The past three years have seen intolerable suffering and destruction wrought upon the peoples of Syria and Iraq. Over 250,000 people have been killed in Syria alone and more than thirteen million displaced. The heart-breaking images of a flood of refugees landing on Europe’s shores fill our television screens daily, with no end in sight. In such a dark context, to talk of the preservation of cultural heritage may seem irrelevant, even churlish. Most people understandably feel that people are more important than buildings, children more so than artefacts. That much is something no one can dispute. Yet this need not be an either-or situation. We can and must have room in our minds and in our hearts both for the people of today, and for the magnificent and essential manifestations of our shared humanity that have survived for millennia, and that, God-willing, might yet survive this generation as well.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” is the famously mangled quote attributed to Edmund Burke. Fortunately, not everyone is looking upon this struggle frozen into inactivity. There are some who are working creatively to effect serious change or to counteract damage done, and they deserve and need support. So my intent here is simple: to spotlight but a few of the most promising figures and current initiatives on the one side; and to personally exhort others to do all they can, financially or otherwise, to support such deserving aims and individuals. More support is always needed.
I speak here not as a collector or gallery owner, but as a student and enthusiast of the ancient world. I am a strong supporter of classical education in the UK and continue to fund various archaeological digs in Tunisia, Iraq and Turkey through leading British academic institutions. I have lived in the Middle East, have enormous affection for its peoples and culture, and have travelled extensively throughout the region over decades.
The stakes here cannot be higher. Let me offer some background, so you understand what I mean by that. I was lucky enough to visit the great heritage sites of Syria for three weeks with friends and family not long before the uprising started. It really was the trip of a lifetime. I recall a young, twenty-five-year-old French lady archaeologist standing on a hill directing a work-team as they excavated a pool in the Sumerian mud palace of Mari in the blazing heat. When I asked her what she thought the work showed, she replied with a smile: “Come back in three years and I’ll tell you!” Tragically, I doubt the site even exists today. Daesh have destroyed not just Palmyra, that gorgeous hybrid Venice of the Sands, but also Apamea, Dura-Europos, Bosra, the eleventh-century minaret of Aleppo’s Ummayad mosque and its Souq, Nineveh and Hatra in Iraq.
Yet far more than the achievements of Classical and Islamic civilisation are under threat here. This conflict is not one of lands or religions, nor is it even, as one academic mislabelled it, a clash of civilisations. What is unfolding in the Middle East and beyond is nothing shy of a Manichaean struggle between civilisation itself and savagery; between the preservation of knowledge and ignorance. It is not just our common cultural heritage that these nihilists wish to obliterate, but history itself, and indeed memory itself, so that only their depraved ideology of death and destruction prevails. It is not a few nice ‘western’ Roman ruins in Syria on which they have set their sights; it is the very concepts of world civilisation and world culture — concepts forever at odds with their cancerous cult of ignorance and its negation of humanity — that they mean to undo utterly.
In the Middle East, events are decided on the battlefield, not in the conference halls of Geneva and New York. Yet the infantry battle against Daesh is nowhere in sight, nor is there any sign of either Western or Middle Eastern resolve to fight it. So as matters stand, in the absence of the concerted military engagement so desperately needed, some of the foot-soldiers in this struggle are to be found in the Classics departments of our leading universities, engaged in measures of preventative, counteractive, or emergency archaeology; in some imaginative and generous volunteers and their efforts; and in several important new government and international initiatives. It is to these that I would like to draw your attention.
I begin with an initiative called the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East (APAAME) led by Professor David Kennedy of Oxford’s Institute of Archaeology. Thankfully, this does not involve emergency archaeology. This project is even now gearing up for a new season of aerial archaeology in Jordan. David has compiled over 100,000 aerial photographs to date and 10,000 maps in the archive, logging over 375 hours of flying time. He and his team’s work demonstrates that more can and should be done to document and explore these regions and history. The project also involves workshops and training courses to preserve the Hashemite Kingdom’s extraordinarily rich cultural heritage. The unstintingly generous support of TRH Prince el-Hashem bin Tallal and Prince Feisal has been critical in this mission’s success to date. From 2008, and until recently, the Packard Humanities Institute has funded APAAME; but that funding has now run out. There are literally thousands of unexcavated sites in Jordan — enough for several lifetimes of archaeological research. The programme needs more support than I alone can offer, and I heartily recommend it to those who might help.
The UK Government’s £30m Cultural Protection Fund is a fantastic start in the right direction. The dynamic chair of the All Party Group for Cultural Heritage, David Burrowes MP, is looking at how the UK can take a global leadership position and deploy resources imaginatively and effectively, including a program to safeguard seized looted artefacts in the UK until they can be safely returned to Syria after the war. Such an initiative deserves our collective support at the societal level. I urge you to write to David and endorse it. Encourage the UK government to turn £30m into more; and if you live elsewhere, encourage your own government to follow the UK’s example.
Similarly worthy of approbation is Italy’s recently appointed task force, nicknamed ‘Peacekeepers of Culture’. With UNESCO support they intend to deploy Carabinieri-trained forces into conflict zones to protect sites and to train local experts in cultural heritage preservation and conservation. This is a daring task, and a much-needed service they are proposing to provide to the world.
The Institute for Digital Archaeology at Oxford and Harvard, founded and supported by Roger Michel, is flooding Iraq and Syria with specially-designed 3D digital cameras to record artefacts and monuments in the permanent digital record of its ‘Million-Image Database’. This is an excellent and innovative project, with the preservation of heritage for posterity in memory and document, if not in fact, as its chief aim. Roger is bold and dynamic, and I have little doubt he and his team will make great strides; but they should not have to go it alone.
With greater mystery if no less importance, over the past twelve months a secretive group of ‘digital monuments men’ have been tracking online the illegal looting of artefacts. They’ve been using hacking, deep-web experts, big-data specialists, and law enforcers to sift vast amounts of data, looking for traces of activity that can be passed on to the relevant national authorities. This initiative is crying out for more computer programmers.
There are no doubt others I could include here, to make no mention of all of the various archaeological efforts and excavations worldwide that so badly need support. But my larger point is that people and initiatives like these are making a difference, and through them you too can help.
When this ghastly war finally ends, I am confident many of today’s generation of classicists and archaeologists earning their degrees now will be able and willing to join the Syrian and Iraqi people, and help them restore these extraordinary sites to their full and grand former glory. They will become the unsung heroes of this war fought for our common humanity and its most magnificent manifestations.
[EDIT 29/03/16: Since the publication of Baron Thyssen’s message, the world has rejoiced in the recapture of Palmyra from ISIL by Syrian forces. Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s own impassioned response to these events echoes many of the sentiments voiced here, and especially the need to focus international attention and support in this struggle on to the preservation of cultural heritage. This month has also seen the publication of the first UK government Culture White Paper in over fifty years — page 46 addresses issues of global world heritage.]
Image credit: View of Palmyra with the Temple of Bel, Syria, by Bernard Gagnon