I rarely blog about current affairs but yesterday’s news deserves comment. I refer to the latest atrocity by ISIS, who took over the ancient ruins – a UNESCO world heritage site – of Palmyra, Syria in May 2015.
Many news outlets, including The New York Times, The Independent and The Guardian have reported the capture, interrogation and torture for over a month, followed by the public execution on Tuesday 18th August, of Dr Khaled al-Asaad, the former Head of Antiquities at Palmyra’s museum and 82 (also reported as 83) year-old archaeologist.
His decapitation took place in the square outside of the museum. Subsequently his body is reported to have been suspended from a Roman column amidst the ruins of the ancient city that he had spent his life working to study and restore.
ISIS have destroyed early Islamic shrines, but has preserved the majority of the Roman-period ruins, in part perhaps to use them as a quarry for illicit antiquities. Among the many other terrible events and killings in Syria in recent years, ISIS have now killed an archaeologist. They haven’t killed him incidentally, but because he was an archaeologist. Unlike innocent locals, military personnel and journalists, fortunately archaeologists rarely get killed in war zones because of their professional occupation. Please do not think I am electing to raise this atrocity over many others taking place in Syria but as an archaeologist myself, I am driven to comment.
I won’t pretend I am not shocked at this news. Equally, I won’t claim to have known Dr Khaled al-Asaad or his scholarship and I have never had the opportunity to visit Palmyra. However he conducted his professional life (and it was reported that he was gatekeeper for all work there and gave jobs to his relatives), it is clear from the reports that the world has lost a dedicated retired scholar with detailed knowledge and expertise of the ruins of Palmyra and its international context who had worked to save antiquities from plunder and destruction.
My heartfelt condolences go out to this man’s family, friends and colleagues, regardless of their political and religious affiliations. The killers have perpetrated an atrocity against a learned peaceful scholar. Moreover, against all archaeologists everywhere they have insulted and denigrated both human life and human rights as well as the noble pursuit of the past and worldwide respect and admiration for the heritage of the region.
Reasons for his execution are reported as follows. The board in front of his body asserted his loyalty to the Syrian president and that he had maintained contact with the regime’s intelligence and security officials. It also stated that he was executed for managing Palmyra’s idols and attending infidel conferences. Another, not necessarily contrasting context and explanation is that he was killed for refusing to divulge the location of treasures from the museum that had been moved to safekeeping. This reason is supported circumstantially by the existing practice of ISIS acquiring a fraction of their vast income by looting and selling antiquities on the international black market, mainly to Western buyers.
As a fellow-archaeologist who works on the late Roman and medieval periods, I am disgusted by this news as with all similar atrocities taking place in the region. I have no answer as to what the international archaeological and heritage community can do or say. Other scholars are as horrified as I am about Dr al-Asaad’s death, and Dr Kristina Killgrove reviews these responses here.
However, a collective response is required. Professor John Schofield asked this very question today on Facebook: ‘what can be done?’, my immediate reaction was this:
I’m am struggling to answer you John Schofield and it does feel that sometime needs to be said about this by archaeologists as a community. Journalists and other professional groups make statements and stands when their colleagues are subject to torture and murder. Still, while rather lame, one point to make is that we have to continue to be clear and candid in our research and writing that we, as a discipline, promote awareness of the long-term historical and archaeological evidence for such brutal acts of torture and violence, whether state sanctioned or otherwise. The poor man died a death that reflects the violence of the world whose ruins he worked his life to study and conserve.
My point was that he was custodian for the remains of one violent civilization that sanctioned brutal executions, during his working life he was in the employ of another brutal state, and then he was killed by the acolytes of a fragmented state who fantasise about building a new fundamentalist caliphate. We need to reflect on the horror of such acts throughout history and gloss over the brutality of neither past nor present. On reflection, my second point was:
It seems this man may well have died for his perceived loyalty to the Syrian establishment, for defending the secret location of treasures, and/or for his scholarly activities and being an intellectual and an archaeologist. He was killed by vicious individuals attempting to carve out an Islamic state from a broken state. He was also killed by the long-term historical circumstances of a state in collapse and Western government’s seemingly ineffective military and political strategies to defeat Isis. Still, it must also be said, if his death was a sacrifice to defend the location of Palmyra’s antiquities, he was indirectly killed by wealthy art collectors and dealers who are willing to facilitate the sale of looted antiquities for massive wads of cash to fund further instability and violence. This man seems to have died, at least in part, trying for save antiquities from the greed and religious zealotry of Isis but also the greed of ‘taste’ and ‘fashion’ in the international trade in illicit antiquities. If so, this guy died an archaeological hero and deserves our utmost respect.
It remains rare, but archaeologists can get killed for working in the service of states, and whilst working against states. His vicious slaying reflects on the barbarity and greed of states themselves that claim ‘civilization’ as theirs through their conflicts around ancient monuments as well as the barbarity and greed when states collapse and the threats of looting and iconoclastic destruction it brings.
It also sheds light on the terrible destructive power of the illicit trade in antiquities; it is not simply the theft of stuff, it can destroy communities by fuelling conflict and preying on them in times of social dislocation. It robs local people of their heritage and identity and their future income from tourism. It can also kill.
So who kills archaeologists? Bigots and fundamentalists: those that fear the past. However, the illicit trade and its perpetrators are among the killers too: funding and fuelling those that wield the gun and the axe.