without an effort at galvanizing the international public and their governments to act, these assaults on Syria’s cultural heritage will continue until little is left to be learned from the decontextualized and ravaged artifacts.

Some of the most destructive and anguishing damages this observer was briefed on at Palmyra are to the Temple consecrated in CE 32 to the Semetic god, Bel. He was worshipped at Palmyra with the lunar god Agilibol and the sun god Yarhibol and this triad formed the center of religious life in Palmyra and the widespread Palmyrrene culture.

This observer took notes as he was shown the hole in the southern wall of the Temple (1x2m approx.) as well as another in the eastern wall of the wood warehouse adjacent to the guesthouse, to its southern side (1.5×1.5m approx.). In addition, several columns of the southern portico of the Temple were hit, and two of them collapsed. The southern wall of the Temple was hit by hundreds of bullets and many shells in several places; the western wall was hit on the inside and outside; the northern wall was struck by two limited hits and the eastern wall of the Temple endured two large holes.

The column in the northeastern corner of the portico of the fence of the Temple was hit and one can see traces of burning the lintel of the eastern portico of the Temple. More burning was done to the northern wall and eastern wall as well as to the southern window of the Temple. Also shown by a guide from the Palmyra Museum and allowed to photograph, were the damaged and illegal excavations in the SE and SW tombs area, damage and illegal excavations of the Camp of Diocletian, damage to the walls of the Palmyra Museum, and antiquities thefts in the Oasis, Theater and Guest house. The latter was occupied by Daish and/or Jablat al Nusra for ten months and they stole and stripped basically everything including the electrical wiring. Several forty foot high columns adjacent the Guest House were also targeted in the summer of 2013 and parts of them were knocked off their foundations. Many shell cuts and bullet scares cover large areas of the ancient ruins.

The Director of Palmyra’s very impressive Museum, Dr. Khalil al Hariri, showed this observer more than one hundred priceless artifacts that had been stolen by rebels and recovered over the past two years from hiding places. This was mainly accomplished with the help of the local Syrian Nationalist population who refer to themselves as Palmyrenes. Sometimes risking sniper fire or revenge attacks, local citizens continue to collect and report to authorities the stolen treasures. These and many other antiquities are now secured due to their efforts. As a result partly of citizens vigilance and the far-sightedness of the Syrian government, and the lessons learned from Iraq and the Baghdad Museum, all of Syria’s 32 Museums, as well as 80% of all antiquities housed inside the local Palmyra Museum were buried secretly early in the conflict and as of today, none of the storage vaults have been discovered or damaged, with locals keeping secret what they know. Heavy metal doors have also been installed at the entrances of Syria’s Museums with security augmented by government forces and volunteer local ‘neighborhood watch’ committees comprised of ordinary citizens.

This observer left Palmyra at dusk. En route back to Damascus, the more than two-dozen army checkpoints we were stopped at, as my driver raced like a bat out of hell the more than 200 miles, were remarkably understanding given that it was pitch black in the desert and they had earlier warned us more than once not to stay on the road after dark due to ‘terrorists’ sometimes appearing along the desert highway. When I would suggest to my driver that maybe he should lower his speed a bit, at least down to a leisurely 75 mph or so since, we could not see much ahead of us partly due to his beat car and pretty dim one working headlight, he just smiled and said what so many around here seem to say to put one at ease when there is an eminent high probability of catastrophe about to erupt: “No problem. Good road. Just like America no? Obama Qwess (good)? Then the guy floorboards and off we fly.

Rather than preparing for a crash, I was actually wistful during our dark return trip to Damascus and was thinking about all what I experienced at Palmyra and the sadness that came across the face of Palmyrene, Dr. Kahlil Hariri, and Director of the Palmyra Museum during parts of our time together. I will never forget the look on the gentleman’s face as he discussed how archeologists painstakingly shift the soil of archaeological sites teaspoon by teaspoon wearing nylon gloves to protect their finds, maybe a team working weeks or more on one square meter of earth. And as he explained how today, international mafia operations backed by investors in Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and even by certain Western Museums and famous antiquity auction houses, are using massive heavy equipment to scoop thousands of square meters from deep into our past in just minutes, as they violently and brutally gouge out our culture heritage to cash in by selling our treasures . And all the while these and many of governments are turning a blind eye or fail to enforce current municipal and international laws.

Syria’s Cultural Heritage, the cultural heritage of every one of us is also protected by a legal penumbra that emanates from and extends the 1949 Geneva Convention (IV) on the Protection of Civilians. Attacks on cultural heritage are also outlawed by post WW II bilateral and multilateral international treaties as well as international customary law.

The international community is obligated to act without further delay on its moral and legal responsibility to preserve and protect, and also, where necessary and where possible to reconstruct the damaged archeological sites, sites that for millennia have been in the custody of the Syrian people. It is to them that all people of good will honor for their sacrifices and humanity.

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).