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This past week has been an emotional roller-coaster for all of us who value our shared global cultural heritage in Syria as contradictory news reaches us from Palmyra (Tadmur), the Syrian “Venice of the Sands” UNESCO World Heritage site. It is among the great cities of antiquity perhaps comparable only to Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the Athenian Acropolis in Greece. Just 130 miles northeast of Damascus, the area is now under the control of the reportedly sometimes hallucinogenic-drugs fueled whims of jihadists, mainly Da’ish and its allies.
Receiving reliable information about events at Palmyra is one problem. The best continuing source, which the world’s media and concerned archeologists alike go to for updates, continues to be Syria’s Dr. Maamoun Abdel-Karim given his contacts with colleagues in or near Palmyra and the surrounding Homs Governorate. Some actually worked in the Palmyra Museum or elsewhere in Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), which Dr. Abdel-Karim heads. Another reliable source is Syria’s charismatic Minister of Tourism, Eng. Besher Yazji who, along with his staff works tirelessly on the subject of preserving all of Syria’s preeminent tourist destinations. Many in the local population of Palmyra, despite the arrival of Da;ish (ISIS), is watching and in some instances ‘guarding’ the irreplaceable sites with some engaging with the jihadists trying to convince them that Palmyra is about Syria and their own cultural heritage and not idolatry, insults to Islam or anything that the Koran of Mohammad the Prophet would sanction for destruction.
Simultaneously, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, the leader of Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra Front—sometimes the foe or ally of Da’ish-in a kind of good cop-back cop tactic– depending on what suits both at any particular time or place- has tol.d Al Jazeera (5/28/2015) that his alliance would neither launch attacks on the West or destroy Syrian cultural heritage sites and would protect minorities.
In addition, an anti-government FM radio broadcast an audio interview purporting to be with Abu Laith al-Saoudy, the nom de guerre of the Da’ish military commander in Palmyra, who pledged not to damage the site but said the group would destroy only offending statues. Abu Laith reportedly announced: “Concerning the historic city, we will preserve it and it will not be harmed, God willing. What we will do is break the idols that the infidels used to worship. The historic buildings will not be touched and we will not bring bulldozers to destroy them like some people think.”
Indeed, on 5/27/2015, the UK Guardian newspaper reported that video released by Da’ish the day before showed that the ruins of Syria’s Palmyra were untouched as the militant group claimed. It only destroys statues which it judged to be “polytheistic.” The report quoted a local activist: “They (the archeological ruins) haven’t been damaged and members of the organization [Da’ish)] told residents that they will not damage the city’s antiquities, but will only destroy the idols.” Palmyra antiquities are mostly columns and large buildings and not statues of people, which the jihadists consider idols that must be destroyed, and they claim to have no problem with the other antiquities. In addition, literally thousands of moveable objects taken by DGAM and Syrian army personnel to safety. Most being smaller statues or busts of persons or holy figures from millennia past.
This, following events at the massive Roman theater in Palmyra which Da’ish reportedly executed 20 foreign fighters last week at the majestic Roman theater, who it was claimed had been fighting alongside forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Palmyrenes who claim to be eyewitnesses, also report that on 5/25/2015, the jihadists executed at least 400 more people, including children.
Contradictory reports regarding Palmyra arrive, sometimes almost hourly. Within the past 48 hours Da’ish militants fighting for the Islamic State have reportedly just destroyed (5/28/2015) the celebrated 1.900 year old statue of the Lion of Al-Lat, which dates back to the first century AD. This act of wanton barbarity, 72 hours after reports that the local population was given sworn-on-the-Koran promises from the jihadists that they would not obliterate the ancient city. Eyewitnesses are now reporting that the destruction of millennia-old Statues and buildings has begun in the past 24 hours.
Officials, including DGAM’s Dr. Abdel-Karim remain deeply worried and skeptical about Da’ish intentions. He told the UK IBTimes, two days ago that “We know their mentality and unfortunately we are sure that they will destroy the statues,” he said, adding that “The situation for now is quiet; there’s no armed fight or damage at the moment; the museum is closed. My purpose now is to push the local community to find the goodwill to fight IS. We have some hope but we’re very pessimistic on the whole because this group is barbaric.” He added that Palmyra looked likely to suffer the same fate as Nimrud in northern Iraq, the 3,000-year-old city which was bulldozed by insurgents in March of 2015 as part of a campaign to eliminate relics that they consider heretical. Thanks to the devotion of DGAM staff members and the cooperation of the related authorities, hundreds, if not thousands, of Palmyrean statues and museum objects have been transferred out from Palmyra to safe locations outside the city
Some Muslim scholars and Sheiks, with views of Sharia similar to those expressed by Da’ish, are now speaking out publicly, seemingly with Da’ish and Palmyra in mind, about the fact that Muslims have lived very peacefully among archeological sites like Palmyra for more than 1,400 years. Some Fatwa are beginning to be issued that make the point that there’s nothing that is part of mainstream Islam about the way these sites are viewed. All of the recent iconoclastic hysteria is a very modern interpretation of Islam — transfixed on the narrow idea that any kind of intercessor between human beings and god is a form of idolatry. ISIS has also destroyed Islamic shrines, usually Shia pilgrimage sites, as well. Da’ish is a manifestation of a form of heritage terror or a form of genocide, erasing the past in order to create a claimed purified ideal.
On 5/24/2015 the leading Sunni Muslim religious body, al-Azhar, a prestigious seat of Islamic learning declared that the world must unite in a “battle of all humanity” to prevent the destruction of Palmyra. Seemingly sending an appeal to Da’ish, al-Azhar issued a Fatwa (religious ruling) that Islamic sharia law forbids the destruction of world heritage sites and artifacts.
Another argument being made in the USA and Lebanon to religious figures who purport to be close to Da’ish is that by allowing the safe removal of cultural heritage objects under their control, what can be achieved is that their cultural heritage can be preserved until security returns to Syria. And also that any offending depictions of ancient gods can be removed to an area which will not be offensive to Muslims while a religious decision over their status under Sharia is worked out among the Muslim community. Which is to say, preserve the antiquities for now pending a final consensus judgment by Islamic religious figures on whether the Koran truly requires cultural heritage destruction.
Some individuals and archeological groups, as well as some governments whose public position is not to pay ransom for hostages, have reportedly raised a very large sum of money, estimated at $ 100 million USD, and are trying to convince Da’ish that it’s to their economic benefit to focus on exploiting the local natural resources on the area, including oil, which offers them 90% more cash than dealing with looted cultural artifacts which are also part of their cultural heritage. Some overtures are being made to Da’ish friendly sheiks in Lebanon’s Ein el Helwe Palestinian camp and elsewhere with a number of arguments about how the jihadists and the rest of us can benefit if payments, which could be considered a kind of ‘property tax’ or Jizya, paid to Da’ish in exchange for preserving cultural heritage in areas under jihadist control. Safe passage is being promised by two Ein el Helwe Palestinian camp based religious figures, were the Syrian government to agree, for a visit with Da’ish leaders in Palmyra to present the case. It could theoretically include setting up an international safe-zone for Syria’s irreplaceable global heritage treasures.
A related idea being examined with the participation of some archeologists, NGO’s and also importantly, Muslim religious figures, is to establish, hopefully without Da’ish objection, a “Syria Museum-in-Exile.” The international Museum would be patterned after the project of the Swiss town of Budendorf which for the past six years has been home to the “|Afghanistan Museum-in-Exile.” This museum has received more than 1,400 Afghan cultural objects from private donors and “others” and established a complete inventory of the cultural heritage artifacts by dedicated volunteer specialists. In September 2006, UNESCO agreed to a request from the Afghan Government to repatriate these objects to the restored National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. Syria, the advocates argue, could benefit from the same type of safe repository during this turbulent unpredictable period.
One particularly bizarre argument which might be making Da;ish dizzy, is being made in Raqqa by suspected Mossad agents posing as pro-Da’ish Sheiks (!). Their argument is that the Zionist regime occupying Palestine also wants Palmyra destroyed so why not partner with them for mutual Israeli and Da’ish benefit. This hard to verify strange report cites Rabbi Nir Ben Artzi as its author. These days Rabbi Nir is busy preaching that “God has sent Da’ish to fight against nations that want to destroy Israel. You are our brothers!” The Rabbi reads passages from the Torah while preaching that Palmyra has absolutely no value whatsoever to Islam, Christianity or even to ISIS as an ‘Islamic group.” Rather, he insists, “it only holds tremendous significance for the Jews and Judaism.” Accordingly, Rabbi Ben Artzi insists that the key to understanding why the ruins of this ancient pearl of the desert have become a sacred target by “religious allies” rests in Jewish sacred texts which he cites as follows:
“The day on which Tadmor (Palmyra) is destroyed will be made a holiday” (Yeb. 16b-17a);
“Happy will he be who shall see the downfall of Tadmor” (Yer. Ta’an. iv. 8);
“The future destruction of Palmyra will be a day of rejoicing for Israel” (Yev. 17a).
What Da’ish will decide with respect to all the petitions it is receiving these days as it considers its own political interests may be known soon based on recent jihadist actions.
Meanwhile, it is worthwhile to bear in mind UN Resolution 2199 adopted by the Security Council on 2/12/2015 stating “that countries ensure that their nationals and those in their territories not make assets or economic resources available to ISIL (Da;ish) and related terrorist groups ” and “Condemning the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria, particularly by ISIL (Da’ish) and the Al-Nusrah Front.”
As well as the unanimously passed (5/27/2015) 193-nation UN General Assembly which is to date the broadest international condemnation of the cultural destruction and vandalism wrought by the fighters of the Islamic State (Da’ish). The UN Resolution enacts new and long overdue measures to thwart and prosecute antiquities smugglers, ensure the return of plundered ancient treasures and counter cultural cleansing, a new tactic of war being employed to spread hatred and erase the heritage of civilizations. It also stresses the importance of holding accountable perpetrators of attacks intentionally directed against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, or historic monuments.
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).