Earlier this December, various media outlets reported that ISIS had retaken Palmyra. Other than a general expression of concern, no details were reported. Clearly this is a terrible thing for those who care about art, and our common cultural history. Here is a link to the article from the 12th of December:
The Art Newspaper December 12, 2016
The New York Times reported this as well, and a few days later, a strange small piece relating how the US destroyed 14 tanks left behind by the Syrian army when the ISIS retook Palmyra:
So the brief hope kindled when Palmyra was liberated from ISIS, has been crushed. Not only did the Syrian army lose Palmyra in the first place, they couldn't hold it, and their weapons were taken. The incompetence and impotence of the Syrian army has been proven once again. The U.S. bombed the tanks to keep them from being used against our allies in the area.
Why does this matter, and why am I writing about this?
There has been a great deal of talk from the U.S. government blaming the antiquities trade for funding ISIS. This position dovetails nicely with the cultural balkanists, archeologists and scholars in the field, who feel that source nations should retain every scrap of antiquity found in their borders, irregardless of their ability to preserve or study them. As I have reported in an earlier blog post here:
Not only were the government officials from Homeland security blaming the antiquity market for funding ISIS, but pieces they claimed to have come from there were being repatriated to Syria and Iraq. So states that have failed to protect their citizens and cannot even maintain their territorial integrity are somehow to be trusted with ancient works of art that their own inability to govern had permitted to be stolen in the first place? If one is concerned about the fate of these works of art, this seems wrong headed, if noble in intent.
I am not going to rehash what I said in the earlier blog post, but clearly ISIS is a new kind of threat to culture, one that the West is unable to deal with, both militarily and policy wise. We have no effective strategy to stop ISIS and its cultural destruction. Rather than admit how powerless we are, the U.S. seems to feel that condemning the market and seizing objects is going to show they are doing something to protect Syria's cultural patrimony. Instead, the U.S. is endangering it again, by showing a complete lack of concern for the objects they do seize.
Clearly the cultural legacy of this part of the world, at least in Syria and Iraq are in danger. We need a different attitude and a more realistic nuanced approach to the market and the pieces that make it out. During the cultural destruction in Tibet by the Chinese in the 1950's, the Dalai Lama said we should treat the art objects as refugees and give them safe shelter. Why aren't we thinking the same way about art from other conflict regions?
I do not condone the illegal trade in antiquities but the alternative is not to condemn that art market completely. The rational and right thing to do would be for nations to allow for a legal trade in antiquities that can be controlled. However, we are talking about a war zone with a dysfunctional government with Syria and Iraq. Perhaps we should encourage the trade, as at least those pieces that make it out have a better chance of surviving than those left behind! I lump Iraq in with Syria as it seems to be only marginally better off at the moment. I expect Iraq to fall to ISIS or another form of extremism or schismatic civil war before too long.
I don't know what the answer is, but I do know the danger to the cultural patrimony in this area is not the antiquity market, it is war, chaos, poverty, and ISIS.