Just three hours before Islamic State entered Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra in May 2015, three big trucks fled in the opposite direction.
They were carrying priceless artefacts: hundreds of statues, glasses, ceramics – relics of one of history’s greatest cities, saved from the thievery and weapons of ideologues.
“But unfortunately, we could not move the site,” says Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, drily, sadly.
The destruction that followed made international news. Beautiful old monuments were reduced to rubble by IS’ spiteful explosives.
Nevertheless, Abdulkarim retains hope. In the piles of stones left behind by the retreating jihadists a year later he sees not dusty chaos but a plan for rebuilding: a Lego-bag of possibility, stones torn apart but intact, whose arcs of destruction can be reversed.
With the help of computer modelling he is plotting how this ancient city may rise again from the desert, each stone lifted to its old place, restored to show future generations what was lost and rediscovered.
And within them, or near them, will sit the antiquities guarded from war by the dedication of a few hundred archaeologists led by Prof Abdulkarim: nerds, geeks, very un-Indiana-Jones types who have dedicated themselves to saving history.
Hidden from war
Abdulkarim is not cast in a heroic mould – he is a modest academic who in the summer of 2012 was offered the unenviable job of director-general for the antiquities and museums of Syria.
He accepted on one condition: that every single museum in the country must close immediately, and every object within them come to Damascus, to be hidden from war.
As a result, 99 per cent of the country’s historical objects have been saved from the conflict that has claimed so many lives, and is still without sign of ending.
Small statues can be moved, archaeological finds can be saved. But buildings are harder to protect.
“I am the saddest director-general in the world,” Abdulkarim told last week’s international cultural summit in Edinburgh, where he gave a desperate plea for help.
“The dangers surrounding the Syrian archaeological heritage are growing beyond our capabilities and limited resources. The international community needs to be reminded that the Syrian cultural heritage is part of the world heritage of humanity and that the loss of any of its components is a loss for all humanity.”
He sees beauty and tragedy in the ruins of Syria, he says. The country is a mosaic of civilisation, with more than 10,000 archaeological sites that trace the rise of humanity from prehistory to the modern day.
“But all things have been damaged by this crisis,” he says.
‘Venice of the Sands’ crumbles
Aleppo is the latest tragedy, he says – it is one of the most significant heritage sites in the ancient world, now crumbling under the bombs of war.
Last year Palmyra was the focus. IS militants seized this ancient wonder dubbed the “Venice of the Sands” in May 2015 during a push to claim a strategically significant area on the road to Damascus and close to oil and gas fields.
UNESCO describes the site as “the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world”.
From the 1st to the 2nd century AD it stood at the crossroads of civilisations, a merchant-run, cosmopolitan oasis of art and architecture straddling the trade route between Rome and China, elegantly combining Greek, Roman, Persian and local influences.
Outside the walls stood an aqueduct and huge necropolises, houses of the dead. Within the town a grand, kilometre-long colonnade linked the great Temple of Ba’al with the market, theatre and other monuments.
Then came IS.
They smashed statues and sarcophagi, severing heads and defacing murals. The triumphal arch and the Temple of Ba’al were turned to rubble with explosives.
Palmyra is just one among many ancient treasures at risk.
‘Mafia thieves’ strike
Abdulkarim says more must be done to save such sites. He says the international community must work harder to protect them – by proactively working in war zones, and by pushing harder to end the international trade in stolen treasures, which thrives in wartime.
Gangs he calls “mafia thieves” bring bulldozers and in just a few months smash through layers of history that should take half a century to carefully peel back, he says.
“The war will finish, the crisis will finish, but all the destruction of your heritage will be for generations,” he warns.
The destruction of cultural heritage used to be a shame, but now it is a war crime.
In a groundbreaking case last month at the Hague’s International Criminal Court, former al-Qaeda militant Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi pleaded guilty – and begged forgiveness – for leading a group that demolished nine Sufi shrines and attacked a 500-year-old mosque in 2012 in Timbuktu, Mali.
“It is with deep regret and with great pain I had to enter a guilty plea and all the charges brought against me are accurate and correct,” Mahdi told judges at the ICC. “Look at me like a son that has lost his way.”
His group had deemed the shrines idolatrous and deliberately planned their destruction.
His colleagues had burned the Ahmad Baba Institute, home to 800-year-old manuscripts. The local mayor told NPR “they’re my history, they’re documents about Islam, history, geography, botany, poetry. They’re close to my heart, and they belong to the whole world”.
This trial was a new step in a continuing push for the deliberate destruction of heritage to be prosecuted as a war crime – a push that germinated in the Balkan conflict with the shelling of the stunning old Croatian town of Dubrovnik and the destruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar – and gained momentum after the Taliban demolished the monumental Bamiyan Buddhas in central Afghanistan.
Francesco Bandarin, assistant director-general for culture at UNESCO, says the loss of the Buddhas was a “major shock for international public opinion”, and has helped bring about a new world-wide effort to protect cultural heritage.
Before now, efforts were mostly confined to patching up damage once a conflict ended, he told the Edinburgh summit.
“The problem is that today we see not a war here and a war there, we see 10 conflicts,” he said. “We see an extended, unmanageable front of destruction in the Middle East, in Africa, in central Asia – this seems to become a very critical and unfortunately widespread phenomenon.
“This brought us to some reflection. We certainly saw that the tools that we have available, [international] conventions and other tools were really not sufficient to address the issue.”
UNESCO is adopting a new strategy, he says. They want to try to prevent damage to heritage sites in the first place – working with locals on the ground to support those who want to protect history.
They are also educating UN peacekeepers – already those in Mali and Congo, and more in the future – on making the protection of cultural and natural sites part of their missions’ mandates.
But UNESCO’s efforts are not universally praised. Dr Ramadan al-Shibani is the head of the technical department at the Tripoli Archaology Directorate.
He says the situation in Libya is “really not too different” to Syria. Radical groups are destroying a lot of Islamic sites in the belief that artefacts inside the mosques are “prohibited”, he says. They are wrecking tombs and shrines.
“I’ve been to many conference with UNESCO and most of the attention was applied to Syria, to Iraq and Mali,” he says. “But UNESCO is contributing very little to Libya.”
The body made a terrible mistake by allying itself with just one of the three groups that effectively govern the country, he says. Outside the eastern part of the country they have no influence.
But in those areas are some world-class heritage sites, he says. With some pride, he points out that the “black mummy”, a 5600-year-old mummified child found in a cave in the Libyan desert, is arguably proof that this region exported mummification to ancient Egypt.
Islamists are not the only problem. Without an effective government locals can destroy archaeological sites by accident, by building without planning permission. “They build on a lot of archaeological sites, they just don’t care,” al-Shibani says. Other times, they rebuild homes by raiding stones from ancient monuments.
And some treasures are lost from simple graffiti, left unguarded in the chaos of a lawless state. In the south of the country, 10,000 year-old cave paintings have been sprayed over – ruined after surviving millennia.
As in Palmyra, many of the great civilisations have left their mark in Libya: Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Phonecians, and of course Islam.
“These sites are very important to humanity, to the world,” al-Shibani says.
Prof Abdulkarim agrees. “The time has come to take action before it’s too late,” he says. “To protect our heritage not just in Syria, also in Libya, in Yemen, in Iraq, Mali, Afghanistan.
“We must protect our common heritage. It’s a disaster that is painful for all of us.”
The story Protecting antiquities in Syria and Libya from Islamic State first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.