Past and Present Working Together

Thanks to our sponsor Yadaweya, guests to the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award Dinner will be treated to a gift from the Egyptian online fair trade marketplace. This collaboration with SAFE provides the perfect opportunity to reflect on where the past and present cross paths and how this intersection can help preserve heritage of all kinds. To quote their website, Yadaweya “serves as a platform for those interested in discovering Egypt and its cultural heritage.” So not only does it provide artisans the opportunity to continue making their traditional crafts and preserve a skill set that has been passed down through the generations (such as the loom work in this video), it also educates consumers about the historical sites that are home to these artisan communities.

Twelve Egyptian heritage sites are featured on their web site, providing background information about the sites and the artisans that work in the area. By adding this human connection to the heritage sites, Yadaweya emphasizes a point that is sometimes forgotten: heritage sites are not only isolated structures in uninhabited lands.

Yadaweya has previously participated in SAFE Beacon Award Winner Monica Hanna’s campaign to protect the Dahshour site. To them, keeping history alive is vital to its survival. SAFE is pleased to collaborate with Yadaweya in our common cause of preserving heritage for all.

Saving Cultural Heritage, One Tweet at a Time

Publish, publish, publish. If I have ever heard a mantra for academic archaeologists, it is this. Repeated over and over again to every aspiring undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral candidate, this phrase is the driving force in this field. But for whom are we publishing? More often than not, papers are geared towards other academics, which is a necessary and critical practice to advance research and gain awareness. However, when it concerns looting, smuggling, and trading illicit antiquities, there is an audience that needs even more attention — the general public.

Archaeologists are in a unique position to inform the public of issues regarding looting because many have firsthand experience with it. In the recent article “Archaeological Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency,” Blythe Bowman Proulx surveyed 3,009 archaeologists and found that 78.5% encountered “looting or evidence of looting while participating in fieldwork of any kind.” Of those archaeologists, 24.1% had encountered “looters on-site and looting activity in progress” (Proulx 2013:119). While Proulx was only able to sample a limited number of archaeologists, she effectively showed that they were no strangers to looting. From my point of view, archaeologists are also in a position to take a stance and have a voice. They have the opportunity to engage with the public by sharing their tales of the destruction of cultural heritage, but the question is, have they done so?

 “They [Egyptian archaeologists] live in an isolated world…”

Making those outside the field of archaeology sensitive to the endangerment of cultural heritage is not easy. It is difficult to inspire them to take action even if they have heard the plea. In a December interview, Egyptologist Dr. Monica Hanna reflected on the current state of antiquities in Egypt and the citizens’ connection with their heritage – or lack thereof. She states that “The don’t feel it’s part of their heritage. Even the Egyptian social studies schoolbook – the way it presents [Ancient] Egypt and modern Egypt, [they] are two hermetically sealed entities.” The sudden increase in looting across Egypt after the 2011 uprising may have highlighted this disconnect between the Egyptian people and their monuments, but it has also underlined the fact that when people care, they will go to great lengths to take a stand.

The onus to inspire courage and action to protect cultural heritage falls on every person involved in the field, including archaeologists. In a more recent interview, Hanna noted that archaeologists in Egypt “live in an isolated world…They think they are the experts so no one has the right to talk about antiquities except for them.” The thought that archaeologists are the only ones who can control the dialogue on antiquities must be banished. The public also must have a voice. There are an overwhelming number of platforms that can accomplish this– platforms that have started revolutions. Hanna has begun the process in Egypt by garnering over 25,000 followers on Twitter2,400 followers on Facebook, and 6,500 fans of Egypt’s Heritage Task Force. She encourages everyone to share their stories of antiquities looting, regardless of who they are.

Example of a tweet Example of a tweet

Spreading the word and starting dialogues with the general public about cultural heritage destruction is of the utmost importance. While there is enormous pressure on archaeologists to publish academically, it is vital that discussions about these issues also take place via forums that are also used by non-academics. For instance, a quick search of users associated with the keywords “archaeologist” or “archeologist” on Twitter– one of the most popular social media platforms– yielded just about 350 results. Of course, while these results may not encompass all the archaeologists active on Twitter, it suggests that only a fraction of the archaeology community is fully utilizing a free tool that has 241 million active users a month.

Where are the voices of those 14,429 archaeologists worldwide that Proulx found in her research (Proulx 2013: 117)? If one archaeologist such as (Monica Hanna) is reaching over 26,000 with information about looting, imagine how much we’d learn from the 2,355 archaeologists (according to Proulx) who also experienced looting firsthand.

Not sure how to get started? Hear directly from Dr. Hanna when she delivers the free lecture, “Saving Ancient Egypt, One Tweet at a Time: How Social Media is Saving One of the World’s Oldest Civilizations” and accepts the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award on April 10 in New York City.

It is time to become a little more comfortable with publishing via platforms that are not traditional academic journals.  All one has to do is TweetLikeShare. I swear it is that easy.

And remember: “instead of us preserving the antiquities, it is the antiquities that are protecting us. For it is through heritage that we can understand the things around us…” – Dr. Monica Hanna

Modern Day Monuments Men and Women?

With today’s national release of the George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, it is only appropriate to discuss the heroic men and women portrayed by the film’s all-star cast and to ask: Where are today’s Monuments Men and Women?

I attended a conference this fall hosted by The Lawyer’s Committee for Cultural Heritage PreservationFordham Law School, and the American Society of International Law (ASIL) entitled “The Monuments Men, Social Media, the Law and Cultural Heritage.” I had seen a trailer for the movie and was excited to see it in theaters, but I had managed to fail to make the connection between the conference’s title and the film’s. Not only was Robert Edsel, the author of the book The Monuments Men and the founder of the Monuments Men Foundation, in attendance, but numerous experts in all fields relating to looting were present as well. I was enlightened on both the World War II initiatives against looting and on modern day efforts to continue the same line of work as those heroes. So before you see the film, or don’t, here are a few reflections on its tale and others that are similar.

While the film focuses on a handful of key figures of the operation, the Monuments Men were actually a group of approximately 345 men and women from 13 different nations. They were experts in the arts and volunteered their services to protect cultural heritage from the destruction of World War II, but they did not act alone. Behind these heroes was The Roberts Commission that reported the invaluable lists and maps on the location of heritage sites and artwork across Europe that were prepared by the American Council of Learned Societies and The Harvard Group to military units. As a collective unit they were able to return more than five million cultural pieces that had been seized by the Nazi regime.

The members of this task force, officially known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (MFAA), performed an unprecedented and overwhelming task, but the memory of their acts drifted from people’s memories. Until, that is, Robert M. Edsel took interest in the subject and created the Monuments Men Foundation For the Preservation of Art to unearth the stories of the individuals who saved masterpieces whose existence we now take for granted. Despite the title of his foundation and book, and Clooney’s adaptation, the “Monuments Men” were, as mentioned, also women. While they were far fewer in number, they were vital to MFAA’s efforts. As Tom Mashberg states in his article “Not all Monuments Men Were Men,” these women “were dedicated scholars and at times notable heroes.”

Monica Hanna save the dateThat description is most apt for Dr. Monica Hanna, who is a truly a modern day Monuments Woman and winner of the SAFE Beacon Award. Like most of the men and women who served in the MFAA section, Dr. Hanna does not have military training, but that hasn’t stop her from putting her life on the line for her work. It is not likely that Dr. Hanna’s efforts will be forgotten due to her strong social media presence on FacebookTwitter, and in the news, but it is important to help share as many stories as possible. Cultural heritage cannot afford to wait another fifty years before someone else is inspired to take interest.

Along with Dr. Hanna, other modern day Monuments Men and Women include anthropologists and cultural resource managers employed by the U.S. Army to enter into war zones and protect or recover pieces from institutions like the National Museum of Iraq. The Smithsonian Institution experts who train the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on identifying looted cultural heritage items should also be included. The stories of these men and women, unfortunately, go largely unreported. It is important for other advocates of the protection of cultural heritage to call attention to their efforts and give them the recognition they deserve.

Who do you nominate as your global Monuments Men and Women?

Khachkars and Icons: Looting in pre- and post-Soviet Armenia

Located on the piedmont of the Caucasus mountain range, the country of Armenia illustrates an interesting paradox. It is, on one hand, a nation-state born out of, and partly modeled by, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it is also a country that dogmatically identifies itself with civilizations more than 2000 years-old, and defends the idea of an evolving yet continuous Armenian identity.

Armenia is a country with changing borders as it underwent several episodes of invasions by Ottomans, Russians, Persians. Overall, its modern situation is structured around several antagonistic claims with neighboring countries that have their roots both in long-term historical processes and recent geopolitical development. A recent war and conflicting territorial claims with Azerbaijan, political unrest with Turkey over the recognition of the 1915 Genocide and its support of the Azerbaijan as well as the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and, despite, an exit from the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, a complex and ambiguous relationship with Russia, are all factors that impacted Armenia’s cultural identity and heritage management.

Landlocked Armenia Landlocked Armenia
Google Earth

Amidst those invasions and torn territories, the Armenian identity was created and preserved through the development of specific features, i.e., religion and script. In 301 AD, Grigor Lusarovich (the “Illuminator”) made Christianity Armenia’s official state religion. This historical event placed Armenia at the heart of Christendom’s history, and the Christian religion at the core of Armenian identity. Consequently, increased religiosity following the collapse of the Soviet Union is a known and widespread phenomenon with particular meaning in Armenia as its Christian heritage has been predominantly emphasized, and, as such, the target of specific attacks.

More generally, changes in regime and social structure impacted the safeguard of cultural and historical objects, either because of their association with a particular ethnic/religious group, or simply as the object of international antiquities trade (and the ensuing looting activities), both aspects that have been going on for almost a century.

Destructive Ideologies

A particularly telling example is the fate of Armenia’s cultural heritage during the 1915 Genocide in modern Turkish territories. If the cost of the cultural destruction that occurred is still unknown several sources report destruction of books, and religious artifacts, using the term “cultural genocide”. Beyond such an expression is a desire to express a large-scale and institutionalized effort to erase Armenia’s presence from a given geographical space. Today, some websites (and even a youtube channel ) specialize in finding “treasures” in Armenian houses on Turkish territory that Armenians supposedly left while fleeing the country .

During the Nagorno-Karabakh war, damages occurring to cultural heritage, and looting/destruction of cultural artifacts were reported by both sides of the conflict. When Armenian news media described the looting of Armenian museums during the pogrom of Sumgait, Azerbaidjan media were denouncing the destruction of Azerii-associated heritage, archaeological artefacts, historical monuments, libraries, and even suggesting the organization of large-scale non-professional excavation of graves and burial mounds throughout Karabakh, and particularly Shusha. However, both sides widely publicize efforts to preserve any type of cultural heritage, although sometimes while modifying slightly the identity of the creator. Thus, the destructions occurring are a bilateral process, and both individual actions and institutionalized programs have been involved in destruction and preservation of South Caucasus heritage.

A Khachkar from Etchmiadzin A Khachkar from Etchmiadzin
armenica.org

The destruction of Khachkar in Nakhitchevan exemplifies a large-scale, institutionalized case of destruction. While not objects subject to the international antiquities market, the destruction and looting of those sculptures in Djulfa (or Jugha) calls for public awareness. Khachkars are situated at the border between artifact and monument. Part of the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2010, khachkars are carved stone steles representing crosses and closely associated with Armenian communities. In Armenia itself, there are more than 50,000 of those steles , bearing witness to more than 1500 years of transmitted traditions and know-how. The cemetery of Djulfa in the Autonomous Republic of Nakhitchevan was a medieval site with more than a thousand khachkars (up to 10,000 thousands). Despite denials by the Azerbaijani authorities, this destruction has been documented through testimonies, videos, and satellite imagery, as a recent study carried out by the AAAS showed the deliberate progressive destruction of the site since the early 2000s . The study was supported by amateur videos showing soldiers destroying the steles with a sledge-hammer. Despite support from the ICOMOS, the position adopted by UNESCO is unclear at best, and the Azerbaijan authorities have not only made any fact-finding mission in the area impossible, they’ve also denied the very existence of Armenian cultural heritage in this area which was, following their version, previously inhabited by Caucasian Albanians.

These examples illustrate one aspect of the looting and destruction of Armenian (and non-Armenian goods on Armenian territory) that took place during several episodes of unrest in the region. They resulted from the ideological struggle of conflicting nationalisms. However, other sources mention the existence of a different type of looting and destruction– one motivated by economic, financial imperatives, and aimed at providing Armenian cultural artifacts to the international antiquities market.

Icons for sale

The most prominent aspect is the traffic of religious icons that has been taking place for at least 40 years. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, several sources revealed the existence of an almost institutionalized traffic, connecting western art dealers with local mafia across the USSR.

Michel van Rijn makes mention of this system in his autobiography, that stands out for its absolute lack of remorse, and by its insights into the world of the international antiquities market. That market relied both on the structures developed by the USSR to acquire some currency, and on the fate of church property during the XXth century in this part of the world.

Novoexport (Новоэкспорт) was an enterprise set up by the government to sell goods from the Union to foreign visitors. This initiative was developed during the Perestroïka in order to keep the state reserves afloat by selling “overpriced rubbish” (Van Rijn 1991) to westerners. As with most other Soviet institutions, Novoexport shops were accompanied by a tedious bureaucratic system that provided each item with excessively stamped paperwork certifying its origin, authenticity, mode of acquisition, etc… Art dealers who bought the worthless items sold by Novoexport were provided with valid documentation to carry objects out of the Soviet Union.

Virgin and Child Icon, Naghash Hovnat'an The Virgin and Child Icon, Naghash Hovnat’an, 17th century
Melkianicollection.com

Van Rijn met Dergazarian, an icon dealer in Beirut, Lebanon, at some point in the 1980s. Dergarzarian, an Armenian, introduced to the art dealer the infinite business possibilities offered by the “treasure trove” Armenia was, both in terms of its cultural wealth and the ease with which they could be smuggled out of the country. Soon, the two collaborators flew to Yerevan in order to meet with the local intelligentsia, diplomats, and local KGB agents largely involved in the traffic. Business, it seems, was done with “rubles and French brandy”. At this point van Rijn not only realized the potential for business, but also the scale of the traffic. The scheme was fairly simple. First, van Rijn needed to acquire a valuable icon. This was done through his contact with the Armenian mafia whose members he met through Dergazarian. In order to gain their trust, van Rijn also starts dealing with human trafficking, smuggling people out of the Soviet Union. Let’s note here that it is not unexpected to see antiquities associated with other “items”like (as it is the case in Cyprus) heroin. In Armenia, this dual trade was managed by the local mafia. Through them by the time of the Perestroika, van Rijn had access to an extensive and efficient network and stock of different types of artefacts, mostly icons. He would find an icon with equivalent features (size, theme) in one of the Novoexport shops and simply use the official license to launder and export the illicit goods to Europe (another technique consisted in modifying custom declaration forms in Poland)

This was far from being an isolated case. During the economic reforms of the 80s, dealers bought private antiquities that they exported through diverse methods in western countries, as people seemed willing to sell their family treasures– mostly 18th- 19th century icons– on the black market. Officials at all levels of the hierarchy were involved in this trade including Russian administrators and foreign diplomats. Van Rijn mentions the case of a Finnish diplomat stopped at the border where Russian customs, neglecting the diplomatic status of the suspect, found undeclared antique goods in his luggage. In Russia, the smuggling of cultural contraband is a criminal offense under the Part 2 of Art. 188 of the Criminal Code.

Religious icons are still the object of an intense traffic– especially from the Caucasus region. Last year, an Israeli citizen was caught at the Armenian-Georgian border , trying to smuggle out eighteen undeclared, unlicensed icons. A few years earlier Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev gave to visiting President Medvedev five russian icons confiscated by the customs. In 2009, in the region of Krasnodar, the customs police arrested an Armenian citizen who was trying to smuggle two “ancient icons” into  Ukraine after covering them with a layer of mastic .

These are only a few examples of a long-lasting traffic. If national and international regulations have improved the situation, much is left to be done, both at the level of local protection and on the international antiquities market. Furthermore, this market creates a demand for Armenian antiquities, and a structure for its illicit exportation, thus encouraging destructive behaviors in museums and archaeological sites.

Treasure hunt

Indeed these institutional issues have an impact at another level. In parallel to the smuggling of religious art, other types of destruction take place resulting in damages to the archaeological sites themselves.

The development of archaeological projects in Armenia led to the emergence of treasure hunting. A UCLA news report noted that, after the discovery in Areni cave of the world’s “oldest shoe”, some reporters said that they were looking for shoes filled with gold, “which sparkled a wild looting spree throughout the country” . Indeed, whether related to this particular case or not, several cases of looting of archaeological sites have been witnessed in Areni by the project team and at least at two other locations by the author. At one of those sites, a group of people from the neighboring village explained that they were looking for burial, gold, and old objects in order to sell them. On two occasions, archaeological artifacts (bronze daggers, prehistoric pottery) were identified on the stands of the “Vernissage”, the flee market of Yerevan.

In any country this phenomenon would be an unfortunate yet possible outcome of the development of archaeology and broader access by the public to its results. However, the UCLA news highlights some of the outreach projects planned by the international team in Areni to sensitize the local communities to the value of their heritage.

Several types of destruction have been presented here. Some are the result of nationalism and ideological struggle, while others answer to an international demand for antiquities. In parallel with a more systematic enforcement of international laws and an adaptation of legislation regulating existing loopholes in local criminal codes, cultural heritage professionals, art historians, and archaeologists need to keep developing projects which integrate local communities in their research and encourage an ever-increasing commitment of the public to the protection of its history.

SAFE bulletin to feature selected news and opinion

Since 2006, SAFE’s e-newsletter news&updates has been alerting our subscribers to matters related to cultural heritage preservation, upcoming SAFE events, and new developments in the organization. Beginning this issue at the end of each month, news&updates will again feature our own selection of relevant news articles and reports highlighting some of today’s most pressing concerns in the fight against looting and the illicit trade of antiquities and cultural heritage.

We understand that the abundance of articles, news reports, and commentaries frequently and readily available on the Internet can become overwhelming. But not all content is created equal. To help you navigate through the information overload, we will cull from news reports and contributions from the SAFE community to deliver what we consider the most relevant and valuable in the monthly news&updates. With this bulletin, SAFE takes another step towards achieving our mission to raise public awareness about the importance of preserving cultural heritage worldwide.

So stay informed and subscribe to news&updates. And, as always, please feel free to share you own news and reports and let us know if we missed anything. For daily news and reports, visit SAFE on Facebook and Twitter. We thank intern Michael Shamah for this inaugural bulletin:

In the News

Penalties imposed on two amateur German archaeologists (Ahram Online) – Egypt’s antiquities ministry imposes penalties on two German amateur archaeologists who stole samples of King Khufu’s cartouche from the great pyramid.

Aussie leads Project to measure Iraq’s heritage destruction (SBS) – A 3-year project to “create the world’s first database of those damaged heritage sites and create a path to restore what can be restored.”

Peru thwarts antiquities smugglers (Latino Fox News) – Pre-Columbian textiles were discovered under a glass frame of family photos, while en route to Spain.

How did the US lose voting rights in UNESCO, and why? (IB Times) – What does this mean for Cultural Heritage?

Stolen religious artefacts have been repatriated (Cyprus Mail) – “The majority of artefacts were in relatively good condition although some bore clear signs of vandalism.”

Tutankhamun’s sister goes missing – Egypt issues international alert (Telegraph UK) – Egypt issues an international alert for return of a beautiful statuette of Tutankhamun’s sister, stolen with hundreds of other artefacts, when the Malawi Museum was looted amid clashes between police and Islamists this summer.

Antiquities Authority arrests looter attempting to steal buried Byzantine-era coins (J post) – Judean Mountains have now become recent targets for coin looters.

‘Make sure your collections traded legally’ (Korea Times) – Korean officials say that most of 150,000 cultural properties are outside Korea. They were looted and traded illegally during the Korean War or Japanese colonial rule.

Myanmar Buddha sculpture returns home after wild ride (CS Monitor) – An 11th-century Buddha was returned to Myanmar, after 20 years abroad. SE Asian countries, including Myanmar and Cambodia, have been trying reclaim cultural artefacts from the West through legal battles.

Cornell to return 10,000 ancient tablets to Iraq (LA Times) – One of the largest returns of antiquities by an American Institution

 

The latest on SAFE blog

Plumbing the Depths of the “Shadow Economy”: Reflections of an Antiquities Trade Scholar at an Organized Crime Workshop - Damien Huffer’s summary of proceedings, explores the connections between the areas of criminological practice and the antiquities trade.

Introducing Confrontations - Confrontations invites friends and members of the SAFE community to share their firsthand experiences, whether through personal accounts, pictures, or photographic essays. Tell us what happened: What did you do?

Confrontations #1: A Young Boy’s Temptation - The first of the ‘Confrontations’ blog series, about Michael’s encounter with a pile of excavated coins in the marketplace of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Ton Cremers and the Museum Security Network: A SAFE tribute - Long before social media, there was the Museum Security Network; but most of all, the pioneer spirit of its founder Ton Cremers.

Egyptian Ambassador: A critical challenge for cultural preservation - A post at the request of the Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Tawfik Ambassador: “As popular institutions, simply engaging your audience can be a first step to help stop the theft of Egyptian antiquities.”

Confrontations: A Young Boy’s Temptation

SAFE blog’s new series “Confrontations” invites everyone to share firsthand experiences with looting and the illicit antiquities trade. These personal accounts will illustrate the on-going problems of these issues within a global context. 


When I was young, before I gained an interest in archaeology and the ancient world, my knowledge of artefacts was merely limited to the Indiana Jones Trilogy. Though having such knowledge at a young age was purely overwhelming, especially for a young boy like myself in a country enriched with an ancient past spanning over thousands of years, it understandably got me into a lot of trouble.

Till this day, I still look back to the 1990s, when I nearly ventured into the sinister world of the illicit antiquities trade, with conflicting thoughts of morality. For a person trying to feed his or her family, on one side, there is sympathy for the person’s actions. However, on the other, there is real pent-up anger towards that person as he or she is either destroying or illegally selling what represents a valuable past that we can truly learn from.

Now, you are wondering what happened to me back in the 90s…? How did I nearly enter the uncharted waters of such illicitness that has haunted me to this present day?

It all happened during the summer holidays, when my family decided to travel to Egypt for two weeks. Unlike being expected to visit Cairo, explore the pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings, and perhaps take a relaxing boat ride down the Nile river, we ended up in Sharm el-Sheikh that, for us Brits, was a stereotypically ideal place for a family vacation.

A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh's Old Market, Egypt A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh’s Old Market, Egypt
Flickr user Kareny13 (taken: 25/11/2010)

During our time, we went to Sharm el-Sheikh’s infamous old market on numerous occasions. The market was infused with a magical eastern vibe, various smells of spices and incense, Arabic music, and the haggling of goods, and it made me feel like I was in sheer heaven. With the exception of seeing dead carcasses dangling on every rack, there was one particular part of the market that ended my blissful experience.

Hidden away in the distance, I remember seeing an outline of this rugged man standing next to a stall with a large quantity of ancient coins. These coins looked as if though they had been recently removed from the ground… Though my Indiana Jones knowledge of artefacts proved to be limited, all I saw were these coins being beautifully displayed on this decaying wooden table.

Immediately, my whole body froze. Alarm bells were ringing. Warning signs were gathering in my head, trying to pull me away from the absolute power of these coins that continuously sparkled in my day-dreamt eyes. Yet like a child being let loose in a sweet shop, there was an irresistible urge to personally own such artefacts. This desire also lifted me off my feet, like a person floating off towards the mouth-watering smell of a delicious meal, and, within a matter of seconds, I found myself face to face with the very man who was standing right next to this collection of coins.

He appeared to be frail looking– shabbily dressed but presentable enough to look like a respectable business man. Suddenly, this man began to talk. At first, it was very unclear as to what exactly he was saying. He spoke in a mixture of Arabic and broken English, asking me if I wanted to buy priceless coins that had historical and archaeological significance.

“Hlan wa sahlan! Kayfa Halak? Taf-fadal! Special price! Coins came earlier today for you my friend. What do you want?”

At this time, I was gob-smacked.  Was this man talking to me? Was I that special someone to whom he was offering a special price…? I looked around and saw that I was the only bystander facing his direction. How could this be? Why were other people purposely avoiding this man?

Obviously, there were many reasons behind this. One could have been that that he was coming from outside the city, and therefore the locals did not know him. Another reason could have been that he was a dodgy character selling illegal artefacts, and it was thus unwise to get involved in his business.

As a young boy, it was likely that my understanding of the illicit antiquities trade was non-existent. I had never had a confrontation like that before in my life– not until that day. If I had bought a coin from that man, who knows what could have happened to me. According to Egyptian law (1983 LPA), all antiquities – be they cultural, historical or archaeological – are strictly regulated and actually owned by the State; and if  I was caught red-handed by a police officer, I could have gone to prison for my involvement, and I would not have a great life ahead of me.

While those very thoughts were in my mind, I felt a heavy hand placed on my right shoulder. My shadow began to amplify, and a low voice began to speak out from nowhere.

“Michael!…Stop what you are doing Shamah Junior! You are meddling with powers you cannot possibly comprehend!”

Without a doubt, I recognised that quote from one of the Indiana Jones Trilogies, The Raiders of the Lost Ark… (The best Indian Jones film that was ever made, I must say), and I knew exactly who it was.

I looked round and saw my father, looking stereotypically Middle Eastern with an Arab moustache, his big body with broad shoulders, and with very tanned skin; indeed, he was known for using film quotes in his sentences.

Without a word, I was tugged away, leaving this unfortunate man behind, not knowing where he would be in the course of time.

Me at a young age, back in the 1990s Me at a young age, back in the 1990s
Michael Shamah

As stated earlier, I still look back to that exact scene in Sharm el-Sheikh’s old market. In addition, you will find me exploring and dealing with similar confrontations in the upcoming blogs– especially those regarding the desecrations of various sites, or, as in this particular instance, a confrontation with a person selling a priceless artefact which has “illegal” written all over it.

Since this first experience, I have had conflicting thoughts, a broader understanding of the illicit world, and I am better at recognising potential signs of looting or at least something illicit. As an archaeologist, I have begun to care more about the preservation of cultural heritage, and it has been rather upsetting to think of how sites which convey significant cultural and historical meaning, have been affected by human activity. Although in the eyes of some, these actions might be considered as a good thing… It is now understandable why these motives take place.

Especially in an unstable Middle East – which I am quite familiar with, due to my heritage and the focusing of my speciality in this specific region – and for sectarian, political or economic reasons, countless sites have, unfortunately, been targeted. Nevertheless, as seen from my first encounter, there are some sheer beauties of the past that attract potentially irrational visitors who may just want to fill their pockets.

From what consequently ends up in the illicit antiquities trade, this beautiful memorabilia of the past has become absorbed into a sinister world which is loathed by most of us.

Thus, I would like to end this blog with the very questions that hang in the back of my mind.
What were the motives behind the act? Were they rational?

But also, what may be seen as an act for survival or greed and is believed by some as a person’s worst nightmare,  it may sequentially be seen by others as a heavenly treasure trove.

If you have had similar experiences that you would like to share, it would be great to hear from you; and for my next shareable experience…Stay tuned. 

Egyptian Ambassador: A critical challenge for cultural preservation

The following is posted at the request of the Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Tawfik. 


Dear friend,

Many of you have been instrumental in launching unforgettable exhibitions that explored Egypt’s rich history. Thanks to you, millions of Americans have a special relationship with and fascination for my country’s unique contribution to human civilization, shaped over the course of generations. So many young minds have been stimulated by these exhibits with questions of who are these people and how did they create this? For our children’s sake, we need to keep these experiences and opportunities accessible to everyone.

Considering your interest in preserving and promoting Egypt’s cultural heritage, I wanted to share with you a recent article written for the Washington Post by Egypt’s Minister for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim. In it, he called on the United States and its citizens to help Egypt combat theft of historical and archaeological treasures, a worrisome trend exacerbated by Egypt’s current security situation. He also requests vigilance from auction houses and other cultural institutions that may come across suspect items. Minister Ibrahim reminds us all that, “It is our common duty, in Egypt and around the world, to defend our shared heritage.”

I would welcome your thoughts on how we, as a community that cares about Egypt’s treasures, can raise awareness of these tragic incidents and prevent further harm.  I would also encourage you to spread the word about antiquities thefts through social media. As popular institutions, simply engaging your audience can be a first step to help stop the theft of Egyptian antiquities.

Should you have any questions in this matter, don’t hesitate to email the embassy at Culturalheritage@egyptembassy.net

Thank you again for your dedication to the people, history and culture of Egypt at this especially sensitive moment.

Mohamed Tawfik
Ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt
Washington DC

Syria’s cultural heritage in danger: What can we do?

SAFE Volunteer Sandra Roorda observes the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with a reflection on the situation in Syria.


Amidst the public and political clamor surrounding the current conflict in Syria, and as many argue over how to prevent further civilian casualties, a wide swathe of cultural institutions and organizations from both diplomatic and NGO communities has stepped forward to warn that, in addition, the country’s rich cultural heritage is being looted and destroyed. As Bonnie Burnham, President of the World Monuments Fund states, “The evolving tragedy in Syria has a deep cultural, as well as a humanitarian, dimension.” To be sure, the conflict in Syria is destroying not only the lives of the Syrian people, but it is also stripping them of their cultural identity and their cultural heritage, resulting in a loss felt not only by the Syrian people, but also by the world at large.

World Heritage Sites in Danger

The conflict in Syria, now in its third year, has devastated the country’s cultural heritage, with UNESCO reporting that 93% of the country’s total cultural sites are currently within areas of conflict and displacement. Furthermore, of Syria’s 46 primary heritage sites, six have been categorized as World Heritage in Danger sites, with some structures already destroyed or seriously damaged by shelling or looting. Indeed, recent aerial footage also reveals several of these sites to be pockmarked with holesthe token remnants of looters excavating cultural objects and antiquities.

Damage caused by looting and vandalism at a museum in Aleppo Damage caused by looting and vandalism at a museum in Aleppo.
UNESCO and Professor Abdulkarim

Currently listed as in danger by UNESCO are the Ancient City of Aleppo, the Ancient City of Bosra, the Ancient City of Damascus, the site of Palmyra, Cracs des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, and the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria. Of course, countless other sites and structures that lend to Syria’s rich cultural heritage have also been damaged and are further threatened by continued fighting—the breadth of which is perhaps demonstrated by the World Monument Fund’s recent decision to list all of the cultural heritage sites within the entire country of Syria as part of its 2014 World Monuments Watch.

The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk

ICOM's Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk. ICOM’s Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.
ICOM

UNESCO and the World Monument Fund are hardly the only organizations—cultural or otherwise—adding or connecting Syria to an endangered list. In an event last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) officially released The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.

Held during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly and attended by members of both diplomatic and NGO communities, the event served to raise awareness surrounding the issues of preserving Syria’s cultural heritage by specifically outlining the categories and typologies of cultural artifacts and goods most vulnerable to illicit trafficking during the conflict. Indeed, the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) has reported a dramatic increase of illegal excavations of archeological sites and increased looting of museums in Syria, with the threat of illicit trafficking and trade of cultural property on the rise. As Anna Paolini, head of the Jordan office of UNESCO states, “In light of previous experiences in situations of conflict, with respect to cultural heritage, the risk of looting and illicit trafficking of Syrian cultural objects appears to be high.”

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and supported by UNESCO, ICOM’s Emergency Red List aims to help counteract illicit trafficking by not only categorizing the types of objects most at risk, but by also providing a succinct guide for museums, auction houses, art dealers, and collectors on how to facilitate the identification of potentially stolen or looted items, and which subsequent authorities to inform. The publication covers a wide spectrum of artifacts and antiquities, categorizing writing, figural sculpture, vessels, architectural elements, accessories and instruments, stamps and cylinder seals, and tessera and coins.

Joining in the announcement of the Emergency Red List, Assistant Secretary of States for Population, Refugees, and Migrations, Anne Richard, stated:

“The situation, clearly, is critical, not only for the survival of the Syrian people, but the heritage they cherish. Wherever one goes in Syria, one finds monuments from the past around every corner. Ancient religious edifices are still in use for daily observances. Historic homes provide shelter. Archaeological sites were—in better times—a place to visit, appreciate, and even have picnics. They are part of the fabric of Syrian life—a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future. Today, with the release of the Red list, we take an important step in helping Syrians preserve this unique and priceless cultural heritage. We are monitoring the situation there closely. And we are engaging internationally with national police, customs officials, ministries of culture, and other relevant entities in countries where Syrian cultural objects might transit and where these objects might find a market.”

Richard goes on to call on the international community to remain vigilant for looted and trafficked Syrian cultural objects and to refrain from purchasing or acquiring such objects.

Syrian volunteer networks mobilize and come together to help safeguard the country's heritage. UNESCO reports that, “Volunteer networks from local communities all over the country have mobilized themselves and come together with a common objective to protect their cultural heritage. These networks provide additional security in protecting archaeological sites from illegal excavations, and safeguarding museums from looters.
Photo via UNESCO and ICOM

Further attempts to counteract the illicit traffic and trade of Syria’s cultural heritage include the digitization of the remaining inventory and archives of cultural property in Syrian museums, in order to simplify the identification and the registration of any missing artifacts. Additional testimonies, images, and videos from the public, as well as from various national and international archaeological and heritage-based initiatives, are assisting in these digitized databases. As UNESCO states, “All this collated information will facilitate a more effective response against the illicit trafficking of cultural property out of Syria, and help potential restitution cases in the future.”

A Call to Action: Syria and the International Community

Attempts to combat the looting of Syrian antiquities and counteract their illicit trade are made difficult and further complicated for a variety of reasons, not least of which are due to the literal combat taking place on the ground.

That the continual fighting of the ongoing conflict in Syria renders site protection on the ground difficult and often thwarts attempts to protect the country’s cultural heritage brings to light what some may view as the apparent limitations of such international agreements as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

Participants at the Damascus National Museum, involved in ICCROM's e-learning course Participants at the Damascus National Museum, involved in the e-learning course, Protection of Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Times of Armed Conflict.
ICCROM and Lina Kutifan, DGAM

That being said, there are a number of efforts—both coordinated and individual, and implemented by both diplomatic and NGO communities—that are taking place to address the looting and the subsequent potential for the illicit sale of Syrian antiquities. While fighting and shelling proves an obstacle for on-the-ground site protection, effective monitoring of the situation and statuses of these sites, combined with the methodical documentation of antiquities and cultural property still accessible to archaeologists and members of the cultural heritage community, is of the utmost importance. As previously mentioned, the digitized documentation of the archival inventory of Syrian museums, for example, could be instrumental in potential restitution cases in the future.

Additionally, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), in association with the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) has partnered with the DGAM, in coordination with UNESCO, to hold several e-learning courses for Syrian cultural heritage professionals. The first of such courses, Protection of Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Times of Armed Conflict, took place at the beginning of this year at the Damascus National Museum and provided around 75 DGAM managers, directors, curators, architects, and staff—not to mention Syrian cultural heritage researchers and conservation experts—with some of the necessary knowledge and training materials to build their capacities in helping preserve the country’s cultural heritage.

The Syrian audience welcomed this show of professional solidarity from the international heritage community, the success of which prompted the next e-learning course and video conference, which took place last month. Says ICCROM of the initiative:

“In organizing the course, ICOMOS and ICCROM call on all parties associated with the situation in Syria to fulfill their obligations under international law to protect Syria’s precious cultural heritage sites and institutions. A call was repeated at the beginning of the course to abide by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and to respect museums, monuments, and historic cities.”

Further seminars and courses are envisaged as part of a long-term effort, in addition to further knowledge, experience, and advice, which may be offered during Syria’s recovery phase. Certainly, preserving Syria’s cultural heritage can serve as not only an anchor for promoting social cohesion and national unity during the recovery phase, but it may potentially aid in promoting economic stability based on tourism, which, before the conflict, accounted for 12% of Syria’s GDP and generated more than 6.5 billion dollars a year.

Participants and trainers in ICCROM's e-learning course, via video conference Participants and trainers in ICCROM’s e-learning course, via video conference.
ICCROM and Rohit Jigyasu

As one of the trainers for the initiative, Rohit Jigyasu, President of the International Scientific Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICORP) states, such endeavors could effectively become a benchmark for a “paradigm shift in how we can build capacity and promote awareness for heritage conservation using new information technology.”

Our Public Responsibility

Given the situation and the myriad of associated issues, many of us may ask ourselves, “Well, what can we do to help?” As members of the public, we too can play our part, by not only making ourselves and others aware of such issues, but also by simply refraining from buying cultural goods and antiquities from conflict zones—Syrian or otherwise. After all, supply must meet demand, and a collective decision to stop buying these antiquities may go a long way to curb theft and looting. In the end, this combination of action—raising awareness surrounding the issues of looting and illicit trafficking—combined with inaction—refusing to engage in the purchase and trade of antiquities from conflict zones—may prove essential to preserving what remains of Syria’s rich cultural heritage.

Drawing Parallels: SAFE and the National Museum of Iraq

In light of such issues, it is hard not to draw the comparison between the current crisis in Syria and the conflict in Iraq, following the collapse of the Saddam regime. While the various circumstances and the context for each situation differs, many of the issues and the challenges facing Syria’s cultural heritage and archeological sites are, in many ways, similar to those in Iraq during the 2003 US-led invasion.

Indeed, many of our SAFE readers and contributors have similarly commented on this parallel during our 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. SAFE was borne out of the travesty surrounding the looting of the National Museum of Iraq and now, during the tenth anniversary of both the looting of the museum and the founding of this organization, it seems particularly poignant to warn of the similar dangers affecting not only Syria’s cultural heritage, but of heritage sites across the globe. The memory of what happened in Baghdad serves as a perpetual reminder, wherein circumstances of the past can hopefully manifest as lessons for the future.

Additional Information and Further Resources

 The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk can be found here.

The link for UNESCO’s website, Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property in Syria, can be found here.

Updates on the situation of Syria’s cultural heritage on the ground can be found through DGAM’s website—in both Arabic and English—here.

For previous SAFE articles and information regarding the conflict in Syria and the destruction of its cultural heritage, please click here.

How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?

In an atmosphere of general unrest and lack of control or safety provided by government, looting frequently rises to unprecedented levels as those desperate for quick cash plunder from the coffers of our global heritage. However, it is not the looters who stand to gain the most from such a timely situation, but rather the collectors who are able to add another invaluable piece to their collections, ripped from the fabric of civilization.

Yet even before the events of the Arab Spring raged across the Middle East and enraptured the world, the market for Syrian and Egyptian antiquities was booming. Many lots (objects for sale at auctions) were selling for above their estimated prices, with one pair of carved stone capitals from Syria selling for GBP 313,250 – more than five times its pre-sale estimate of GBP 60,000. With no provenance at all listed in the lot’s record, it’s incredible that a collector would nevertheless spend over a quarter of a million pounds on artifacts that could have been illicitly excavated or exported.

My process

I was curious as to how the looting and destruction that swept the Middle East during the Arab Spring might have impacted sales of Egyptian and Syrian antiquities, so I decided to compare pre-2011 and post-2011 sales in the hopes that this would shed some light on the issue.

I conducted this research both online and in libraries, accessing catalogues from past auctions from the Sotheby’s and Christie’s websites, as well as in the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. and the National Art Library in London. I found the websites quite difficult to navigate, and it feels as though the online catalogues are there for casual perusing rather than serious research. There is no means of collating relevant items or auctions, and the information listed online leaves quite a lot to be desired.

Techniques used by auction houses

sothebys Unprovenanced Syrian stone capitals sold at Sotheby’s

Many of the artifacts, like the stone capitals described above, have no provenance listed, or will have an incredibly sparse record, like this Syrian limestone head which was simply “acquired prior to 1987” or this basalt torso of Herakles “said to have been found prior to World War II” (both pieces auctioned in 2010). The Herakles statue sold for 230,000 USD, twice its estimate. Many other pieces sold for over their estimates, indicating that a healthy appetite for Egyptian and Syrian artifacts still exists.

One of the thinnest provenances I saw was simply a listing of previous auctions, as if having made it through the system once before is enough proof that an artifact is fair game to be auctioned again. (If you’re interested in seeing some of these techniques in action, check out any catalogues from auctions of antiquities at Sotheby’s or Christie’s and you will quickly come across them.)

I had hoped that perhaps things would have improved after the events of 2011, but this was not the case. Provenance listings were no more specific or accurate than they had been previously, and there was no indication from any major auction house that they were taking into account the uncertainty in the Middle East when it came to acquiring objects for auction. In auctions taking place immediately after the Arab Spring, there were no reassuring notices placed in the front of the glossy antiquities catalogues confirming that the auction house had ensured the legality of all pieces (although perhaps they had — I’m not making accusations, just observations).

Even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

Another way auction houses shift attention from an artifact’s physical origins to its aesthetic qualities is by listing multiple countries as the possible place of creation. As Colin Renfrew explains in Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership, having an unclear place of origin prevents any one country from laying claim to the item. Moreover, even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are obviously no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

I had expected to see a huge increase in the number of items placed for sale following the 2011 revolutions. However, there actually appears to have been no increase, which surprised me. Auction activity was relatively uniform from 2009 to 2013. Had there actually not been any items looted during the general state of instability and anarchy that seized much of the region? My suspicion is that these objects just haven’t had enough time to reach the international market. Looting is absolutely happening, as evidenced by photographs of sites speckled with large holes and scattered artifacts.

Evidence for looting

Indefatigable Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna has been single-handedly exposing an incredible amount of looting in Egypt, even going so far as to confront some of the armed looters herself. Hanna sent me some pictures of the landscape at Abu Sir el-Malaq, where looters have left behind piles of ravaged bones and mummies in favor of more saleable and attractive artifacts. This is just some of the damage that she has documented at that site:

abu sir el malaq 4 Bones left behind as looters uncover graves
abu sir el malaq 3 A child carries an artifact tossed aside by looters
abu sir el malaq 2 Archaeologists survey the damage at Abu Sir el-Malaq
abu sir el malaq 1 The pockmarked lunar landscape left by looters

The reality is that looting is definitely happening in Egypt. We haven’t yet seen these artifacts reach a public market, but they are out there. Or — even worse — as the events of the last week have shown, stolen artifacts may have actually been destroyed by those who took them, like we saw at the Malawi Museum. Hanna herself was at the Malawi Museum when looters stormed its doors, and defended its treasures against armed attackers. Some of the artifacts taken have since been returned, but hundreds remain missing, and it is possible that many of those still at large have been irreparably destroyed.

Trafficking Culture, a research programme into the global trade of looted artifacts based at the University of Glasgow, advocates using Google Earth as a means of tracking looting. This screenshot from Google Maps seems to show holes dug by looters south of the Great Pyramids at Giza:

Giza Holes

Conclusion

There has yet to be a “boom” in the number of Near Eastern antiquities for sale because dealers can afford to wait. As demonstrated by the mere existence of the Swiss Freeport (and its shameful role in Giacomo Medici’s looting empire, documented in The Medici Conspiracy), it’s fairly easy to have such a backlog of illicitly obtained items so as to not need to immediately sell newly acquired ones. Moreover, dealers aren’t dumb: they know that flooding the market with unprovenanced antiquities not only looks suspicious, but also will devalue each item as supply increases. Just as the Mugrabi family carefully plays the market to keep Warhol’s value high, so antiquities dealers know when to buy and when to sell.

It is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws.

Tess Davis, a member of the “Trafficking Culture” project, is researching the process that many artifacts go through as they are essentially smuggled into legitimacy. It will be interesting to see the conclusions that her research yields, and I hope that it will shed some light on the process that looted artifacts have — and are still — undoubtedly been going through for the past two years.

Even searching for something as simple as “Egyptian antiquity” on eBay turns up multiple results for unprovenanced objects. While it is very likely that these are fakes rather than looted originals, it is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws, UNESCO or otherwise. (Luckily, UCLA archaeologist Charles Stanish believes that eBay’s large selection of fakes is actually helping to stop looting, estimating that 95 percent of the archaeological artifacts listed on eBay are forgeries).

“The only Good Collector is an ex-Collector.” – Colin Renfrew

The idea of a benevolent collector has been problematized many times, including by Renfrew, who concludes that “the only Good Collector is an ex-Collector” (Public Archaeology, 2000). Renfrew does not have a problem with the act of collecting (identifying Old Master paintings and cigarette cards as hypothetical items exempt from his condemnation), but rather the practice of collecting specifically unprovenanced antiquities. But beyond just provenance, are there other issues at hand when it comes to looting and sales?

My conclusion is not that this research proves that the sale of Middle Eastern antiquities is out of control due to a single incident or period of conflict (as satisfying a conclusion as that would have been). Rather, it is that the looting specifically is out of control. It is likely that some will make the counter-argument that until we see these artifacts on the market, there is nothing we can do, or perhaps even that until such objects turn up at an auction, there isn’t any real proof that damage to the cultural record is happening.

This is wrong - looting is happening now, and without more awareness, it will continue to happen until there is nothing left to be learned from the decontextualized and ravaged objects. Monica Hanna told me that “raising awareness is really what we need,” so please help SAFE spread the word. A community on Facebook called Egypt’s Heritage Task Force has done a tremendous amount of work to track and stop looting and destruction of heritage sites, and it is that cooperation that we will continue to need in the coming months.

You can also join SAFE’s latest campaign, Say Yes to Egypt, and read more about our efforts to raise awareness about the looting going on in Egypt here.

Why we care about the cultural heritage of Egypt – now.

Originally posted on February 6, 2011, the following is reposted as a reminder of why we Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage! (Photo: Egypt’s Heritage Task Force: الحملة المجتمعية للرقابة على التراث والأثار )


No one knows what the future holds for Egypt. Our hearts and hopes are with the Egyptian people as they struggle toward genuine democracy. The first priority now must be the country’s stability, its citizens, their safety, their dignity.

While politicians work out ways to address the demands of the people, attention must also be focused on efforts to protect Egypt’s ancient cultural heritage, out of respect for the Egyptian people and all citizens around the world. Some may think this premature, even insensitive. We don’t. Here’s why:

– As the current government in Cairo gives way to a new political regime, and Egypt begins the process of renewal, it is essential that cultural heritage of the people – the touchstone of their cultural memory and identity - remains intact. We must work together to ensure that the new Egypt is not built on the rubble of robbed museums and plundered tombs.

– Also, protecting and preserving cultural heritage is now recognized as a key development priority for all nations: If we are truly concerned about Egypt’s social, political and economic future, we should strongly support the protection of their museums and heritage sites.

– The ancient and sacred structures and artifacts that make up the cultural heritage of Egypt represent the ultimate non-renewable resource. The world community must do everything it can to protect these treasures for all humanity and prevent irreparable damage that may that result in the destruction of ancient sites and loss of materials.

Join SAFE in solidarity for the people of Egypt and their cultural heritage.

 

Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage!

Egypt is in a state of turmoil. Life is lost while the people of Egypt continue to fight for democracy and freedom. But while the safety of human life is our first priority, there is another aspect of humanity that we must not forget: Egypt’s cultural heritage. Why? Because “wars end, and shattered lives, communities and societies must be rebuilt.” (Nature, Vol 423, 29 May 2003). In the last few days, the situation has drastically worsened: the Mallawi Museum has been looted, churches are being burned, archaeological sites and museums have been closed indefinitely and the lands surrounding the pyramids at Giza and Dahshur remains peppered with holes dug by looters.

Looted burial tombs beside Dahshur's Black Pyramid, from Der Spiegel. Looted burial tombs beside Dahshur’s Black Pyramid, from Der Spiegel.
While the situation remains chaotic, what can we do? 

SAFE has launched its “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” campaign, and I invite you to join us, right now.

Here’s how:

  1. Set and share your Facebook profile image with the “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” image at the top left corner.
  2. Set and share your Facebook cover photo with the “I Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage, Our Heritage” banner at the bottom of this post. (Please be patient, Facebook servers are busy.)
  3. Tweet the message “I Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage, Our Heritage” with #sayyestoegypt! (Don’t forget to tweet us at @saveantiquities)
  4. Join the Say YES to Egypt Cause page here and stand with  thousands of other individuals pledging their support of Egypt’s cultural heritage
  5. Spread the news about this campaign, like and share this post

Let’s come together and do something to show solidarity for the people of Egypt. Raise awareness about the urgent risks to one of humanity’s greatest legacies. So please join me and SAFE to show the world that we are all saying yes to Egypt’s heritage because it is our heritage.

Faking It: A Case for Museums of “Fakes”

You may have heard in the news last week that a Chinese Museum has been forced to close following evidence revealing much of its collection to be fake. The museum reportedly cost more than 60 million yuan to build, with twelve exhibition halls of what are now apparently brilliant fakes. The Jibaozhai Museum in Hebai opened in 2010 and has a collection of more than 40,000 objects, only eighty of which the museum is now saying they’re “quite positive” are authentic.

This discovery resonates with Peru’s Museum of Gold, which, about a decade ago, was shown to have a collection of almost entirely fake pre-Columbian artifacts. Over 4,000 of their artifacts were shown to be fake by Indecopi, the Institute for the Defense of Competition and of Intellectual Property. Some of the pieces in that collection were amalgamations of ancient and contemporary gold (a la Frankenstein’s monster), while others were purely contemporary pieces made by artisans. That combination raises some interesting questions about the nature of authenticity which I won’t even attempt to delve into, but will surely be discussed as we learn more about the Jibaozhai’s collection.

Jonathan Jones of the Guardian quotes one Chinese blogger as suggesting that the Chinese museum should reopen as a museum of fakes, quipping, “If you can’t be the best, why not be the worst?” That’s actually an incredibly interesting suggestion, and deserves more thought beyond this flippant joke. First of all, is there not something that can be learned from a museum of fakes? In Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Crime and Punishment partnered with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art to host an exhibition of forged artworks, demonstrating the public’s desire to see such eery doppelgängers. It is also interesting to consider that our brains respond differently to a work of art once we’ve been told that it’s fake. While the brain signals of a viewer cannot distinguish between genuine and fake works, viewing a piece they have been told is genuine triggers the rewards section of the brain, while viewing a piece they have been told is fake triggers the section of the brain associated with strategy and planning.

Would visiting a museum full of known fakes be beneficial in some way, then? Surely it could serve as a good educational tool for archaeology students or law enforcement professionals, or perhaps it would at least be entertaining like the wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s.

jibaozhai item A possibly fake item on display at the Jibaozhai Museum.
Courtesy news.com.au.

Although the Jibaozhai Museum will likely always be associated with this rather embarrassing episode, I think that similar museums — ones that fully disclose that their collections are reproductions — could be the way forward. The objects within could be handled by children, allowing a tactile engagement that regular museums simply cannot. Moreover, museums with reproductions run no risk of accidentally acquiring a looted or stolen artifact.

As an art history student, I find it hard not to place extra value on an original work of art or artifact — something that maintains the “aura” that German critical theorist Walter Benjamin defined as an essential component of originality. However, I believe there is still a clear — although different — value that comes from displaying facsimiles (not “fakes”) rather than originals. Beyond just the shock value and excitement that comes from seeing something “fake,” perhaps there’s something to be said for a museum that communicates the past without any chance of plundering tombs or funding illicit antiquities trafficking.

What do you think? Do you think there’s some value in museums full of “fakes,” or would you rather see the real deal?

Top image: A visitor reads the notice erected by the Jibaozhai Museum after it was shut down amid reports that much of its collection is fake. Courtesy of What’s On Tianjin.

Can a Picasso save the Phoenicians?

“Who wants those old things when they could just get new ones?”

That’s a joke a friend of mine made when I shared some of my work with SAFE. Although a joke, I thought this raised an interesting dichotomy that isn’t often explored in cultural heritage circles: When does a work of art or object transition from being part of the archaeological record to being something you’d see in a museum of art or design?

Colin Renfrew acknowledges that our treatment of ancient works of art must necessarily be different from modern ones in his book Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology, explaining that, “there is now the growing realization among art dealers and auctioneers that there is indeed something especially dubious about illicit antiquities. They are not at all the same as Old Masters or Impressionist Paintings, and they always bring with them special problems” (80). The market for modern art objects does not present the same problems that the market for antiquities does, but this does not necessarily mean that the two arenas are mutually exclusive, as demonstrated by the International Association to Save Tyre’s latest fundraising endeavor.

I recently attended a press conference where the Association revealed that this December, they will be raffling off a 1914 Picasso painting titled “L’Homme au Gibus” (The Man With the Opera Hat) and valued at $1 million. Participants can purchase a 100 euro ticket for the chance to win the $1 million Picasso painting. There are only 50,000 tickets, but if all of them are sold, that’s 5 million euros going towards the Association’s cause, which is saving and promoting Tyre’s finite cultural heritage.

“At what point are we really able to say that one piece of broken pottery is the nexus that helps us understand an ancient society, while another is superfluous and can be sold like any other tourist souvenir?”

According to the Association, Tyre was a major meeting point and center of commercial exchange for the Phoenicians, contributing to the development of democracy, navigation, and crafts. Tyre was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, but this nominal honor has done little to tangibly protect the ancient city. Originally threatened by the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, Tyre is now threatened again by the possibility of conflict in neighboring Syria. The Association’s founder, Maha El-Khalil Chalabi, explains that during the civil war, the presence of troops and lack of governmental authority led to looting and destruction of the site. She fears the same will happen again, commenting that, “We are very afraid of what is going on in the region. All of the countries around us are in big trouble.”

Members of the public can purchase a 100 euro raffle ticket for the chance to win this Picasso painting. The proceeds from the raffle benefit the site of Tyre in Lebanon.
Photograph (c) Succession Picasso 2013.

The Association hopes to prevent further damage to the site by stimulating cultural tourism through the creation of both a traditional crafts village and a research institute dedicated to studying the Phoenicians. Chalabi estimates that only a tenth of potential archaeological finds have been excavated at Tyre, leaving the rest of the undiscovered heritage vulnerable to opportunistic looters. The Association will broadcast the raffle results live on the Internet, hopefully educating thousands more individuals around the world about the necessity of protecting cultural heritage.

Some individuals have suggested raising money for archaeological sites in a similar fashion by auctioning off small and relatively unimportant potsherds or other ephemera from the digs. Others have countered this by asking where the line is drawn between significant and insignificant (this article also acknowledges that the concept of “significance” itself changes). At what point are we really able to say that one piece of broken pottery is the nexus that helps us understand an ancient society, while another is superfluous and can be sold like any other tourist souvenir? But then again, isn’t that line very similar to the one that we draw between an artifact and a work of art like Picasso’s “Man With the Opera Hat”? I applaud the Tyre Association for striking an inventive and original balance. By auctioning off an item tangentially related to cultural heritage but not directly drawn from Tyre’s resources, they are finding new ways to use modern art to support its predecessors.

Furthermore, one of SAFE’s biggest goals is to raise awareness about the impact of conflict on archaeological sites, and the damage inflicted when we lose cultural heritage. A live broadcast of someone winning a $1 million painting for an original investment of only €100 is almost guaranteed to warrant some media attention. Desperate times call for creative solutions, and using modern art to support cultural heritage is one of the most uplifting things I’ve heard in a long time.

The raffle runs until December, and you can read more about the project on its website at: www.1picasso100euros.com.

The photograph of Tyre is (c) Tim Schnarr, courtesy of UNESCO.

The power of culture weakened by looting

The looting of the Iraq Museum ten years ago was the inspiration for initiating SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone. SAFE was in turn the inspiration for my embarking on a new professional journey – leaving marketing and diving into cultural heritage. The non-profit became my companion in the cultural heritage world for several years. Living in San Francisco I soon found myself in a long-distance relationship with SAFE, with many memorable travels to Boston and NY for SAFE events and board meetings and many more phone discussions about how to best awaken the public’s mind about heritage and looting issues.

Candlelight vigil at the AAM One of the candlelight vigils I helped organize with another SAFE member Stephanie Dodaro took place outside the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

We had a couple of candlelight vigils in San Francisco commemorating the looting of the Iraq Museum, which have been attended by Assyrians living in the Bay Area. They appreciated that their cultural heritage was being acknowledged and discussed during the vigil gatherings. They shared stories about what their cultural background means to them. Artifacts and cultural objects are a direct link to history. They inform us about daily life, rituals, traditions and identity while conveying the universal nature of humanity. The stories we heard helped to foster a common understanding. It is clear that the exchange of cultural information through the sharing of stories, museum visits and culture-themed events can be a powerful tool in finding common ground and a shared affection for the things that unite us.

This triggered the question: how relevant is cultural heritage to people’s everyday life? How does the intersection of tradition and modernity reflect and define the identity of people living in today’s spectrum of multi-cultural influences? Looking at the arts, cultural performances and design it becomes clear how people take inspiration from the past and integrate it into their work. It captures the stories from the past and conveys them into digestible and enjoyable ingredients of daily life. But if inspirations from the past are removed, the potential to access cultural identity is limited.

heritage in action logoIn 2012 my colleague Kelly Krause and I co-founded the company Heritage in Action (www.heritageinaction.com) to work on this aspect of cultural heritage. Based in San Francisco, Heritage in Action is a globally active cultural heritage company working with cultural places and institutions to drive societal change and cultural development. Building creative platforms through media, technology, community vitalization and storytelling we aim to build deep connections between peoples and places and to preserve cultural identity and diversity.

Looting hurts. If something irreplaceable vanishes it affects you. At Heritage in Action we cannot bring back looted objects. But we can use cultural stories to revive people’s heritage and identity. People are moved by emotion, and the best way to emotionally engage and connect people across cultures is through storytelling and raising awareness. Just like the candlelight vigil for global heritage.

10 Years After: Have We Done Enough?

I’m currently studying history of art with archaeology at University College London, and I’m SAFE’s new intern for summer 2013. I’ll be working primarily on the Middle East raising awareness about the danger to sites in those countries as well as doing research on the market for antiquities from sites in those regions. I will also be contributing to the SAFE blog, Twitter and Facebook as part of SAFE’s mandate to raise public awareness.


2013 vigil candle logo Click to light a virtual candle!

When I was in kindergarten, a family friend used to take me to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Staring in speechless awe at the lushly wallpapered rooms and sublime paintings, I was most enraptured by the hauntingly empty frames. Who would steal a work of art from the public? It never occurred to me as a teenager obsessed with Indiana Jones that the crime Jones committed  himself was far worse than what had happened in the Isabella Stewart Gardner. Swooping into archaeological sites, Jones destroys the context of the priceless artifacts he uncovers, thereby preventing us from fully understanding the past societies who left this evidence behind.

While I’ve come to realize that Indiana Jones doesn’t necessarily set the best standards of archaeological excavation, it has inspired me to have a life-long love of art and archaeology. It is crucial that future generations are able to learn to love ancient artifacts just as I have, but that won’t be possible if looting and destruction continues at its current rate. That is why SAFE is such an important organization. By raising awareness of the threats to our global cultural heritage, and hosting this candlelight vigil each year, SAFE is pushing that heritage’s protection into the limelight.

I’m incredibly passionate about the restitution of Holocaust-era looted art, and while those cases are covered in the media, there is comparatively little attention paid to the widespread destruction of archaeological artifacts through looting and conflict. The events earlier this year in Mali really highlighted for me the extent to which cultural heritage is still not at the forefront of the public’s mind. We like to pigeonhole the destruction of cultural heritage a something that others do (like the Bamiyan Buddhas), when in fact it happens in our own backyard. Furthermore, it will continue to happen unless individuals across disciplines and across geographic boundaries agree to work together to stop it.

Ten years after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, less than half of the objects taken have been returned. Why is there not more outrage at this fact?

It pains me to see news stories about eye-wateringly steep prices for the latest auctioned antiquity with no discussion of provenance or due diligence. How is it possible for an institution as prestigious as the Smithsonian to still become embroiled in a controversy about illicit excavation in the 21st century? I hope that this Candlelight Vigil will continue to spread the word that looting affects more than just the source country, and that it’s far from a solved problem. Looting destroys our shared global heritage, and I hope that by lighting this candle, I can do something about it. After all, I wouldn’t want to disappoint the five-year old who, in some alternate universe, is still gazing, enraptured, at the hauntingly empty frames that hang in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Thoughts on the Tragedy of Iraqi Cultural Heritage, and Three Inspired Responses to it: SAFE, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, and Dr. Saad Eskander of the Iraq National Library and Archive

The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies has prompted many reflections.  They bring to my mind the Bad Faith to which the Iraqi people have been subjected ever since the victorious powers betrayed their Arab allies at Versailles after WWI.  “Bomber” Harris, who presided over the destruction of German cities from the air in WWII, practiced on rebellious Iraqi villages in the 1920s.  There was no organic connection between the royal Hashemite line imposed by the British on the Iraqi people, laying the grounds for nationalist coups to come, and the seemingly ineluctable descent into Saddam Hussein’s despotism.  The extraordinarily destructive invasion (in its acts and consequences) was but one of the more recent such betrayals, although in that instance the American and British people were also victims, though less grievously so.

Saddam’s dictatorship betrayed the Iraqi people in countless ways, including the gross distortions of culture and corruption of institutions that benefited the narrow interests of the dictator and his regime.  Unimaginable damage was wreaked by the war with Iran.  The human losses in their most concrete terms were terrible, but those to culture were similarly bad, from the devastation of Basra to the ecocide that destroyed the Marsh Arabs’ way of life after the 1991 Gulf War, which was precipitated by Saddam’s desire to rid himself of the debts incurred by the previous one.  The exorbitant costs of these wars resulted in the pervasive underfunding of culture and education throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the sad fact that the Iraq Museum was kept shut for twenty years before the American invasion, opened only for VIP events.  That it remains closed despite much effort to rehabilitate it is evidence for the bad faith of venal and incompetent successor governments.

Starting in April 2003, I devoted my attention to the plight of Iraqi libraries and archives, resulting in two lengthy reports alongside other work that recounts much of that sorry tale*1

Two images of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here exhibit These two images, one general and one specific, of the first of three exhibits at the Cambridge Arts Council’s gallery representing the first of three exhibits of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here-related artwork. They are principally artist books (85 of them in the vitrines), with some of the broadsides on the walls. A second exhibit of 82 books is now up, with a third to follow.
Cambridge Arts Council

It is through this work that I became acquainted with SAFE and the indefatigable Cindy Ho.  It is generally the case that any successful voluntary enterprise requires one inspired leader to get it going and, often, to sustain it, even though other committed individuals may contribute to its depth and breadth.  Cindy is that person, and one of those others whom she inspired to participate, Irina Tarsis, enlisted my participation in three symposia sponsored or co-sponsored by SAFE, the most salient being my paper, “Contested Patrimony: The Fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive,” presented at Homeward Bound: Returning Displaced Books and Manuscripts.

It is heartening that SAFE has expanded its activities beyond Iraqi antiquities to those of other nations, and has considered those aspects of cultural heritage and national patrimony of more direct concern to those such as myself.  Its activities and website benefit the whole world.  Another person who, like Cindy Ho, was moved to initiate a project addressing threatened Iraqi culture, is Beau Beausoleil, poet and bookseller of San Francisco, who founded Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here following the catastrophic bombing of the street of the booksellers in Baghdad on 5 March 2007.  He has stated that he kept waiting for someone to do something in response to such a terrible affront to all that is good and decent, but nobody did, so he acted, first locally and then globally. This has resulted in an arguably unprecedented imaginative response: the creation of much poetry and other writing,*2 scores of broadsides, and about 360 artist books that reveal an extraordinary range of visual, literary and technical creativity. They have been on exhibit in many places, and a complete set of will eventually arrive at the Iraq National Library and Archive (a set of the broadsides has already reached the INLA).•3

http://www.al-mutanabbistreetstartshere-boston.com/

I was asked to provide a meaningful context for the eponymous event at one of the occasions associated with the six-month exhibit in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  That follows here.

“Framing the Bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street: How We Might Think about what Led to it”

 Jeff Spurr, 25 February 2013

For

“Locating Al-Mutanabbi Street”
Cambridge Arts Council Gallery

We Americans tend to be navel gazers, deeply involved in our own problems, and oblivious to the consequences of our projection of power abroad.  Few have any conception of — or concern for — the cumulative suffering born by the Iraqi people, and the derangements to Iraqi society caused by our contribution to it.

A long, dark road led to the bomb blast at Al-Mutanabbi Street on March 5th, 2007.  The moral and symbolic implications of that horrendous event have been broadly addressed, thanks in particular to this wonderful initiative, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, rich evidence of which we see around us.

This evening I will briefly try to provide some context.  In my view, five principal conditions frame that terrible act.  They are (1) the nature of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime, (2) the crippling sanctions against Iraq after the Gulf War of 1990-1991, (3) the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, (4) the disastrous policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority under L. Paul Bremer, and (5) the existence of a mobile radical Islamic movement associated with al-Qaeda, whose peculiar nature supports a terrifying cultural nihilism.

(1) Despotic regimes not only make the welfare of the tyrant and few others the measure of what is good and right for a whole nation, but their corrupt and absolutist ways suppress any normal civil society, and preclude the development of mature political views, mechanisms, and behavior, in the process injecting slow-working poisons into the body politic that remain long after these regimes are gone.  The resulting political immaturity, unfamiliarity with democratic ways, and dearth of practical initiative (due, that is, to the top-down character of all decision-making in such police states), have dire implications for what comes after.

(2)  The sanctions regime of the 1990s had no serious effect on Saddam, his family and cronies, whose control over the state remained unabated; however, it immiserated much of the Iraqi middle class, and made the lives of the poor much less bearable, adding new distress to a population that had already endured the terrible ravages of the Iran-Iraq war, ignominious defeat in the Gulf War, and the savage suppression of the subsequent Shi’ite rebellion in Central and Southern Iraq.

(3)  The criminally reckless American invasion was essentially undertaken without a plan beyond tactical questions concerning the inevitable military victory, which is to say the easy part.  General Shinseki was fired for speaking the truth regarding management of the aftermath, and magical thinking reigned in the White House.  The invasion began with the revolting spectacle of “Shock and Awe,” destruction from the skies targeting infrastructure and ministries whose principal consequence would be to dramatically diminish the capacity of successor governments to run the country.  Even worse, no provision was made to impose a new authority after the totalitarian regime was overthrown:  the lid was taken off the pressure cooker and not replaced.  Chaos was the inevitable result.  As history has shown, opportunists will always take advantage of the absence of authority, but the terrifying result under these especially bad circumstances was massive looting of nearly every institution in the country outside of Iraqi Kurdistan — whether cultural, educational, or governmental — from which Iraq will never fully recover.

Two images of the INLA (Iraq National Library and Archive).  The "before" image is actually after the arson but before restoration of an interior space (you can discern the stairs), while the "after" is of the same space (though a larger view), after Dr. Eskander's restoration. Two images of the INLA (Iraq National Library and Archive).  The ‘before’ image is actually after the arson but before restoration of an interior space (you can discern the stairs), while the ‘after’ is of the same space (though a larger view), after Dr. Eskander’s restoration.

(4)  Then came the misrule of Paul Bremer, America’s satrap at the CPA, and arch-privatizer.  A combination of arrogance, ignorance and ideology scarcely matched by his boss led to the cashiering of the whole Iraqi army, an act of folly that removed a potential stabilizing force (Republican Guard excepted), and threw a couple hundred thousand men out of work.  Since the army of occupation had failed to secure ammo dumps across Iraq, arms were readily available.  Bremer also closed all state-owned enterprises, consigning countless others to unemployment and disaffection.  The mass firing of members of the Baath Party had similar results.  Idle hands make for the Devil’s work, after all, and the inability to mobilize for employment and sustain anything resembling normal functioning, plus an endless series of other unfortunate decisions, led inevitably to resistance — further exacerbated by blunt force behavior by the occupying forces.

Indeed, resistance led to extreme reaction.  Whereas it was said of the Vietnam War, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it,” things graduated in Iraq to “we destroyed the city to save it,” notably in the cases of Fallujah and Ramadi.  What leverage might have been gained from overthrowing the widely-hated Saddam was quickly squandered.

It is virtually axiomatic that a system of repression such as existed under Saddam leaves people little choice but to identify with more elementary structures of society:  the family, the tribe, and, particularly among the less secularized Iraqi lower classes, religion.  This is where social fault lines develop when all else disintegrates.

Violent Sunni resistance led ineluctably to two things:  the emergence of the much more radical al-Qaeda in Iraq, not invested in the preservation of any people or place, and largely consisting of foreign Arab elements coming from Jordan and through Syria, mirrored by the embrace of violence by Shi’ite groups, most conspicuously the Sadr Brigades, lumpen elements supporting that firebrand Shi’ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.  This combustible situation led to an all-out civil war conducted by these radicalized elements, precipitated in its aggravated form when al-Qaeda blew up the Shi’ite Al-Askari Mosque and Shrine at Samarra in February 2006.  Al-Qaeda elements have been employing a slogan, “taqsir wa tafjir,” which, translated into English, signifies something like “denounce and detonate” or, according to a friend, effectively “blow them all up.”

It was in the context of this explosion of hate and strife, when upwards of four million largely middle class Iraqis (proportionately equivalent to about 42 million Americans), were forced to flee their homes, unlikely to return, that Al-Mutanabbi Street was devastated.  When tens of thousands are being murdered, when many parties are behaving in wanton ways, and when forces that consider humanism and enlightenment to be the enemy are unleashed on the land, it comes as no great surprise that this terrible crime occurred, much as we may lament it.

[modified and expanded for SAFE:]

As a coda, I would like to add that one man has shown what is possible in Iraq despite the conditions I have just described.  That person is Dr. Saad Eskander, who took charge of a devastated Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA) in the fall of 2003 at a very dark hour for that institution and Iraq.  There his performance has been exemplary under the most trying of circumstances.

Dr. Eskander not only succeeded in restoring a structure that had been declared a dead loss, but took a corrupt, moribund staff of 95 and turned it into a thriving, productive one of over 300, shepherding it through the dark years of civil war and difficult times since, initiating an enlightened administration in which the staffs of departments elect their representatives to the institution’s council; encouraging a women’s group that began a canteen and child care onsite.  He reached out to the world, for which reason he received critical donations of equipment and materials of every sort from many countries and institutions, plus advanced training for his staff on several fronts.  Despite having to repeatedly cope with retrograde elements in the Ministry of Culture and elsewhere in government, he has sustained the integrity of his institution and arranged for the building of a new National Archives building and a Generations Library for children and youth.  A new building for digital projects is underway.  Dr. Eskander has also spearheaded the effort to repatriate various classes of seized Iraqi documents on US soil or in American hands.  Much of this is described in detail in my 2007 and 2010 reports.  Despite  the grievous losses due to arson and deliberate flooding in April 2003, Saad Eskander continues his labors in the service of Iraqi culture and heritage.  His work provides not only a model for best practices in the administration of a cultural institution in Iraq, but for the world. We owe him our admiration and support.

 

*1 July 2005 report:

http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/mela/indispensable.html

July 2007 report:

http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/mela/update_2007.htm

A substantial update that focuses on controversies concerning various classes of seized Iraqi documents still under American control may be found in

“Report on Iraqi Libraries and Archives, 2010,” MELA Notes, no. 83 (2010), pp. 14-38

http://mela.us/MELANotes/MELA-Notes.html

at which point one must click on:

MELA Notes number 83 (2010)

 

*2  Beausoleil, Beau and Deema Shehabi, eds., Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5th, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad’s “Street of the Booksellers”, PM Press, Oakland, CA, 2012

 

*3  see:

http://bisi1932.blogspot.ca/2013/04/memory-identity-and-grassroots.html

NB: the big hole in the ground mentioned in this article is not the new Archives building, which has already been built, although not as yet fully furnished; it is the foundation for the Digital Library building, Dr. Eskander having long ago initiated a comprehensive plan for digitization in the service of transparency and access for Iraqis to their history and heritage.

The "other" non-renewable resource

Objects uncovered in their original contexts, properly interpreted, provide insight into the way our ancestors lived, their societies and their environments. They complete our view of ancient life and enrich our understanding on many levels. As such, antiquities comprise an essential part of our global cultural heritage.

This Earth Day, let’s also consider the other non-renewable resource: our shared cultural heritage. Once an artifact is ripped from the ground, most of the knowledge it contained is lost – forever.

Originally posted on April 22, 2010

SAFE announces Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage

Marking the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum, SAFE launches The Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage and invites all citizens to light a candle and share their remembrances and thoughts in any language on the current situation, contemplate the future, and take the opportunity to announce their related projects and programs in preserving the future of our past.

2013 vigil candle logo Click to light a candle

These comments and reflections will be posted on SAFE’s web site beginning April 10 and also the Vigil page on Facebook, and other social media outlets. Furthering our commitment to raising public awareness about the global concern of looting and the illicit antiquities trade, SAFE aims to gather these reflections in a commemorative booklet as a public statement of concern, and as a tribute to all those who safeguard the future of our past.

SAFE initiated the Global Candlelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna in 2007 to commemorate the looting of the Museum which became the impetus for the founding of the organization. Institutions and individuals from around the world hosted and attended lectures and candle-lighting ceremonies. A video of these events was compiled to mark the 5th anniversary. In 2011, the Vigil was renamed to honor the memory of Dr. Youkhanna.

Will Sudan’s History be Washed Away?

Sudan’s cultural heritage is in peril once again. The recent announcement by the Sudanese government to move forward with its plans to construct three massive Chinese-backed hydroelectric dams along the Nile River and its tributaries has put international archaeological and cultural heritage organizations on high alert.

The Nile River, which flows through ten countries from its origin deep in equatorial Africa and drains into the blossom-shaped delta region of northern Egypt, has been the watery lifeblood of those living along its banks for millennia. Civilizations great and small built their kingdoms and cities along the river, leaving behind magnificent traces of the past—many of which remain unexplored to this day. The proposed dams would submerge hundreds of archaeological sites forever under the rising water levels, including ancient settlements from the first Nubian Kingdom of Kerma, New Kingdom Egyptian sites, Nubian tower houses and rock carvings, medieval churches and forts, and Christian frescos.

This is not the first time a massive dam project has threatened Sudan’s cultural heritage. While dams allow for vital long-term water storage, generate electricity, guarantee water supplies, and provide protection against high floods and drought years, they often have profound impacts on the cultural and social landscapes of a region. Most recently, the controversial completion of Sudan’s $2 billion Merowe Dam on the fourth cataract in 2009 resulted in the permanent flooding of hundreds of archaeological sites, not to mention irreversible ecological consequences and the displacement of more than 70,000 people. The proposed Kajbar, Shereik and Dal dams would have a similar effect on their respective regions, again drowning hundreds of sites and displacing roughly 20,000 people from their ancestral homelands through compulsory resettlement to arid, inhospitable desert regions.

The Art Newspaper
Rescue and salvage efforts near the Merowe Dam in 2004

Presently, Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) is appealing to the international community for help, urging archaeological teams to conduct salvage excavations in Sudan before the sites meet their watery graves in the coming years. Yet, the very nature of salvage excavations raises important ethical questions. What ethical responsibilities, if any, do foreign archaeologists have when conducting salvage operations? Does their involvement in these missions facilitate the legitimatization of dam projects and subsequent impact on the environment and cultural landscape, as well as possible human rights abuses?

On the other hand, if these sites are going to be flooded forever shouldn’t we rescue and recover as many artifacts and information as possible? “We can’t be debating ethics while dams are built,” argues Neal Spencer, an archaeologist at the British Museum. In addition, archaeologists have been successful in generating public awareness to the point where foreign funders have pulled out of international projects, as was the case with the construction of the Ilisu Dam in Turkey. (Unfortunately, the international community was unable to stop the construction of the dam, which is scheduled for completion in 2013.)

Sudanese officials argue the dam projects are instrumental in exploiting the country’s resources for human development and necessary to “safeguard Sudan’s remaining water share allotted in the 1959 Nile Water Agreement.” The statement speaks to the recent signing of a new water-sharing agreement by six of the ten Nile Basin countries. Under the current 1959 Agreement, Egypt and Sudan are allotted the lion’s share of resources; however, the new 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement seeks a more equitable distribution of water between the countries. Egypt and Sudan have refused to sign the new framework agreement, vowing to retain their historical water rights. Their refusal to sign directly reflects the decades-long struggle between the basin countries for greater control of resources, a struggle that directly plays into the decision to build the dams and ultimately the future of Sudan’s magnificent cultural heritage.

I am Greek and I want to go home

The Independent Movement for the Repatriation of Looted Greek Antiquities has produced a video: ‘I am Greek and I Want to go Home’

Photography, Concept and Artwork by Ares Kalogeropoulos

Original Music (“Rise”) by Ares Kalogeropoulos

It can be seen alongside this one, take a good look at this message to the British:

Help make them go viral.

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