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The sack of Palmyra: A modern history of destroying history

SYRIA

THE SACK OF PALMYRA: A MODERN HISTORY OF DESTROYING HISTORY

An undated image, published by the Islamic State group in the Homs province (Welayat Homs) on Aug. 25, 2015, allegedly shows smoke billowing from the Baal Shamin temple in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra. The temple was reportedly destroyed by the extremist group.

An undated image, published by the Islamic State group in the Homs province (Welayat Homs) on Aug. 25, 2015, shows smoke billowing from the Baal Shamin temple in Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra. The temple was destroyed by the extremist group.

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

It was one of the Middle East's best-preserved remnants of the ancient world – until Syria's civil war made it a battleground, and then Islamic State decided to blow it up.

But the damage done to Palmyra is part of a tradition older than civilization: Conquerors smashing the treasures of the conquered. How does the war on history in Syria compare with China under Mao Zedong, or Afghanistan under the Taliban? What drives them to destroy? And whose heritage is actually being destroyed?

The Globe spoke to experts around the world to see what the world has lost, and how archaeologists and ordinary people are fighting to save the rest

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • The war: James Adams on why Islamic State’s war on the past matters
  • The damage done: Tu Thanh Ha, Ahmad Hathout and Samya Kullab ask the experts about what’s been lost in Palmyra
  • Ancient history: Robert Everett-Green asks what "heritage" really means. Whose heritage is Palmyra, anyway?
  • Modern history: Nathan Vanderklippe on Communist China's legacy of cultural destruction
  • Stemming the tide: Samya Kullab looks at Lebanon’s campaign to stop the plunder from Syria at the border
  • Saving the past: Geoffrey York looks at ordinary Malians' secret mission to smuggle their heritage to safety


CHAPTER 1: THE WAR

How Islamic State's war on the past is different

by James Adams

In late May of this year, shortly after Islamic State forces gained control of the Syrian city of Tadmur and the adjacent ruins of ancient Palmyra, the local commander seemed to shine a sliver of light from the dark cloud that is IS.

Palmyra would be "preserved" by its conqueror as part of its great caliphate, he told an anti-Bashar al-Assad-regime radio station. Registered since 1980 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the oasis city some call the Venice of the Sands, famed for its gardens, 20 varieties of date palms and monumental white limestone buildings, has been one of the best maintained complexes from antiquity. Said the commander: "The historic city," former capital of legendary rebel warrior queen Zenobia (240-275 AD), "will not be harmed, God willing."

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Yes, Islamic State would "break the idols that the infidels used to worship." But, he said, "the historic buildings," erected 250 kilometres northeast of Damascus between the first and third centuries, "will not be touched and we will not bring bulldozers to destroy them like some people think."

The colonnade of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra is shown on Aug. 5, 2010.

The colonnade of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra is shown on Aug. 5, 2010.

SANDRA AUGER/REUTERS

Admittedly, the world did not so much issue a sigh of relief as inhale deeply, then wait to exhale. After all, in its tear through the Near East, IS had earlier shown no hesitation in breaking out the sledgehammers, knives and explosives to damage or destroy ancient shrines, statues and manuscripts in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Similar havoc has been wreaked on such ancient locales as Nimrud, Samarra and Hatra.

The commander's promise has since been shown to be a lie. In late August, Syrian antiquities director-general Maamoun Abdulkarim announced that the jihadists of IS, which is also known as ISIL, had destroyed three tower tombs in Palmyra dating back to the first and third centuries. This was the latest in a series of seemingly systematic, ongoing eradication of pre-Islamic structures undertaken by IS since mid-August.

In early September, the United Nations confirmed that IS had blown up the Mesopotamian Temple of Bel, described by Ross Burns, an ancient-history professor at Sydney, Australia's Macquarie University, as "the most significant building in Syria from the Roman period [roughly 63 BC to 500 AD]."

Shortly before that, IS also destroyed the smaller Phoenician Temple of Baal Shamin, Palmyra's second-most important religious shrine.

Add the demolition in June of two centuries-old tombs (one the resting place of a Sufi scholar, the other of a Shiite related to the Prophet Mohammed's cousin), and the torture and beheading in August of 82-year-old Khaled al-Asaad, former director of the archeological site at Palmyra, and you have an unprecedented level of wanton destruction and calculated callousness, according to a Royal Ontario Museum scholar.

Clemens Reichel, the Toronto-based ROM's associate curator of ancient Near East culture, said IS's savagery is analogous more to what he calls the thoroughgoing "Stone Age communism" of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975-79 than to the actions of previous Muslim conquerors.

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An artifact from ancient Palmyra in the Royal Ontario Museum’s permanent collection.

An artifact from ancient Palmyra in the Royal Ontario Museum’s permanent collection.

For Michael Danti, Boston-based co-director of the Syrian Heritage Initiative, speaking to National Geographic magazine, it is nothing less than "the worst cultural-heritage crisis since the Second World War."

"There have been periods before of iconoclasm and massive destruction," Dr. Reichel said in a recent interview. Byzantine Christianity was riven by such despoliation in the eighth and ninth centuries. By contrast, "Muslim conquests [of Christian lands and communities] normally did not result in the destruction, say, of a church.…

"Sometimes they were turned into mosques," added Dr. Reichel, who has made many visits to Syria and done excavations there, the last in 2010. The paintings and mosaics in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia basilica, for example, "were not destroyed by the Ottomans, just painted over.

"What [Islamic State] does now, it's a little hard to find a good parallel for that." Yes, the Taliban and al-Qaeda destroyed the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, but "they didn't go after Islamic shrines and sanctuaries. [IS] is an extreme," Dr. Reichel said. "Like the way the Khmer Rouge stood for this primitivism that knows no individualism and no identity."

For Kristin Romey, an archeologist and editor with National Geographic, the mayhem of Islamic State is less about theocratic nihilism than a demonstration of Muslim "piety." Archeology, to this mindset, is a "foreign import," she has written, fostering nationalism and materialism rather than the creation of the Muslim utopia of the caliphate.

Before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Palmyra had been a point of pride for all Syrians, its oasis setting and well-preserved architectural mix of ancient Semitic, Roman, Greek and Persian motifs luring more than 150,000 tourists a year.

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However, for IS, this pride and attention are idolatrous, a distraction from the asceticism required to build the self-styled caliphate.

The Temple of Bel is shown on Aug. 4, 2010.

The Temple of Bel is shown on Aug. 4, 2010.

SANDRA AUGER/REUTERS

Meanwhile, Dr. Reichel clearly and understandably bemoans the destruction of Palmyra – but with some caveats. He thinks, from a scientific viewpoint, that "the lootings from museums and archeological sites that [IS] is doing … are probably the worst damage that is happening." Worst, that is, relative to the destruction.

That looting is believed to be systematic, cold-blooded and enabled by greed on a global scale, prompting the United States to announce this week a $5-million (U.S.) reward for information leading to significant "disruption" of the IS trade in antiquites. "What ISIL has not destroyed, it has looted and sold through a highly methodical, highly efficient excavation operation to finance its twisted ambitions," Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told art experts. "These ancient coins, stone, glass and mosaic fragments travel organized routes through black markets in the Middle East, Europe and the Persian Gulf. The profits return to line the pockets of these extremists – funding more savagery, more terror and more devastation."

A dozen years ago, thousands of artifacts were looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, 8,000 of which remain missing. But what was much the worse was how sites were "hacked apart for artifacts," he said.

While losing 8,000 artifacts is "bad, we'll somehow live with that. One way or another, they've been documented. What gets ripped out of the ground in Palmyra and elsewhere, that's never been documented.… What [IS] is not taping and putting out in public, that's the real loss."

To "lose" the Palmyra the world has come to know would be "really terrible," Dr. Reichel said. "But the one thing is: Palmyra has been studied for decades." While much remains to be excavated, what has been uncovered has been much walked over, measured, photographed, videotaped, drawn, painted, catalogued, written about and contextualized. "I myself have hundreds of photographs [of the Temple of Bel]. It will never disappear from my memory even though it is no longer there."

At this, he wondered aloud, if perhaps the temple could be reconstructed with the aid of 3-D digital technology. It is not an entirely fanciful notion: Just last week, the Institute for Digital Archaeology, a joint venture of Harvard and Oxford universities, announced that it was launching a project to distribute 10,000 inexpensive 3-D cameras across the Middle East between now and the end of 2016. The plan, according to a BBC report, is to get people to capture historical sites in pictures, print out the results and later, when Islamic State collapses, "reassemble the sites if they're ever destroyed."

Of course, no one hopes that the replacement scenario will have to be realized. "Heritage, like human life, is irreplaceable," Dr. Reichel observed. "If you blow up the Temple of Bel, it's not going to grow back in 100 years, just as if you wipe out a human being, he or she is never going to grow back. This is not like gold from the state bank that can be replaced over a number of years. It's gone; it's a unique piece that disappears and, more to the point, it's part of the very cultural heritage of the humans living there."

"Does it matter to those humans living in Palmyra facing IS? Well, the Syrian army put up a fight for that city [and] Dr. al-Asaad died for refusing to give out information about the whereabouts of his finds. So, you know, if somebody dies for cultural heritage, you can't simply trivialize it and say it wasn't worth anything."

In the meantime, beyond these concerns about restoration and preservation, is there any hope that perpetrators of destruction on cultural sites will face justice some day? There was some encouraging news on this front late last week with the deportation from Niger to the International Criminal Court of Justice in The Hague of Mali-born Ahmad Al Mahdi Al Faqi. Mr. Faqi, a member of the militant Islamic group Ansar Eddine, is to stand trial for "the war crime of the intentional destruction of historic monuments and buildings in Timbuktu" in 2012. This is the first case of this kind to be brought before the ICC.

CHAPTER 2: THE DAMAGE DONE

'My colleagues and I cry about this': assessing the damage in Palmyra

THE VIEW FROM SPACE

Syria’s Temple of Bel is shown before and after its demolition, in images captured by the lenses of a Canadian satellite company, UrtheCast. At the beginning of September, the satellite images of the Temple of Bel and the Baal Shamin Temple in Palmyra were posted on the website of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and confirmed by its satellite observation arm, the Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT). Vancouver-based UrtheCast has four cameras in space, two of which have been installed on the Russian portion of the International Space Station since the beginning of last year. The images captured of the Syrian temples were taken by the company’s own satellite, which was purchased as a pair this summer from Spanish company DOT-Deimos for $100-million. -Ahmad Hathout

Syria’s Temple of Bel is shown before and after its demolition, in images captured by the lenses of a Canadian satellite company, UrtheCast. At the beginning of September, the satellite images of the Temple of Bel and the Baal Shamin Temple in Palmyra were posted on the website of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and confirmed by its satellite observation arm, the Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT). Vancouver-based UrtheCast has four cameras in space, two of which have been installed on the Russian portion of the International Space Station since the beginning of last year. The images captured of the Syrian temples were taken by the company’s own satellite, which was purchased as a pair this summer from Spanish company DOT-Deimos for $100-million. -Ahmad Hathout

REUTERS


THE VIEW FROM THE GOVERNMENT

Maamoun Abdulkarim is chief of the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in Damascus. He spoke with freelance reporter Samya Kullab about the situation on the ground in Palmyra.

Maamoun Abdelkarim observes Syrian technicians and conservators working on preserving Syrian artifacts delivered from various parts of Syria to Damascus on Sept. 21, 2015.

Maamoun Abdelkarim observes Syrian technicians and conservators working on preserving Syrian artifacts delivered from various parts of Syria to Damascus on Sept. 21, 2015.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

On the looters: "The most dangerous thing happening in Palmyra today is the illicit excavation by mafia groups. We are sure ISIS gave permission to these groups. It's not the kind of excavation we as archeologists do. Mafia groups use bulldozers. They destroy all the layers just to find something… We also have information ISIS has transformed the national museum into a prison. Now our national museum is a prison! Because they don't understand what the meaning of a museum is. They are ignorant of culture."

On the loss of culture: "For me personally, what happened in Palmyra in particular and in Syria in general is a destruction of our identity, our culture. You know, everyone knows the crisis will end at some time. But the problem is the damage done to our heritage will stay forever. My colleagues and I cry about this."

THE VIEW FROM HISTORIANS

CCheikhmous Ali is a Syrian-born archeologist at the University of Strasbourg and a member of the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, a group that tries to document damage to heritage sites in Syria. In a recent telephone interview with The Globe and Mail's Tu Thanh Ha, he asserted that the looting and bombing of the Islamic State is only the latest tragedy to befall Palmyra since the start of Syria's civil war. His interview has been edited and condensed.

To your knowledge, what is the situation in Palmyra?

In terms of destruction in Palmyra, this is the second wave. The first began in 2012. Pillars were toppled. Some monuments' facades were shelled. Heavy weaponry was set up next to historical monuments. Roads were laid through the middle of archeological sites. Tombs not yet excavated were plundered. The government antiquities directorate recovered about 125 archeological items, but one can assume the total number is twice or three times bigger. In June, it was the terrorist groups of Islamic State who took control of the city. And since then, looting continues.

Even before the arrival of the Islamic State, your group had documented damage caused by the Syrian military in Palmyra.

The moment the Syrian army arrived was catastrophic. There were two kilometres of roads cut through the middle of the archeological zone. Parts of the ramparts were bulldozed to set up antitank weapons. Sniper positions and heavy weapons were set up inside the citadel. They also bulldozed archeological layers in the Diocletian camp. The Bel Temple, before it was damaged by the Islamic State group was struck by shells and the outer walls were damaged to various degree.

ASSOCIATION FOR THE PROTECTION OF SYRIAN ARCHAEOLOGY

ASSOCIATION FOR THE PROTECTION OF SYRIAN ARCHAEOLOGY

Is there a difference between the destruction done to provoke, for ideological reasons, when the Islamic State vandalizes, or crimes of negligence, when the army uses a bulldozer?

The result is the same. Protecting the heritage is not a priority for either side. They'll use any means, including chemical weapons, for example at Ghouta. They are ready to destroy everything to defeat their enemies. And the results are the same.

You also talked of the trafficking of archeological artifacts. Who are the looters? Are they people reduced to poverty? Or is it a way to make money for militant groups?

The revenues from the sale of archeological items are not really of great value. The numbers being floated, millions of dollars being mentioned, those numbers are absolutely inaccurate. When someone digs a site, he might find some jars, some baubles, some coins or terra cotta figurines. But it's rare to find exceptional pieces. This isn't Egypt, you won't find a treasure. The people who dig are poor and can't feed their families. They are selling to local merchants in neighbouring cities. As for the belligerents, whether Islamic State or Syrian generals, they don't dig themselves, but in areas under their control they let people excavate and take a percentage. As a source of revenues, it is not as critical as revenues from oil or taxing trade or donations.

How can you ensure you collect accurate information and aren't a victim of propaganda?

Half of our network lives in Syria and transmits news, which are corroborated by photos or videos. For example, when the Bel Temple was destroyed, I got the information from our contact in Palmyra, but we didn't publish the news since we didn't have images, even though our correspondent confirmed that people heard a loud detonation coming from the vicinity of the temple. In areas under Islamic State control, we have had to stop that work. For example, for the last year and a half, we had to stop documenting what happened in Raqqa because we didn't want to endanger the life of our correspondent.

CHAPTER 3: ANCIENT HISTORY

'World Heritage Site'? Whose world? Whose heritage?

Column by Robert Everett-Green

The ruins of Palmyra are shown in an archival photo.

The ruins of Palmyra are shown in an archival photo.

U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

War is always ruinous, but there's a special scorn reserved for those who destroy for no reason. The Daily Telegraph knew it was reflecting the common view when it described the demolition of historic structures as one of the enemy's "most pitiless pieces of vandalism."

The enemy was not the Islamic State, which has been condemned internationally for levelling ancient Roman structures at Palmyra, in central Syria. The vandals in that Telegraph story, from 1914, were the German soldiers who had just lobbed incendiary shells into Ypres, Belgium, destroying architecturally important public buildings of no military value.

In 1914, the loss of those cultural markers was seen mainly as a blow for the Belgians. A century later, changing ideas about "heritage" have encouraged us to feel that the Islamic State's demolitions, such as in Palmyra, are a crime against us all, even if we can scarcely find their location on a map.

The inner part of the Temple of Bel’s “cella,” shown some time between 1898 and 1946.

The inner part of the Temple of Bel’s “cella,” shown some time between 1898 and 1946.

U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The ceiling in the Temple of Bel, shown some time between 1920 and 1933.

The ceiling in the Temple of Bel, shown some time between 1920 and 1933.

U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Until the long-escalating refugee crisis jumped to the front pages, the lost ruins of Palmyra were a useful proxy for human calamities that we have more trouble dealing with, including the deaths of an estimated 250,000 Syrians in the current civil war. The Guardian actually published a think piece with the title "Why it's all right to be more horrified by the razing of Palmyra than mass murder." That was enough to tell you that it wasn't just Islamic State that has bizarre ideas about what the demolished sites mean.

Palmyra was an important eastern power centre for the Roman Empire. It is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which established the designation in 1972. The idea was that some sites are so precious that they "belong to all the peoples of the world," and rely on everyone for protection.

That marked a huge expansion of the concept of material heritage, which until then assumed that cultural property was the responsibility of religious and ethnic communities or nation-states. But the World Heritage Convention soon became one of the most widely accepted of any proposed by the United Nations. Part of its appeal is that it puts everyone's cultural inheritance on a supposedly equal footing. The heritage-site list also soothes our collective anxiety that rapid change is erasing much of the valuable past.

The temple of Bel in Palmyra, 1929.

The temple of Bel in Palmyra, 1929.

U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

That anxiety went into spasms with the Palmyra demolitions by the Islamic State, which defined the ruins as malign pagan relics and broadcast scorn for the idea that they were objectively valuable. This view is so alien to the Western norm that more cynical motives had to be found. Some said that Islamic State's real aim was publicity and easier recruiting, though it seems doubtful that anyone would join a violent Islamist faction just for the fun of blowing up Roman temples.

In any case, the ruins were quickly played for their propaganda value by those who styled ancient Palmyra as a diverse, tolerant, free-market haven in the desert. The city even had Greco-Roman systems of law and governance – the same ones that became foundational in the West. Cambridge University historian Tim Whitmarsh summed up the case in a Guardian commentary piece, saying Palmyra is "antiquity's best counterexample to ISIS's fascistic monoculturalism."

In this telling, the ghostly past accuses the destructive present. It also helps raise the question the West always poses to stubborn Muslims: Why can't you just be more like us? Especially since, in the Palmyra example, you once were.

People walk past the ruins of Palmyra some time between 1925 and 1946.

People walk past the ruins of Palmyra some time between 1925 and 1946.

U.S. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

That's the normative fantasy of our current international worldview. We no longer think it right and proper that one country should openly subjugate another, as the ancient Romans did when they rolled into Syria. We do, however, tend to expect that eventually everyone will accept Western rules and values. The deplorable events at Palmyra, including the murder of the elderly archeologist who managed the ruins, were another Islamic State assault on that dream.

The events at Palmyra were also, perhaps, a retort to the covert imperialism that still goes on through economic suasion, strategic foreign aid, and the siting of military bases on other people's territory. Palmyra is a Greek name; the ruins there are Roman. Everything about the place revolves around the domination of Syrian lands by a long sequence of foreign powers, including the Ottoman Turks and the French, who finally cleared out the local population so that the site could be excavated.

It may be worth asking in what ways imperial Palmyra belongs to all of us, as UNESCO would like us to believe. Is it ours because we have a vague notion of the need to protect "heritage," or because we hold a privileged place in a world whose outlines and fault lines were largely created by empires ancient and modern? Do we own it because it has a living meaning for us personally, or because we would rather feel bad about a heap of rubble than about millions of people clamouring for our help?

CHAPTER 4: MODERN HISTORY

Out with the 'olds': How China tried to destroy its history

Analysis by Nathan Vanderklippe in Beijing

Before Syrian militants used bulldozers and explosives to turn ancient mosques into dust, the Red Guards of Mao Zedong's China were smashing statues of Jesus and the Buddha with long sticks and sledgehammers.

The tools were different, but the aim was the same: to wipe out the landscape of the past.

And in China the ills of cultural destruction have lasted far longer, and ruined far more historically important artifacts and places of worship, than perhaps in any other place on Earth.

Chinese people burn books in 1966, during the country’s Cultural Revolution, a state-led campaign to destroy literature, art and architecture deemed not revolutionary or modern enough.

Chinese people burn books in 1966, during the country’s Cultural Revolution, a state-led campaign to destroy literature, art and architecture deemed not revolutionary or modern enough.

ZHOU THONG/NEWSCOM

It was Mao, the founder of the modern Chinese Communist state, who provoked the vicious turbulence of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. For many of those years, China cleared away its past to make way for a revolutionary future unencumbered by historic baggage.

The Cultural Revolution "has become a synonym for the destruction of cultural heritage," Juliane Noth, a researcher at the Berlin Institute of Art History, noted in Cultural Heritage as Civilizing Mission. China's most significant places, including the Forbidden City, were protected only after authorities closed them to the public and installed soldiers inside.

China under Mao had initially made efforts at preservation. A 1960 rule barred the export of all pre-1795 relics. And in 1967, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, authorities ordered families to turn in cultural artifacts so that they could be preserved by museums.

But the order exempted "superstitious," "old" and "traditional" materials, which were to be destroyed as Communist China waged war on the "four olds," which included customs, culture, habits and ideas.

Directed to destroy, crowds burned countless books, scrolls and pieces of art – some for heat, others for spite – and vandalized thousands of religious sites, including Tibetan monasteries, Taoist temples, Christian churches and irreplaceable historic sites. Among them was the Temple of Confucius, built on the site of what was once the ancient philosopher's home. Precious jewels were taken from ancient Buddha statues.

Wooden religious statues from a Buddhist temple lean against a temple wall in a Beijing suburb in August, 1966, after the Red Guard – setting out to destroy the “old superstitions of old China” – knocked the statues off their pedestals.

Wooden religious statues from a Buddhist temple lean against a temple wall in a Beijing suburb in August, 1966, after the Red Guard – setting out to destroy the “old superstitions of old China” – knocked the statues off their pedestals.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

But the looting did not end with the Cultural Revolution.

The excesses of the subsequent Communist economic revolution have played their own role in wrecking the country's cultural history.

Chinese leaders have presided over an unbridled pursuit of wealth and a flourishing of corruption among authorities. Culture and heritage received little attention over the decades during which Beijing made gross domestic product virtually the sole arbiter of performance for officials. That opened space for relics profiteering to flourish into a lucrative trade.

In recent years, conservationists have said the ravages of building a new China have been worse than the Cultural Revolution. From 1998 to 2003 alone, according to the Chinese National Cultural Relics Bureau, thieves looted nearly a quarter-million tombs.

Local archeologists now say as many as nine in 10 ancient tombs have been emptied of relics, some dating back more than three millennia. Investigators in China have blamed organized professionals brazenly plying their trade for some of it; one notable theft involved a 27-tonne sarcophagus smuggled from China to the United States.

But the unrelenting pace of industrial and real-estate development has played a role too.

Most narrow hutong alleyways in Beijing and other cities – filled with historic courtyard homes once used by artists and aristocrats – have been razed to make way for glass skyscrapers. A few years ago, a mining company in coal-rich Shaanxi province pulled down more than a kilometre of a Ming Dynasty-era section of the Great Wall to build new mine works; other sections of the wall have been wrecked by underground tunnelling that caused the earth to subside.

Elsewhere, China's greatest icon has been plundered by villagers looking for cheap building material. About 30 per cent of the length of the constructed wall has now disappeared, according to recent reporting by Chinese state media. Great Wall bricks can sell for less than $10.

The destruction continues today under different guises. In Kashgar, an ancient Silk Road outpost in China's western Xinjiang region, much of the old city is being demolished in the name of safety concerns.

A recent survey by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage found that more than 20,000 Chinese historic sites have simply vanished (previous surveys in 1956 and 1983 were never completed).

Efforts have been made to protect relics, and authorities spent heavily to remove some treasures ahead of major developments, such as the Three Gorges Dam. They also have sought the return of artifacts sold to foreign buyers, strengthened domestic laws and lobbied the international community for help in busting the lucrative relics trade.

Heritage conservation was specifically made a priority in the ninth national Five-Year Plan, unveiled in 1996. A cultural relics law was passed in 2002, and protection language has been built into urban planning rules for a quarter-century.

But graft has weakened the power of the laws. And even those tasked with protecting what is left in China say their capacity is limited. In 2009, state media reported, the country employed just one person in relic protection for every 10 historic sites.

CHAPTER 5: SAVING THE TIDE

The Lebanese connection: Stopping the plunderers in their tracks

by Samya Kullab in Beirut

Maamoun Abdul-Karim, head of Syria’s Museums and Antiquities Department, shows a Syrian artifact preserved in Damascus after being delivered from various parts of Syria.

Maamoun Abdul-Karim, head of Syria’s Museums and Antiquities Department, shows a Syrian artifact preserved in Damascus after being delivered from various parts of Syria.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

When customs officials on the Lebanon-Syria border inspected the contents of a truck that had been intercepted by security forces, they called Anne-Marie Afeiche to assess the provenance of about 70 stone objects, each half a metre in diameter, that had been discovered inside.

"They were huge, beautifully carved capitals made of marble," Ms. Afeiche recalled two years later as she stood inside the colossal interiors of the National Museum of Beirut, where she is a curator. "They had come from the Apamea ruins in Syria."

By that time, in May 2013, Ms. Afeiche's team at Lebanon's Directorate of Antiquities had become accustomed to calls from the authorities for help in determining the authenticity of suspected looted artifacts from heritage sites inside Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Culture Minister Raymond Areiji, who supervises the work of the directorate, received a file nearly once a week detailing new items seized by Interpol and Lebanese authorities from the airport, land and sea border crossings.

To protect the looted artifacts, Lebanon is keeping them under lock and key in top-secret safe houses until their rightful owners can come back and claim them.

"We are working with security forces who are in charge of stopping these smugglers. We are called [by the authorities] when they have something to show us because we are the experts," Ms. Afeiche explained. "We go on-site; sometimes if the objects are not too big, they bring them over to us so we can examine where they came from. This is the first step."

Analysis has revealed some of the seized items to be counterfeit. But more often, they are identified as artifacts stolen from museums or excavated illegally in embattled areas, and worth as much as $1-million (U.S.). Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Lebanon's Internal Security Forces have seized more than 1,000 confirmed artifacts, according to a security source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

There are thousands more artifacts that have entered the country undetected, the source added, often hidden in the suitcases of individual Syrians entering the country or inside taxi cabs ferrying refugees.

But Lebanon is rarely meant to be the final destination for these antiquities; for most smugglers the country is merely a transit point to Europe.

"If the objects are confirmed to be of value, we ask the authorities to put them in our possession," Ms. Afeiche explained.

Once the team determines the country of origin of the smuggled items, Ms. Afeiche contacts colleagues in Syria and Iraq, with whom the directorate has maintained friendly relations for years. A delegation of experts is then dispatched to Beirut to inspect – and eventually repatriate – the artifacts. This year, for instance, a team from Damascus retrieved the stone capitals looted from Apamea.

Damascus Museum employees wrap archaeological artifacts into boxes on March 24, 2015, to protect them from being damaged.

Damascus Museum employees wrap archaeological artifacts into boxes on March 24, 2015, to protect them from being damaged.

JOSEPH EID/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Sometimes, after carrying out their own investigation, visiting delegations conclude that the antiquities in question are not, in fact, theirs. The antiquities remain in Lebanese custody while the Beirut team carries out further research.

"Sometimes the objects are very well known, sometimes they aren't at all. Sometimes they are stolen from museums, sometimes they are new because they were illegally excavated," Ms. Afeiche explains. "It's impossible to generalize; it's very different every time."

But as unrest in the region has worn on, it has become more difficult for archeologists from Syria or Iraq to make the trip to Beirut and make formal arrangements for the often lengthy process of bringing the artifacts home.

"They are dealing with a country at war and have other priorities," Ms. Afeiche said. "So, in the meantime, we have to protect these antiquities."

Until the looted antiquities can be returned to their countries of origin, the Directorate of Antiquities is keeping them under lock and key and constant surveillance.

For security reasons, Ms. Afeiche was unable to say where the warehouses are located. "These items are not ours. We are protecting them until they can be returned one day. It's our responsibility to try and preserve as many artifacts as we can."

The porous border between Lebanon and Syria have always been conducive to smuggling activity. Lebanese authorities have said the smuggling of antiquities is not a new phenomenon, but it has assumed a new importance with the rapid advances of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Smuggling antiquities as well as selling oil on the black market is said to be funding IS activities.

"Some pieces that we have seized are not antiquities, they are patrimonial pieces special to Syria, such as wooden doors and some decorative items," explained Mr. Areiji, the Culture Minister. "But we are seizing everything, just to send the message that we are being vigilant and not tolerating any looting."

In the Christian border town of Qaa, all that separates Lebanese citizens from the Syrian villages of Joussi and Nazaria is a paved road and 15 kilometres of agricultural land. It is here that the local army intelligence branch intercepted icons dating back hundreds of years from the Syrian town of Maaloula, overtaken by the Nusra Front in 2013.

Today, theses icons are being kept in the basement of the Directorate of Antiquities until Syrian authorities can claim them.

Lebanon has also had to contend with its own low-intensity war with jihadi groups along its northeastern frontier, prompting the Lebanese Army to tighten security along the borders by the end of 2014.

"Because of the military operations on the borders in the Bekaa Valley and the north, the smuggling of antiquities is no longer very active," Mr. Areiji said. "We think Turkey is now the main place for the smuggling of antiquities."

Part of Lebanon's willingness to help its neighbours stems from its own violent history. "We've seen our part of destruction," said Ms. Afeiche, peering up at a priceless fifth-century mosaic known as The Good Shepherd that still bears the hole pierced by a sniper during Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

At that time, the museum was of strategic value to militia groups because it straddled the Green Line, which separated warring armies. The building, which once housed artifacts from the Bronze Age to the Byzantine period, was transformed into a military barrack. It stood along a demarcation line known as Museum Alley, where many died attempting to make the dangerous crossing from one part of the city to the other.

Anticipating the potential for large-scale destruction, Maurice Chehab, who was director of antiquities at the time, took protective measures by hiding small artifacts in storerooms and walling them up. Mosaics on the ground floor were protected with a layer of cement. "No one could tell that behind the walls, these small objects were still there. Everyone thought everything had been looted." Ms. Afeiche explained.

Large pieces, such as the sarcophagus of Ahiram, king of Byblos in the 13th century BC, were encased in concrete.

When the museum was renovated and reopened during the 1990s, the sniper's hole in The Good Shepherd was left untouched. "In order not to forget," Ms. Afeiche said.

"They are aware of what we lived," she added, speaking of colleagues struggling to protect cultural heritage sites in Syria and Iraq. "But I'd say it's difficult for us to give them advice, because in war there are no rules."

Samya Kullab is a freelance reporter for The Globe and Mail.

CHAPTER 6: SAVING THE PAST

How the library smugglers of Mali saved fragile remnants of their past

by Geoffrey York in Johannesburg

When Islamist radicals captured the legendary city of Timbuktu in northern Mali in 2012, the looting and destruction soon began. The extremists used pickaxes to demolish 16 tombs of Sufi saints. They smashed the door of a 15th-century mosque and razed an independence monument at the city's entrance.

But unbeknownst to the Islamist militias, the people of Timbuktu were mobilizing for a secret mission: the rescue of their vast libraries of ancient Arabic and African manuscripts.

The rubble left from an ancient mausoleum destroyed by Islamist militants is seen in Timbuktu on July 25, 2013.

The rubble left from an ancient mausoleum destroyed by Islamist militants is seen in Timbuktu on July 25, 2013.

JOE PENNEY/REUTERS

Written in ornate calligraphy and decorated in gold lettering, the thousands of manuscripts from the 13th to 16th centuries were a symbol of Africa's intellectual traditions, covering subjects including medicine, literature, mathematics and philosophy. Scholars had written them in Timbuktu or taken them into the city on camel caravans from Persia, Baghdad and Cairo in the Middle Ages, at a time when Europe was stagnating but Timbuktu was an affluent university town and Islamic teaching centre.

As the Islamists took control of northern Mali, the owners of the manuscripts – mostly ordinary Muslims who had carefully preserved the ancient texts for many years – began to smuggle their libraries into hiding places in the fabled city. Then they faced the task of how to get the crumbling manuscripts out of Timbuktu and into a safer part of the country, even though they could easily be damaged in the long journey.

"They are very fragile," Mohamed Diagayete, a scholar at an institute that was making digital copies of the manuscripts before the Islamists arrived, said in an interview in Bamako in 2012. "The choice is difficult: Either we lose them all or we lose part of them."

Mr. Diagayete was chosen as an advance scout to map out an escape route from Timbuktu to Mali's capital, Bamako. He said he made a covert trip to Timbuktu after the rebel takeover and managed to bring back a hard drive with a cache of digitized copies. By testing the route, he found that he could get past the rebel lines and military checkpoints with minimal checks.

Then, in an extraordinary volunteer effort over the next few months, more than 300,000 manuscripts were smuggled out of Timbuktu – a few at a time, in private cars and bush taxis across the desert and boats on the Niger River – and finally into temporary storage places in Bamako. The effort was organized by Abdel Kader Haidara, a librarian and manuscript owner in Timbuktu with close connections to other private owners and institutes.

Manuscripts sit on Jan. 28, 2015, on shelves at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Bamako, Mali. Hundreds of thousands of priceless parchments sit on metal shelves in Mali’s capital as archivists painstakingly classify and digitize them.

Manuscripts sit on Jan. 28, 2015, on shelves at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Bamako, Mali. Hundreds of thousands of priceless parchments sit on metal shelves in Mali’s capital as archivists painstakingly classify and digitize them.

SEBASTIEN RIEUSSEC/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Archivists Aboubakar Yaro and Alphamoye Djeite study ancient manuscripts in a library in the Malian town of Djenne. (Yaro is wearing a mask to protect him from dust.) They are cataloguing the manuscripts as part of a British Library project to digitize copies of 200,000 manuscript pages in Djenne.

Archivists Aboubakar Yaro and Alphamoye Djeite study ancient manuscripts in a library in the Malian town of Djenne. (Yaro is wearing a mask to protect him from dust.) They are cataloguing the manuscripts as part of a British Library project to digitize copies of 200,000 manuscript pages in Djenne.

GEOFFREY YORK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

About 15,000 manuscripts remained behind in a modern new library in Timbuktu, which had been commandeered by the Islamist radicals as a barracks. It was too dangerous to try to rescue them.

In late January 2013, when French and Malian soldiers finally recaptured Timbuktu, the retreating Islamists set fire to thousands of manuscripts at the modern library. More than 4,200 manuscripts were destroyed, and the world held its breath, thinking all the manuscripts had perished. But the Islamists hadn't discovered 10,000 manuscripts in basement storage rooms – and they didn't know that 95 per cent of the manuscripts had already been rescued from the city.

Though the manuscripts of Timbuktu are now safe, Africa's heritage remains in danger from extremists. In Libya, for example, Islamist militias have embarked on a reign of destruction. With bulldozers and wrecking teams, they have demolished Sufi shrines and mosques, Christian graves, Turkish mausoleums and other historic sites across the country.

"They came late at night, with their pickaxes and their sledgehammers," Idris Abusnina, imam of the biggest mosque in Tripoli's old town, said in an interview in early 2013.

In that interview, he pointed to the holes in the floor of a back room, where he said ancient tombs had been ransacked and destroyed by Islamist radicals who smashed through the wooden doors of the 18th-century mosque compound. "It's sad," he said. "Demolishing these tombs and graves is wrong. You need to respect others, even if you disagree with them."

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