Rescuing Palmyra: History’s lesson in how to save artefacts

 

Following the fall of Syria’s Palmyra to ISIL and the reports ‎about the damage done to parts of the historic city, this ‎article in the BBC is a good reminder on the need to protect ‎heritage in times of conflict. Lessons from Mali, ‎Afghanistan and Bosnia.‎

Rescuing Palmyra: History’s lesson in how to save ‎artefacts
By Roland Hughes BBC News
• ‎21 May 2015‎

Islamic State militants took control of Palmyra on Wednesday ‎With Islamic State militants now inside the historic town of Palmyra in Syria, the ‎question, inevitably, is whether they will destroy the ancient ruins. ‎
As IS continues to sweep through parts of Iraq and Syria, damage to centuries-old ‎artefacts – because IS sees statues and shrines as idolatrous – is plentiful.‎
But history has shown that, when culturally important sites are under threat, people will ‎find a way to rally round and save what they can.‎
Artefacts have been saved in the face of war, natural disaster and genocide – often with ‎seemingly insurmountable logistics and threats to overcome. ‎
Similar efforts have taken place in Palmyra, too.‎
But how straightforward is it to save what others are determined to destroy? And what are ‎the crucial factors that can help save artefacts?‎

Mali

In 2012, Islamists seized the historic Malian city of Timbuktu. They started to destroy ‎mausoleums, and banned singing, dancing and sport.‎
Valuable manuscripts dating back to the 13th Century were under threat – and they ended ‎up being smuggled out of the city right under the Islamists’ noses.‎
It took a group of determined Timbuktu residents, who raised money to pay for bribes ‎and worked out when the militants slept in order to move the papers, mainly by boat.‎
Staff from two museums provided a safe house for the manuscripts in the capital, Bamako, ‎and helped smuggle them out of Timbuktu in a complex operation.‎
For the Mali manuscripts to survive, it took co-ordination, planning, bravery and more than ‎a little luck – in that the Islamists did not try to destroy them immediately.‎

Afghanistan

Years of conflict and Taliban rule saw Afghanistan’s national museum in Kabul bombed and ‎looted to such an extent it was feared that nothing valuable remained.‎
But, to very few people’s knowledge, the museum’s director and four other men stored ‎‎22,000 of the most valuable items in the vault.‎
It was locked by five keys, one of which went to each man – or to his eldest child if he ‎died. Neither of the men said where the objects were stored – even when threatened at ‎gunpoint.‎
Some objects were moved into the presidential palace on the orders of President ‎Mohammad Najibullah, whose government fell in 1992.‎
A curator at the British Museum, where the objects went on show in 2011, said the men ‎were “undoubtedly unsung heroes”.‎

Sarajevo

During the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, the city’s National Library was deliberately hit by ‎shell fire, and at least two million books and documents were destroyed.‎
Many people rushed to the library to save what they could, despite sniper fire from ‎surrounding hills.‎
But the fire also spurred the head of another library to take action. Mustafa Jahic led ‎efforts to smuggle more than 100,000 books out of his building in banana crates, ‎moving them between safe houses.‎
He also smuggled equipment through a tunnel near Sarajevo’s airport that allowed him to ‎microfilm rare documents.‎

What hope for Palmyra – and Syria?‎
The advance of IS towards Palmyra gave authorities plenty of warning – a factor that is ‎crucial when it comes to saving priceless objects.‎
Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director general of Syria’s antiquities and museums, said that ‎hundreds of statues and other objects had been moved from Palmyra to safe-houses in ‎Damascus.‎
‎”But how do you save colonnades that weigh a ton?” he said. “How do you save temples ‎and cemeteries and, and, and?”‎
Similar work is being done elsewhere in Syria – largely to take objects out of looters’ ‎sights.‎
The 11th Century minaret of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo was destroyed in fighting ‎
Cheikmous Ali is an archaeology professor and founder of the Association for the ‎Protection of Syrian Archaeology (Apsa), that monitors damage done to Syrian ‎archaeological sites.‎
‎”In Aleppo, in particular, there are people who have done some amazing work to protect ‎monuments,” he said.‎
‎”There are laws that allow you to move artefacts abroad if they are under threat. You have ‎some areas, like Idlib and its museum, that aren’t under government control.‎
‎”But everything in its museum can’t be moved to, for example, Turkey, as anyone who ‎moves it would be considered a thief there and arrested. So everything is still there in ‎Idlib.”‎
The key to saving future archaeological sites is co-ordination, careful planning and an ‎assessment of the safety of the site and of safe houses, said Zaki Aslan, a director of ‎Iccrom, a UN-backed body that works to conserve cultural heritage.‎
He also urged anyone who wanted to protect rare objects to maintain contact with ‎authorities and to catalogue them thoroughly.‎
‎”One can feel helpless but we should try to do something,” he said.‎
‎”Unesco has called for people to co-operate, for even the people in the conflict to find ‎ways.‎
‎”It will be a great loss if even some of the parts of Palmyra are lost. Not just for Syria, but ‎for the world.”

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