Syria’s director of antiquities: ‘Palmyra is in big danger’

Friday 29/05/2015
Maamoun Abdel-Karim

Damascus - Syrian Director-General of Antiquities and Museums Maamoum Abdel-Karim says he is hopeful that civil society and local commu­nities will protect the millenia-old World Heritage site of Palmyra from looting and destruction at the hands of Islamic State (ISIS) militants.

“Palmyra is in big danger… It is now a hostage in the hands of the so-called Islamic State and the is­sue at stake is how to liberate that hostage,” Abdel-Karim said in an interview with The Arab Weekly in Damascus.

ISIS captured Palmyra in mid- May and has been systematically executing hundreds of the ancient town’s residents.

According to Abdel-Karim, not all hope is lost for salvaging the site, described by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of the most im­portant cultural centres of ancient civilisation.

“We still have a glimmer of hope that popular pressure and action by local civil society will succeed in keeping gangs and thieves away from the site and preventing its de­struction,” he said.

Concerted efforts between the directorate and local communities, he pointed out, have succeeded in protecting cultural heritage sites in several parts of Syria since the out­break of the conflict, now in its fifth year.

“We have 2,500 employees who hail from all over Syria and these have been active in mobilising lo­cal civil society, tribes and religious and community leaders for the pro­tection of the sites in their regions,” Abdel-Karim said. He cited the pres­ervation of the Mosaics’ Museum of Maarat al-Naaman, in north-west­ern Syria, as an example of success.

He said he hopes such success could be replicated in Palmyra, de­scribed by historians as the “Venice of the Sands”. Sprawling over a 120- acre site in the desert, the ancient metropolis, known as Tadmur in Arabic, comprises ancient temples, a Roman amphitheatre and majestic colonnades.

The looting of antiquities in Palmyra, as well as other archaeological sites in Syria, is an old phenom­enon, though it reached unprec­edented propor­tions in the recent years of unrest.

“Our biggest fear at present is to see these gangs enter into an agreement with the Islamic State, which will allow them to ransack the place,” Abdel-Karim stressed. “ISIS gun­men are totally dedicated to fight­ing and moving from one place to another, whereas, the antiquities’ gangs are the ones conducting the illegal excavations and the looting for ISIS.” Another danger hanging over Palmyra is possible revenge action by ISIS, as its fighters did in northern Iraq where they used sledgehammers to destroy artefacts and monuments at the ancient site of Nimrud and in Mosul museum, Abdel-Karim said.

“We pray to God that we will not reach that stage, otherwise it will be a crime against the city and an eter­nal loss for humanity,” he said.

On a brighter note, the Syrian of­ficial pointed out that thousands of artefacts in museums and on ar­chaeological sites, including that of Palmyra, have been transported to secure locations. “Amid all the trag­edies and darkness we have been living in for the past years, there is one consolation that our heritage and collective memory has been preserved so far,” he said.

But he said he continues to worry about the fate of big monuments. “The protection of these monu­ments is the responsibility of the whole world and not just the Syrian people,” he said.