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Scholar pays dearly to protect treasures

28 August 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The murder of renowned Syrian antiquities scholar and archaeologist Khaled al-Assad by ISIS  has shocked the international archaeological community, but there is little or nothing anyone can do right now to stop the plunder and destruction of antiquities by Islamic State militants within areas they control. It will rank together in history alongside the murder of Hypatia, woman scholar, astronomer, mathematician and head of Alexandria’s famed library, by a Christian mob in 5th. century BC as a crime against learning and world heritage.

Khaled al-Assad, 82, was known as the ‘Howard Carter of Palmyrah.’ As director antiquities of Palmyrah, he managed to evacuate the contents of the city’s museum before Isis took control of the city. Though he knew he faced certain arrest for this act, Al-Assad refused to leave. ISIS reportedly interrogated him for a month about the whereabouts of the hidden artifacts. When the scholar refused to talk, militants had him beheaded before a crowd in front of the museum. His mutilated body was subsequently hung from a column in the ancient city’s main square.

Palmyrah was Al-Assad’s hometown. He is regarded as a pioneer of 20th century Syrian archaeology and has worked together with international archaeological teams in Palmyrah, a 2000-year-old caravan city and one of UNESCO’s most treasured and beautiful world heritage sites. He was a world expert on the site, and co-author of Palmyrah: History, Monuments and Museum, now regarded as the definitive guide book. Among his other works is a book about Queen Zenobia, the third century BC queen of Palmyrah who dared defy the Roman empire. One of his five daughters was named after the legendary queen.

For 40 years, Al Assad remained head of antiquities in Palmyrah. Colleagues and experts say his loss is irreplaceable.

In June, ISIS blew up two ancient shrines in Palymrah that were not part of its Roman-era structures but which the militants regarded as pagan and sacrilegious. Following the execution of Al-Assad, it confirmed that it blew up the pre-Roman era Temple of Baal-Shamin, an imposing structure.
UNESCO warned last month that looting had been taking place on an “industrial scale”. Looting of antiquities has been going on in Iraq and Syria before ISIS came along. The Syrian regime, too, is guilty of dealing in conflict antiquities. But ISIS has a unique strategy – it will destroy large structures it cannot sell, such as the city of Nimrud or the temple of Baal-Shamin, and will loot and export smaller artifacts.

An expert working under cover in London has recently discovered in dealer’s shops objects such as tiny statues, glass and bone inlays which he says are very likely to be from parts of Iraq and Syria now under ISIS control.

Neil Brodie of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) at Glasgow University says that attempts to tackle the problem have been ineffective due to lack of co-ordinated strategies. He says: “If no one was buying, people wouldn’t dig it up. This material sells.”

Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiquities unit says it is investigating three cases of stolen antiquities from Syria, adding that: “In two of these investigations, restrictions have been placed on the articles in question. There have been no arrests to date.”

Some buyers may not know that they are buying ‘blood antiquities,’ equal to ‘blood diamonds.’ It’s an industry run on trust, with few records.

According to Syrian sources, Isis got into the trade around 2014, giving licenses to excavate  and initially levying 20% taxes. In mid-2014, the group began to contract out excavation. By autumn 2014, Isis was employing its own archaeologists, digging teams and machinery. This coincided with the US-led coalition’s bombing against Isis, which saw incomes from oil, livestock and crops drop. Isis took looting of artifacts seriously, punishing those doing the digging without licenses, controlling dealers and middle men and using the internet and e-bay to find markets.

Those who buy stolen artifacts from these regions will have, directly or indirectly, the blood of Khaled al-Assad and others on their hands.   
 
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