Stone cold

Aside from all the lives it’s extinguished, the Assad regime has destroyed or damaged multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites across Syria. Why do archaeologists and professed heritage-lovers continue to laud it as a defender of civilization?

All nations look to their pasts, often as much as to their futures. National history combines elements of myth with the familiar, and provides stories which animate and galvanize. History can unify. It can awe. And the luster of civilization past can obscure or beautify a present which is less edifying. Contemporary improprieties can be well hidden among ancient stones.

Modern Middle Eastern states make much of their pasts. They do this for obvious reasons. Nations each cultivate senses of history, sometimes distilled into the parallel concept of heritage. History and heritage are frequently sources of pride, and, in grander visions, part of the compact made between the present and the past. States without democracy, where the connection between people and power is artificial and oppressive, turn to history and the past in search of justification and drive.

The ancient world provides a particular spur, one which combines fiction and fact. Twentieth-century Europe saw this tactic in constant employment, with Italian and German fascists finding justification in an ancient past, and similar things are in common use in the modern Arab world. Egyptian regimes have for decades traded their ancient past for present-day esteem. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has made especial use of Syria’s archaeology—to bolster its image and appeal to foreign nations.

Its tactics can be seen in a recent article about the reopening of Damascus' National Museum. The piece, ostensibly about concerns far from the present, includes quotes from a Polish expert who speaks of the “liberation” of Palmyra, a Semitic-Roman ruin which had been repeatedly fought over by the regime and the Islamic State (ISIS). It is not unreasonable to celebrate the UNESCO World Heritage site being recaptured from ISIS, an organization known for its destructive iconoclasm and willingness to use ancient ruins in profane media rituals. But to consider Palmyra’s re-occupation by Russia and the regime pure “liberation” seems too much.

Palmyra’s battles did the Assad state no end of favors. When ISIS destroyed parts of the site and used its Roman amphitheatre as the location for murder as spectacle, every one of its claimed opponents was seen in bright contrast to this overt barbarism.

When Palmyra was fought over, a new level of jeopardy allowed the site to become not only present in the global press, but an imprint of the wider anti-ISIS campaign. Civilization on one hand; savagery on the other, fighting over a ruined and ancient territory. The eventual recapture of Palmyra by the regime—after several false starts—elicited jubilation from some prominent quarters. Britain’s recently-resigned foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, a soi disant classicist who was then mayor of London, produced a column for the Daily Telegraph with a title including the words “Bravo for Assad,” urging the ruthless tyranny to “keep going.”

That the regime destroyed much of Palmyra in its efforts to recapture the city was neither here nor there. But Assad’s significant destruction of Syrian heritage—seen in the shelling to pieces of Homs’ Old City and much of historic Aleppo; and the damage done to the UNESCO-listed Crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers; the Roman-era World Heritage Site at Busra al-Sham in Daraa Province; the Byzantine “Dead Cities” in Idlib Province; and numerous other priceless remains—demonstrates that, for the regime, when power is the ambition and violence the mechanism, heritage is no less dispensable than the lives of those residing alongside it.

It is reasonable for true enthusiasts to be affected emotionally by the fates of their favorite ancient remains. When Khaled al-Asaad, an archaeologist, was killed in Palmyra by ISIS for apparently attempting to protect its secret treasures, disgust at the crime and its implications was as natural a reaction as breathing.

But that some in the West actively used archaeology to affect the absolution of the Assad regime speaks less generously of their characters.

The strong may not truly get to write history, but they enjoy posing as its protectors.

In Iraq, Nineveh and Babylon faced the same threat as the sites in Syria deemed idolatrous and apostatical. The Islamic State destroyed antiquities and holy places, selling that which they did not smash. But the eventual rescue of some of these sites was accomplished by sectarian groups whose worst excesses could be mentioned in the same breath as ISIS’ own crimes.

A degree of political distance is not only expected of archaeologists; it is essential. In that sense, the continuity between the ancient and contemporary world can be maintained in straitened circumstances. But those circumstances cannot be entirely embraced. The antiquities ministry of Egypt has done sterling work not only in preservation, but propaganda. And one could happily argue that Palmyra and Mosul and Aleppo and Damascus are far too precious to be left in the hands of Baathists and other sectarian forces whose sole saving grace is not flying a black flag.

ISIS twinned genocide with iconoclasm and did so viscerally. Any who posed as defenders of ancient monuments were afforded special significance in light of that effort. But the Turkmen and Assyrian militiamen who guarded sites in northern Iraq with obsolete weapons and little ammunition were able to extract less favourable press from the endeavor than the Syrian regime.

Archaeology is a useful stand-in for high culture and civilization of various kinds, and in many cultivated Western eyes, the Baathist sort of civilization is seen to be superior, in refinement if not in activity, to the jihadist kind.

These stories have been central to the Assad regime's outward-facing propaganda, twinned with its attempts to be perceived on the side of “culture” of various kinds; the kinds Westerners associate with leisure, peace, and refinement.

This was portrayed as contrasting with the regime's opponents, all of whom it painted with the jihadists’ colors as radicals and vandals.

After Palmyra was finally retaken from ISIS, it served as the location for a performance by a Russian orchestra. But this association with calm is skin deep, just as any attempt to portray Syria as returning to “normal” is unreasonable and likely insidious. It invests the regime with a stability it does not possess and a legitimacy it does not deserve.

Archaeology has long been used, directly or indirectly, as a projection of power. Museums filled with captured spoils are exhibitions of political and military might, as are confected stories about ancient antecedents.

When Napoleon set out to conquer Egypt, academics travelled with his Armée d'Orient. These learned men helped in the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and other treasures unseen for centuries. But their memory and their like appeal to a certain breed of modern Orientalist. Their ilk has been resurrected since, pressed into service by dictatorships as keen to win wars of image as to establish military and political control. To a certain species of neo-Orientalist, these appeals not only elicit grudging tolerance, but shouts of “Bravo – and keep going.”