The National Museum, Damascus
Curating antiquities or attending international conferences on archaeology have become capital offenses, according to some who claim to be “religious purists.” Two more Syrian nationalists who have served all of us by protecting and preserving our global cultural heritage in this cradle of civilization were murdered within the past two weeks, just six days apart.
Qassim Abdullah Yehya 37, and Khaled al-Assad 83, were two of the 14 committed professionals serving their country and all of humanity through current and past associations with Syria’s renowned Directorate General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM). As with a dozen of their DGAM colleagues before them, Mssrs. Yehya and al-Assad have also murdered in the line of duty since the March 2011 Syrian crisis erupted. According to today’s latest UN statistics, more than 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives, utterly devastating their families and loved ones, over the past 53 months of nearly unimaginable carnage.
I met both of these gentlemen during the past three years while conducting research on the subject of Syria’s Endangered Heritage. Qassim was popular and well-travelled, especially in Italy, where he earned a graduate degree and was often consulted on the subject of ancient mosaics. He was Deputy Director of the DGAM Laboratories when this observer first met him in 2013. At the time, Qassim showed me the work he and his team (which included gifted “antiquities restoration” students from several institutions of higher learning in Syria) were doing, repairing war-damaged mosaics from around the country. Sometimes arriving in plastic bags or heaped into a pile in the trunk of a car or even by Syrian army vehicles, countless thousands of Mosaic chips known as Terrasse, some burned, others shattered or caked in mud, would arrive at his facility deep inside the ancient Damascus Citadel in the Old City for painstaking, terrasse-by-terrasse mosaic reconstruction.
The second time we crossed paths was earlier this year when the government of Syria, though Dr. Maamoun Abdel-Karim, a national and international hero for his work as Director-General of DGAM, kindly arranged for Syria’s National Museum, which had been closed for more than two years and remains so today, to be opened for a few hours. The purpose was to allow this observer, aided by his son Alistair, to examine and photograph the ancient 290 BCE Dura-Europos Synagogue from Deir Ez Zor, which since 1932 has been secured and protected by the Syrian government and fully reassembled inside the vast Museum complex. For the past 18 months I have been trying to visit and research what’s left of the Synagogue at Jobar, but the Syrian army replies to each renewed request that it’s still too dangerous. So, the ever understanding Dr. Maamoun ordered the National Museum opened for me.
Qassim joined us inside the fortified Museum, now nearly empty of artifacts, and provided an enlightening briefing.
Under all sorts of dire and exceptionally dangerous circumstances, Syria’s DGAM is carrying out its responsibilities and relying on the character and persistence of its 2,500 employees who have the will to defend and preserve Syria’s cultural and national memory and our shared global heritage.
On August 12, 2015 six rockets were fired by rebels near Douma, a close-in eastern Gouta superb of Damascus. They targeted the ancient Citadel of Damascus and the National Museum. Qassim Abdullah Yahya was martyred in the attack as he inspected the laboratories of the Directorate of Antiquities inside the citadel. Several employees who were working inside on sundry restoration projects were also injured, two seriously. The terrorist attack also caused material (but repairable) damage to the museum building and to the ancient Citadel of Damascus, which since 1979 has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Qassim was a highly professional specialist and is remembered by associates for working ever since the start of the current crisis under extremely stressful emergency circumstances both evacuating and documenting museum artifacts. This gentleman will forever be remembered as a hero to all who value our humanity, which is revealed in our shared past. He left a loving wife and three precious young children, as well as many grieving colleagues and friends.
Barely six days after Qassim’s murder another Syrian nationalist, who has served all of us through his work preserving and protecting our shared cultural heritage, was brutally murdered on 8/18/2015.
Khaled al-Assad was nearly half a century older than Qassem Yehya, yet they were from the same band of brothers and sisters bound by their work and their shared goals of cultural preservation. In this observer’s experience, these goals are shared by a large part of the Syrian population.
Much media attention is currently being given to Khaled al-Assad’s murder, given its grisly nature and the worldwide reputation which he had earned over five decades of work at his birthplace of Palmyra (Tadmor). Most of us will forever be horrified by the facts of Khaled al-Assad’s murder, now that they have been revealed.
Scholar al-Asaad, who held a diploma in history and education from the University of Damascus, wrote many books and scientific texts, either individually or in cooperation with other Syrian and foreign archeologists, SANA said. He also discovered several ancient cemeteries and various caves, including the Byzantine cemetery in the garden of the Museum of Palmyra.
His murder has underscored fears that the extremist groups, for whom nothing is sacred, will destroy or loot the 2,000-year-old Roman-era city as they have other major archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq. On 8/20/2015, this observer received a credible report from Palmyra that Da’ish (ISIS) militiamen are currently laying explosives among Palmyra’s ruins as a sort of ‘antiquities shield’ against armed attack from the Syrian army or from the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. The latter is now in its second year of targeting the jihadists, with checkered results.
During the morning of 8/18/2015, the psychopaths who have occupyied the area since last May brought Khaled al-Assad in a van to a main square packed with shoppers. A militant read out five accusations against al-Asaad, including that he was the “director of pagan idols, overseeing, hiding and managing Palmyra’s collection”, that he has supported President Bashar al-Assad, and that he has represented Syria “at infidel conferences” and “visited Iran, the Great Satan.”
Immediately another militant unsheathed a knife from his waist and cut scholar al-Assad’s throat like a butcher would a chicken, sheep or goat, without so much as a grimace, according to an eye-witnesses. A board was balanced in front of his dangling body, enumerating the charges against him. The blood drenched body of this scholar and father of six sons and five daughters was then suspended with red twine by its wrists from a traffic light, his head resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on, according to a photo distributed on social media by Da’ish supporters.
As a nephew of Mr. Assad explained yesterday from Palmyra via Skype: “After holding and torturing my uncle for three weeks, Da’ish realized that he knew nothing about where the Museum treasures had been hidden, or if he did, as they suspected, my uncle would say nothing.” Therefore, they decapitated the octogenarian.
In May of 2013, Dr. Khaled al- Assad had shown this observer and his colleague around the Palmyra National Museum and pointed out, with a sort of pride, the heavy iron gates placed at the front entrance, as well as several other security measures taken in some of the interior exhibition halls designed to protect collections too large to move to safe-houses. I lacked the courage, or perhaps the impoliteness, to ask this renowned archaeologist if he really thought such precautions were anything more than thinly cosmetic and whether they would really deter anyone from looting the museum– except perhaps some petty criminals. I have occasionally wondered since that meeting what he thought of the ‘impenetrable’ iron shields in Palmyra’s museum.
Khaled al-Assad saw the continuity between Syrian Arab culture and that of the many peoples who had previously inhabited Palmyra. He loved both. He even named his first daughter after Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra who challenged Rome’s rule 1,700 years ago.
A longtime friend and colleague, who prefers to remain anonymous because he is still visits the area, observed “Khaled had a huge repository of knowledge on the site, and that’s going to be missed. He knew every nook and cranny. That kind of knowledge is irreplaceable, you can’t just buy a book and read it and then have that. There’s a certain personal dimension to that knowledge that comes from only having lived it and been so closely involved in it and that’s lost to us forever. Now it’s lost. We don’t have that anymore.”
According to a report in the current issue of The Economist, last April just before Da’ish invaded Palmyra, “the archaeologist described on a Facebook page the spring rituals that would have taken place in the colonnaded city during Greco-Roman times”. Those rituals “fit perfectly” with pre-Islamic Arab ones, the author wrote.
Monitoring the resent activities of Da’ish (ISIS) iconoclasm in Iraq and Syria, this observer increasingly senses that the destruction of “blasphemous idols” may be slightly decreasing. One perceives that given its budget short-falls, some of this caused by US-led airstrikes against the oil facilities it currently holds, that the militants are finding looting and trafficking in Syria’s antiquities ever more profitable and that Syria’s antiquities are more valuable when sold than when obliterated on camera for recruitment and publicity purposes.
Regrettably, the global community has not yet been effective in stopping or even significantly putting a dent in this trade in cultural theft.