Last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris by forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) should serve as a warning to the world’s leaders that global cultural patrimony in any city or museum could be targeted for destruction. What’s to stop extremists from demolishing the Louvre Museum or the Eiffel Tower?
Last month, on Oct. 1, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles announced the acquisition of a group of 47 photographs taken in Syria in 1864 by the French naval officer Louis Vignes. The images include the first photos of the ancient Roman ruins of Palmyra, which have been systematically destroyed by the forces of ISIL during the past six months. Famous buildings such as the Temples of Baalshamin and Bel have been dynamited, and now exist only in the documentary record.
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Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors Photo Archives has an important role to play in preserving the memory of Palmyra, in the form of seven albums containing 642 photographs of historic and archaeological sites in Syria. My research on the albums revealed that they are connected to three expeditions led by the Princeton University archaeology professor Howard Crosby Butler (1872-1922) from 1899 to 1909. The albums were part of the Edgar Lee Hewett Collection at the Museum of New Mexico, and were transferred to the Photo Archives from the Laboratory of Anthropology in 1976. Although Hewett’s papers at the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, at the Palace of the Governors, contain no reference to the photos or to Prof. Butler, we can still fill in some of the back story about this hidden treasure.
Edgar Lee Hewett (1865-1946) was the founding director of both the Archaeological Institute of America’s School of American Archaeology (1907, now Santa Fe’s School for Advanced Research) and the Museum of New Mexico (1909). In the years leading to the foundation of the school, Hewett lobbied both Eastern academics and members of Congress in favor of legislation that would protect the nation’s archaeological heritage, a process that culminated with the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906. These activities introduced Hewett to members of the Eastern academic establishment, including Butler, and the same people were involved with the higher echelons of the Archaelogical Institute of America (AIA) as well as in the foundation of School of American Archaeology. It should be noted that for almost 30 years before the School of American Archaeology’s foundation, its parent, AIA, had sponsored investigations in Europe, the Middle East, and Egypt. Although Hewett’s papers include no letters either to or from Butler, it seems likely that the men were acquainted. Butler was a leader of the AIA, and like Hewett, was a frequent contributor to and attendee of the institute’s annual meetings. As secretary of the AIA in 1918, Butler delivered a report on the destruction of archaeological sites in Syria and elsewhere in the former Ottoman Turkish Empire. He hoped that with the upcoming World War I peace conference, there might be some discussion of the importance of preserving the region’s archaeological heritage.
Butler’s expeditions to Syria (1899-1900, 1904-1905, 1909) were intended to revisit sites first documented in 1860-1862 by the French explorer Charles-Jean-Melchior de Vogüé. The expeditions documented more than 200 ruins, including Roman, Nabatean, and Palmyrene sites, as well as early Christian churches, forts, and even abandoned mosques. Princeton University retains the Butler expedition archives, including more than 1,500 photographs, the original negatives, as well as field notes and reports. The Palace of the Governors Photo Archives albums are labeled with both numbers on the prints and with typed labels affixed below the images. These correspond precisely with those at Princeton, except that Santa Fe’s set is incomplete. Although the albums are handmade objects, the uniformity and repetition of labeling practices suggests the intent to create multiple sets of images. While the albums include no clues about their photographers, published accounts relate that the images were taken by Robert Garrett and Frederick A. Norris, who were the surveyors on the 1899-1900 and 1904-1905 expeditions, respectively. So far, I have been unable to learn who made the photos during the last expedition, in 1909. Butler was not only the overall director of the three expeditions, but he also gathered information about the art and architecture encountered by the team. He was a popular professor of art and archaeology at Princeton, and was the founding director of the university’s School of Architecture. There is no indication why Hewett owned just a partial set of the Butler images. Another group of 542 photos, from the 1899 campaign, can be found in the Russell Sturgis Photographic Collection at Washington University, St. Louis. While we may never be able to completely explain how this historically significant archive arrived in Santa Fe, in many ways, it represents a lost world. The photos were taken by pioneer archaeologists at sites such as Alexandretta, celebrated in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And as we all know, many of the sites that Butler (and Indiana Jones) visited exist now only as photographic memories.
Just after ISIL captured the city of Mosul, Iraq, in early June 2014, its forces began a systematic destruction of archaeological, religious, and cultural heritage sites. Mosul’s ancient Assyrian Christian and Chaldean Catholic churches were dynamited, as were a large number of Islamic shrines, mostly built at the grave sites of historical figures. The Prophet Jonah Mosque, reportedly built over the tomb of the Old Testament figure, was destroyed, as was one of the Prophet Daniel’s tombs (his other tomb is out of harm’s way in Iran). ISIL’s iconoclasm continued this year, and expanded to embrace and obliterate Iraq’s archaeological treasures. Estimates place the number of archaeological sites in Iraq at around 10,000, and the country was home to a series of storied empires, from the Sumerians to the Akkadians, and from the Babylonians to the Assyrians. While many of the most famous ruins have been partially excavated, and significant artworks removed to museums in both Europe and Iraq, much more remained on site, above and below ground. In February of this year, ISIL circulated photos and a video of men destroying ancient sculptures in the Mosul Museum. These were followed by reports and further documentation of the destruction of the archaeological sites of Nimrud, Hatra, Dur-Sharrukin, and Nineveh.
Since 2013, ISIL forces have seized much of Syria, effectively erasing much of the border with Iraq. In May, 2015, as its armies threatened the city of Tadmur, with its famous ruins of Palmyra, the US refused to order air strikes to prevent the city’s capture, as the gesture would appear to show support for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Palmyra is located 210 kilometers northeast of Damascus. On May 29, The Guardian and other news outlets reported that ISIL commander Abu Laith al-Saudi told a Syrian radio station that “while the statues the miscreants used to pray to would be pulverized, the historic city would be preserved.” Palmyra was a Semitic settlement, whose people were Amorites, Arabs, and Arameans. The city was a caravan stop for travelers crossing the Syrian Desert, and the Palmyrenes were key players in the Silk Road trade, linking the Mediterranean with China. In 64 BC, Palmyra became one of the richest cities in the new Roman province of Syria, carved out of the old Seleucid Empire by Gen. Pompey the Great. The city prospered as a Roman province and later a colony, and from the AD 190s it was ruled by kings who swore fealty to the emperor in Rome. Palmyra’s most memorable ruler was Queen Zenobia, who in 270 began to conquer neighboring territories, ostensibly acting on Rome’s behalf. Her forces seized the Roman province of Arabia, and then Egypt, where she was crowned queen. After she invaded Anatolia, today in eastern Turkey, the Roman emperor Aurelian realized that Zenobia was acting in her own interests and not his. In 271, Aurelian reconquered the Palmyrene Empire, captured Zenobia, and took her back to Rome as a prisoner. After another revolt, Aurelian destroyed the city of Palmyra.
In an article published in The New Yorker in late July, Lawrence Wright noted that one explanation for ISIL preserving the Palmyra ruins is that Zenobia is considered by some writers and thinkers in the Muslim world to have been a tribal queen of Arab, and not of Greek descent, and that her resistance to Roman rule foreshadowed the conquests and rapid spread of Islam four centuries later. As we now know, Zenobia’s memory could not protect the ruins of Palmyra. First to be dynamited was the tomb of Mohammed Bin Ali, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Imam Ali. Then ISIL forces destroyed the shrine over the tomb of the Sufi scholar Nizar Abu Bahaa Eddine. On June 27, the Lion of al-L¯at was demolished. It was a well-preserved stone sculpture believed to represent the consort of al-L¯at, a pre-Islamic deity. The last week of August saw the demolition of some of Palmyra’s best-preserved structures, the Temples of Baalshamin and Bel. Satellite photos of the latter show that just a few columns remain from the large complex. ISIL forces also destroyed the Tower of Elahbel, an important Palmyrene tomb. And most recently, at the beginning of October, the Arch of Triumph was leveled.
Why is ISIL demolishing examples of global cultural heritage? From the beginning, ISIL spokespeople have explained the iconoclasm as a response to idolatry, and many Westerners who are not Muslims would seem to believe that there is an implacable hatred of images in Islam. But such is not the case. In an article published in 2002 in academic art history’s flagship journal, The Art Bulletin, scholar Finbarr Barry Flood argued that the destruction of the colossal Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, by the Taliban in 2001 was a calculated political act rather than evidence of an ancient and pervasive animosity towards images in Islam. Flood notes that the opposition to images is found not in the Quran, but rather in the Hadith, the collection of quotations of the prophet Muhammad (570-632). The Hadith generally forbids any representations that have shadows, because they could usurp divine creative powers or lead to idolatry and polytheism. Oddly, press reports about ISIL’s destruction of cultural sites during the past two years have not made reference to the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas. These iconoclastic episodes would seem to derive from political expediency at least as much as from a particular interpretation of Muhammad’s edicts about images.
Other actions of ISIL are less open to interpretation. On Aug. 19, Al Jazeera and other news outlets reported that ISIL had beheaded archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who had been charged with superintending Palmyra for decades. According to reports, he refused to reveal the location of objects excavated from Palmyra. Almost from the beginning of ISIL’s ascendency, there have been reports that the organization’s agents have been involved in systematic looting of archaeological sites intended to supply objects which might be sold to raise capital. On Aug. 26, the FBI issued a warning that dealers and collectors of Middle Eastern antiquities should exercise extra caution when buying objects, because there was credible evidence of ISIL looting in both Syria and Iraq. It should be said, however, that industrial looting of Iraqi archaeological sites did not begin with ISIL, but instead can be connected to the first Gulf War, in 1991. In Syria, besides Palmyra, many other sites have been looted since the inception of the civil war in 2011, including the Roman border outpost of Dura-Europos, called the Pompeii of the Middle East because it was buried nearly intact after its defeat by the Sassanian Empire in AD 257. Dura-Europos is in eastern Syria, on the Euphrates River, in a province that Assad’s government forces still control. But recent research by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) using satellite imagery shows the ruins now pockmarked by thousands of looters’ pits. Overall, the pattern seems to be to destroy charismatic ancient pagan ruins, Christian churches, and even mosques, while at the same time emptying the sites of salable objects. While no major objects that can be clearly identified as looted by ISIL have appeared at public auctions, investigations published by The Guardian, National Geographic, and other outlets have identified large financial transactions connected to the sale of plundered objects as well as artifacts recently imported to London that almost certainly originate from the conflict zone.
What is to be done? Although national governments and international organizations like UNESCO have issued condemnations of ISIL’s destruction of Syrian and Iraqi archaeological patrimony, nothing is stopping the iconoclasm. But a few private organizations are laboring against the tide. In August, CNN reported that the Institute for Digital Archaeology, jointly sponsored by Harvard and Oxford Universities and Dubai’s Museum of the Future, began handing out 5,000 inexpensive ($27) digital cameras designed to make 3-D images of imperiled architecture in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and Yemen. Project organizers, including Oxford physicist Alexy Karenowska, who designed the camera, hope to compile 1 million images by the end of 2016. To do so they are using the archaeological equivalent of crowdsourcing, sending the cameras into the Middle East using existing networks of scholars and NGO personnel. The teams are working to document a secret list of the most important works of cultural heritage. Efforts are also underway to use 3-D printers to recreate works destroyed by ISIL. Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari, co-founder and assistant curator at San Francisco’s Pier 9/Autodesk has begun recreating lost objects from the Mosul Museum. Allahyari intends the project, entitled Material Speculation: ISIS, to be an act of resistance, with the general public eventually to have access to the files necessary to print copies of a massive Assyrian lamassu, or winged bull and other sculptures (that is, if you have a very large 3-D printer). While we are waiting for ISIL’s defeat, for the crowd to amass the million images of endangered sites, and for Allayari to print more copies of the lamassus, we can take cold comfort in the fact that the Butler albums at the Photo Archives preserve a few memories of Palmyra and many other sites lost in time. ◀