I probably should have written about Palmyra last week as were many of the bloggers I know. Nevertheless, there were other topical events in my archaeological life and now one has seen what has been happening.
It has been busy for the colleagues who are known Middle East experts. Professor Kevin Butcher has been doing rounds in the BBC news, website and radio in UK and Sanna Aro-Valjus has been interviewed in radio, TV and major journals, sending photos on Facebook from the World on a Visit event from Helsinki in Finland where some Syrians had their own stand plus writing her blog. In Sweden various classicists have revisited ruins, Palmyra and other related matters. On the world level, there have been interventions from UNESCO and different seminars and workshops. People are engaging, informing, trying to affect world opinion and to safeguard sites.
In the end, the most interesting thing about the threat to Palmyra (and other sites in Syria and Iraq) is not as much we archaeologists condemn the threats and destruction or what IS, the icon clashers, are actually doing and how they use it to their propaganda. No, it is the kind of attitudes and feelings become expressed and are resurfacing.
The most difficult ethical dilemma for any archaeologist and heritage professional is the question raised in one Guardian blog: “is saving priceless antiquity as important as saving people?” This is a question we have to be pondering, since it is the one countless minority peoples and the citizens of Palmyra may be asking after the pillaging, rape, murder and beheadings. Apparently, the theatre in Palmyra was used for public executions the city dwellers were forced to witness. Nevertheless, the ruins are essential for the trade and subsistence economy of the town. When there will be peace, the standing ruins will bring the tourists.
It seems to be in a fairytale land far, far away, when I and my future husband were working in Syria and visiting with the rest of the crew Aleppo over one weekend. Some of us were staying in the mythical Byron Hotel, made famous by Agatha Christie, and making leisurely walks around the castle, archaeological museum and city gardens and having a group visit to the Jewish quarter. One of our group hired a big old-fashioned taxi and did a day visit to the ruins. I now wish that in the future we could make the same ride.
Back from the memory lane: the important question came with a chilling request. The coalition forces have to bomb the IS troupes and safe-guard the town and ruins. This brings an additional dilemma for an old peace activist (or at least sympathiser) like me: are the ruins worth killing people for? These people seem to have no mercy or respect for human life, but should we choose the same road – for some stones? Would the bombings have safeguard the citizens in Palmyra? Have they really had any deep effect in the expansion of the Caliphate? In any case, the eagles of the war action now can also refer to world heritage in their backing statements. Clearly, the IS does not let be without a fight, but whose responsibility that fight is and will be?
Sadly, I cannot give the ultimate answer – even from my part. It is a complicated issue, but there is probably no true archaeologist whose heart does not bleed for the loss of our common heritage and the possibility for the future generations to understand the past life and be awed by the ruins in their genuine surroundings. The ruins in Syria bring hope of some kind of unity when the country and its countless communities have been thrown apart. Palmyra and other marvellous world heritage sites can bring civic pride to all parties.
The lesser question is the rise of the voices being relieved that at least some of the heritage from Palmyra and other places in the area are in the European and American museums. Nevertheless, the memories are short. It was just about 75 years since most of the European museums were in danger. Still today countries such as Germany and Russia are puzzled or in loggerheads over the collections that have not been found or returned. I can only refer to a certain amber room or Troia objects. Recent news stories have described elderly art hoarders and the return of single art works back to their original Jewish owners or their families. Can European museums take a moral highground? Can we think that we have more right in the west to own the past? Somehow colonial narratives creep back. Nevertheless, the feelings of relief are often genuine in the face of loss. But the future solutions can be more about sharing than exclusivity or giving antiques trade a surface of respectability.