Monday, February 18, 2013

Syria ... Looting?

I'm still in Turkey, but felt the need to quickly clarify some press reports about looting in Syria. I try to keep www.LootBusters.com free from propaganda, and rely on journalists I trust as well as archaeologists.

I heard, for example, that Cairo Museum had been looted within minutes of the news breaking - and even though some "cultural property specialists" on Facebook trashed me at the time for "spreading propaganda" I turned out to be right.

With Libya, I kept saying that looting was almost non-existent, despite reports that Tripoli Museum had been looted ... with the help of Hafed Walda we got David Smith of The Guardian as the first journalist in and, surprise surprise, he wrote that the only damage was to the Gaddafi Propaganda Galleries.

That intro is my way of saying that one has to be very careful when it comes to propaganda about the looting of museums and archaeological sites - particularly when it comes from an unpopular regime fighting to maintain their grip on power, and the blame is laid at the feet of the opposition.

This recent article, for example, bears little respect to the reality I am hearing about:
Syrian rebels loot artifacts to raise money for fight against Assad - The Washington Post

Yes, some small museums have been destroyed or severely damaged in the cross-fires, but other than the site museum at Dura Europos, none have been deliberately destroyed by either side. Ditto archaeological sites; the video of "looting" at Palmyra making the rounds shows soldiers touching, maybe admiring, sculptures in the site's storage area. 

I'll discuss the article in greater detail when I'm back, and the rebels are no angels, but this is mostly a mixture of pro-Assad regime propaganda and speculation by cultural property management agencies trying to justify their existence. My experience is that UNESCO refused to help save a site in Syria, and that they are better desk-jockeys, writing reports rather than actually getting off their arses to do something to help. My experience is also that the people selling antiquities, or trying to, are from the Assad regime - probably to fund a future outside Syria (they asked for payment to a Swiss bank).

Then yesterday the Assad regime's minister of culture claimed the Odysseus mosaics were on the Lebanese border, having been stolen by the rebels ... Eeek. They also said a gilt statuette from Hama was there too ...

The Odysseus Mosaics, unless another set has come to light, are those from Apamea. Some of the set went to Brussels a long time ago, and some stayed in Syria.

David Meadows and I discussed it, and he wrote this post:

(Not Recently) Looted Odyssey Mosaics Followup! � rogueclassicism

The Aramaic gilt statuette was in the Interpol database as stolen from Damascus [sic] in July 2011 - ie over 19 months ago, and before the civil war broke out, so to blame the rebels is a bit of a stretch. Loot Busters has better photos of it here.

We also have photos of the mosaics from Apamea at Apamea Museum and at Hama Museum:

Apamea Mosaics from Hama Museum at Risk
Mosaics from Apamea at Apamea Museum


The mosaics were 'looted' last year ... or not: actually, the very obtuse UNESCO press release re-written by Interpol had them as "at risk of being looted" - hopefully they won't be, or have not been, but we included images so that people were aware of them.

Syria is not as bad as people claim in terms of archaeological looting, but much worse than people will admit in terms of slaughters and lives lost. Souks and mosques in city centres have, literally, been caught in the cross-firing, and are in terrible shape; archaeological sites tend to be outside the centres.

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