THERE is hope of salvaging something from the ancient ruins of Palmyra which have fallen into the clutches of the Islamic State, writes Tiffany Jenkins
A few years ago an exhibition was held at the British Museum, where on display was so much more than the usual priceless ancient artefacts.
Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, which took place in 2011, brought together surviving treasures from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul – objects and art dating from 2000BC to the first century AD, originating from the heart of the silk road and the crossroads connected with trade routes from ancient Iran, central Asia, China and India, as well as the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. On one pedestal, sparking under a spotlight, was a delicate 2,000-year-old gold crown, discovered at the burial site of a nomadic woman, which folds for travel – the ultimate in portable wealth.
In addition to showing these beautiful artefacts, the exhibition told an important truth about material culture and our relationship to it – it was a testament to the extraordinary lengths people will go to to save the wonders of human civilisation.
Because these treasures did not survive the centuries by accident. In 1988, staff covertly took prized objects out of the National Museum of Afghanistan and hid them in locations only known to them, secreting them away for 25 years, because they were in danger, threatened by the disruption of civil war, looting and, a few years later, by Taleban rule and iconoclasm.
Brave men and women took great care to safeguard and record the contents of the museum in Kabul in difficult circumstances. Why? Because this stuff from the past matters: to our forebears, to us, and to future generations. Many of these objects are great achievements of craftsmanship, of course, but they also speak to us, in stone, wood, marble or gold, about the different beliefs, ideas, and the ways of living of the people who came before us – it is their legacy. What we know about the past, ancient history, often comes from what physically survives. And when we look upon material culture like this, we are connected – to each other and to those who came before us. Standing in front of the dazzling gold crown in the 21st century, I felt connected to the woman who wore it in the desert thousands of years ago, and to those curators from Kabul who kept it safe.
I thought of the courageous action of the Kabul museum staff, when it was confirmed this week that Islamic State (IS) fighters seized the world heritage site of Palmyra in Syria, a 2,000-year-old city, and one of the most dramatic and monumental ruins left from the ancient world.
The ancient city of Palmyra was once on an important trade route that linked Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire. It is also of strategic military importance today, as it is located at a highway intersection linking it to the cities of Homs and Damascus, which is why it has been targeted by IS. Tens of thousands of Syrians who live in the city have fled. IS control now more than half of Syria. It is a horrendous situation.
There are fears for the future of the ancient ruins of Palmyra, because of the destruction the extremists have already caused to important cultural heritage. Since March they have blown up and destroyed Assyrian and Parthian sculptures at Mosul Museum, Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra.
Understandably, prominent voices have called for assistance. Syria’s head of antiquities said the world had a responsibility to save Palmyra, a Unesco World Heritage site. Boris Johnson wrote a passionate newspaper article, in which he argued: “We cannot allow them [Islamic State] to continue with their public and juvenile desecration of everything that is good and beautiful.”
I admit the urge myself to shout out loud something similar. But it’s bluster. Johnson’s proposal for action, all two sentences of it, was: “It may not be too late for some kind of exclusion zone around the site, or at least for airstrikes. I would hope that our country, at the UN, would lead the world in calling for action and resistance.” That’s both vague and unhelpful.
We need to be realistic. Airstrikes will not easily hold off the IS, but they could damage the ancient site and kill the remaining Syrian people.
It is not possible to isolate and protect cultural artefacts from what is happening in the region. The threat posed to cultural heritage from these extremists will only be stopped by stopping them. And there is no easy solution to this problem. As much as I would like Western intervention to halt the IS advance, it’s not simple. Intervention has brought peril in the past and it has helped IS by creating a political vacuum in the region. We do need a public debate about the situation. Foreign affairs was noticeably absent during the election, and the government has a strange, contradictory attitude towards these extremists. As the archaeologist Donna Yates pointed out on Twitter, if Mr Johnson tried to take up arms for Palmyra he’d be arrested at Heathrow for trying to join the Syrian army.
What can be done about this rich cultural heritage?
Over the past few weeks, local people in Palmyra have gathered up artefacts, hiding and protecting museum pieces. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s head of antiquities, said that hundreds of statues had been hidden before the site was seized. I’m not being naïve: smaller pieces have been moved to safety, however, large monuments could not be moved, and remain at risk, but there is hope.
And we must treasure what in our great museums has been saved over the years. Art and artefacts inspired by or from Palmyra have travelled. In the Scottish National Gallery is a painting by the painter Gavin Hamilton, of the travellers and scholars James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra. In the British Museum are lively stone portraits of people from ancient Palmyra.
Visiting these pictures and portraits, and caring for them, is one way to ensure that history is preserved.