Modern Wars and Ancient Sites

Aleppo’s mediaeval souq burns.

Last weekend, after an attack by the Free Syrian Army, fire swept through Aleppo’s fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Souq al-Madina and gutted what had formerly been one of the best-preserved markets of its kind in the Middle East. It’s estimated that between seven hundred and a thousand shops in the UNESCO World Heritage Site have been destroyed. Needless to say, the damage to historic buildings and antiquities pales in comparison to the ongoing human tragedy this war represents, but as a student of history and archaeologist it’s hard not to feel a particular pang of sadness at the destruction of such an irreplaceable piece of Syria’s cultural patrimony.

And Aleppo’s souq is far from the first major historic site to have suffered during the civil war. In April of this year, Emma Cunliffe of Durham University compiled a report on the damage to Syria’s heritage. It makes for grim reading. Palmyra is another World Heritage Site; its magnificent Hellenistic and Roman remains make the ruined desert city one of Syria’s foremost tourist attractions and a site of major archaeological interest. There is also a modern town with a population of around 100,000. Reports suggest that both the ancient and modern towns have been militarised. Cunliffe’s report suggests that Syrian Army troops were by April using the mediaeval Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle as a base and sniping-nest, while barracks has been built and tanks and artillery installed among the Roman ruins. More recently, videos have been posted to YouTube showing tanks prowling the centre of the modern city.

Krak des Chevaliers

Yet another World Heritage Site, Krak des Chevaliers, famously described by T. E. Lawrence as ‘perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world’ lies dangerously close to Homs, one of the epicentres of the Syrian uprising. The Crusader castle is claimed to have come under fire with both small arms and heavy artillery. Nor is it just the most famous sites which have suffered. Cunliffe’s report and the numerous stories which have appeared since recount a seemingly-endless list of damage and destruction, from small-scale bullet-damage or the daubing of flags and slogans on ancient masonry to unverified accounts of entire historic neighbourhoods being bulldozed in Homs, Aleppo and Latakia.

And it’s not just the physical damage to large ancient monuments. Harder to track but arguably even more significant to archaeologists is the upsurge in looting. Reports of antiquities being looted and smuggled out of the country in exchange for money or weapons have been growing increasingly frequent, with sites like Krak des Chevaliers, Palmyra and the Bronze Age city of Ebla all affected. Shorn of their context and squirrelled away into private collections, these objects are often lost forever to scholarship. We in the West must take a sizeable share of the blame: many, if not most, of these collectors will be based in Europe or America. The Western military adventures in the Middle East which have characterised the twenty-first century so far, quite apart from their political and social impacts, have contributed to a growth in public awareness of and interest in the region, as well as a burgeoning market for its antiquities.

This isn’t just a Syrian problem. From Taliban attacks on the stone Buddhas of Bamiyan to US wrecking of archaeological remains at Babylon to the recent Islamist destruction of Sufi shrines at Timbuktu, damage to historical antiquities in conflicts has figured prominently in headlines over recent years. The effects on archaeological and historic research can be devastating. In Lebanon – my own area of specialisation – the damage done to archaeological material, sites and records during the 1975-1990 civil war had a lasting negative effect on our ability to understand Phoenician history, and that’s without even considering the fact that fact that much of the country was off-limits for fieldwork for over a decade. Some sites and artefacts will never be able to see full publication. As a researcher, this is of course frustrating. But what can we do about it?

On Monday there was an emergency meeting of cultural and heritage organisations including UNESCO and ISESCO (the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) at the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University to discuss the effect of the Syrian civil war on its heritage. Doubtless the dignitaries there will add their voices to the growing chorus of regret but beyond this it remains to be seen what, if anything, it will be able to achieve. However much we might lament the destruction of historic material from the safety of our universities, things doubtless look rather different in the midst of a conflict where thousands are dying on all sides and reports of atrocities are rife. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the Syrian people simply aren’t concerned at what’s being lost. Can we really blame soldiers under attack for taking refuge behind the sturdy walls of a castle? When rebels talk about selling antiquities as a ‘sacrifice’ to help arm themselves against a murderous dictator, how much right do we really have to criticise? The ultimate question is: how much does preserving the past really matter when people are fighting for their futures?

Beirut National Museum during the Lebanese Civil War.

One of the most common responses is to highlight the potential of shared heritage to help reunite communities and rebuild both the economy and a sense of common identity in the wake of internal strife. To a certain extent this is undoubtedly true. It was readily apparent when I travelled to Lebanon a year ago and visited the gleaming National Museum of Beirut, wonderfully restored being devastated in the civil war and with its exhibits placing a strong emphasis on Lebanon’s common Phoenician past. It was obvious too in the magnificent archaeological park and proudly restored souqs of Byblos and Sidon.

Beirut Museum today.

Even so, the idea that we might draft history and archaeology into some sort of nation-building project is one we should perhaps be wary of. All too often, archaeological narratives have been appropriated and press-ganged into the service of negative and harmful ideologies; the new identities they have been used to articulate foster not reconciliation but exclusion and division. This week also saw the death of the celebrated historian Eric Hobsbawm, who had much to say on the subject. His oft-quoted remark that ‘historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers […] are to heroin-addicts’ vividly captures the dangerous power that history can have when allied to national ideologies. The past unquestionably matters, but in our enthusiasm to assert this, we must be careful we don’t promote policies which ultimately tie it to nationalist agendas and ultimately make matters worse.

So how should we, as scholars of the ancient world, respond to reports of antiquities destroyed, damaged or lost in conflict? I’m afraid I have to end with this question, not with an answer. It’s easy to lament the loss, to shake our heads at the waste. It feels inadequate and achieves little. Another instinct is to claim some redemptive, reconciliatory power for heritage, to hold it up as a means of uniting divided communities. This, though, is simplistic and risks drawing archaeology into risky ideological waters. While we can try to raise awareness and highlight the damage to Syria’s archaeological patrimony, it seems likely that only the end of the conflict will stop the destruction. How that might be achieved is, of course, a much bigger question.

3 thoughts on “Modern Wars and Ancient Sites

  1. This is a great post, Philip. It often seems to me that this stuff about heritage uniting people against/after war is tied into ideas that ‘high culture’ (in its arch Western European+North American museum-building mode) is necessary for civilisation, and so any destruction of its artefacts is a descent into barbarism. Which is a bit iffy. In the end, I tend to think we can only fight the passage of time so much, which is why mapping and recording techniques are so crucial. If we decide that something or somewhere is important, then it’s precisely on us to come up with a way to preserve and transmit things through time. It’s not the duty of people for whom any importance in an artefact has been outweighed by other concerns. Of course, that’s easier with poems than castles, but that’s why someone needs to start programming virtual reality simulators to take you round a site in any old spare bit of field…


    • I completely agree about the high culture/barbarism point – I think often (though not always – and my impression is that the problem’s most acute in the popular media rather than actual cultural or archaeological organisations) with the hand-wringing about this there’s a sort of unspoken orientalist undercurrent of ‘these people have no respect for, or appreciation of, their own culture – if only we can teach them the redemptive power of art galleries, museums and heritage tourism they’ll abandon their barbarous ways and join us in modernity’. That’s putting it very crudely, obviously, but I do think it’s important that while it’s obviously right to highlight what’s happening to this material, we try not to play into the kind of patronising, orientalist and neo-colonialist approaches to the Middle East which still contribute so much to the instability there.


  2. This is a brilliant post!
    It reminded me of something I thought about some time ago about how “the West” could be useful in some regions in the world without introducing and imposing their ‘ideologies’. There was this documentary (sorry, can’t remember exactly what was its name or the general topic) which discussed the way people in some parts of the world (it focused particularly on some parts of Africa) preferred to communicate with China instead of receiving any ‘help’ or having much contact with the Western countries precisely because Chinese are not interested in disseminating their ‘ideology’ and their ‘way of life’ in the way the West is. The documentary suggested that China was present in these particular countries in Africa because they wanted to do business, pure and simple, and everything beyond that was not their concern. And this approach proved to be a success: locals wanted to get employed, they learned things about technology, working ethos etc by adapting themselves to the expectations of their employers — Chinese. Of course, I’m being very rough here and things are not that clear-cut and simple, but perhaps there’s still some truth in it. Hence, instead of trying to reform countries and ‘teach’ them democracy etc, I wonder whether the West could also take a slightly more pragmatic approach: establish businesses, work with people on the grassroot level rather than contemplating on different kinds of governments/virtues/etc which brings them to contact with (corrupted) politicians.
    I admit, this all can be done, of course, when the military conflict is over and there is some basic sense of stability, which unfortunately is not the case in Syria…


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