Saturday, 22 August 2015

Death in Syria

What more could I add to the discussion after UNESCO has commemorated Khaled al-Asaad and many illustrious scholars, such as Dan Snow have had their say? The execution of Khaled al-Asaad has been described in a minute detail in various papers, such as the Independent, the Guardian and on BBC. The venerable Howard Williams in his ArchaeoDeath blog already analysed why somebody would like to kill archaeologists. There has been a web article by Kristina Killgrove describing the response from the archaeologists. My Finnish colleague Sanna Aro-Valjus, an assyriologist, hittitologist, classical archaeologist and a general Middle East specialist from the University of Helsinki, has already commemmorised her meeting with the Syrian scholar in Palmyra. A few Finnish colleagues have remembered their visits to Palmyra, part of the tour to commemorate the opening of the Finnish Institute in Damascus that sadly coincided with the prelude of the Syrian civil war. The institute had to move from the newly restored old-fashioned town house in Old Town Damascus in a few years after it had opened.

The sudden emergence of the first martyr archaeologist coincides with a time when there is a lively discussion on Mediterranean population movements going on in Finland and many other countries. These discussions have partly been carried out in a nasty, right-wing xenophobic tone where people wonder aloud why young men flee countries like Syria, Libya and Afghanistan and the people fleeing mostly Syria, Iraq and other fighting hotspots – or coming from sub-Saharan Africa, known for desertification, increased militant activity and other problems – are lumped all together as ‘migrants’ in the media. People wonder why would people flee places like Syria where the ethnic matrix of the villages in a rich cultural and religious mosaic has collapsed and different fractions and militant groups are fighting non-democratic ‘central’ government and each other with unsurprising collateral damage. Journalists have pointed out that young men did flee Karjala when it became part of the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War and if we had not helped those people, who conveniently were our own countrymen, our history in Finland had been quite different.

Khaled al-Asaad was part of the establishment in the Assad Syria, but he is revered for his work for his site. He was an old man and his son, who was still working in Palmyra, was apparently spared and is now in Damascus, if we can believe governmental reports. He was clearly respected among the Palmyra researchers and others who visited the site and he was a local man, proud of his own heritage. His death was potentially an exemplary one – at least all archaeologists were not executed. But he was apparently tortured before the execution while questioned about the ‘hidden treasures’ and ‘gold’. This suggests that ultimately, this was all about the money.

Howard asked in his blog ‘who kills archaeologists’ and rightfully pointed out how illicit trade of antiquities feeds violence and crime. He names bigots and fundamentalists. Al-Asaad was a symbol of the old regime, with his contacts to Damascus and knowledge of everything at the site. The Caliphate erases the churches and monasteries of the other faiths in their areas in Syria and Iraq and they say this is in order to create a religious state and they are demolishing the shrines and idols of the infidels. However, their actions actually tell another story. About men wanting absolute power and being able to fulfil all their wishes of violence and carnal pleasures along the way. They can drive people to slavery and use executions, shock, horror and rape as tactics in terrorising people under their power. They raise funds for their ‘state’ with antiquities and I would not be surprised if drugs move around as well. That is after all what Afghanistan lives on. Drugs, illicit antiquities and humans are the merchandise and trades all criminal organisations dabble with and they bring in currency. One can only look at what kept the militant organisations in Northern Ireland and South America going.

Now we have an archaeologist who was killed because he was ultimately an archaeologist. Suddenly, one of us has been murdered and it was because the ancient stones (or ‘the treasures’) are so important in this context. But his violent execution and the way his body was handled in order to scare and give the inhabitants of Palmyra and other areas a warning stands also as a monument to those nameless people in Syria and Iraq and Libya who have lost their lives and when fleeing the papers call ‘migrant’ in a dehumanising way. It has been pointed out how countless numbers of people cannot leave whichever troublesome area they are in Syria but some of them engage in humanitarian acts in wherever they are. These are the people we normally do not hear, the normal Syrians who show courage, mercy and compassion.

The death of Khaled al-Asaad makes suddenly the whole situation in Syria even more personally felt. The narrative is not any more just about abstract heritage or a series of stones bulldozed. It is now about people dying for what they stand for and what they stand for is what I and my colleagues stand for: the preservation of the past for and to the future. Our task is not possible without people, so we as archaeologists could do worse than show respect and compassion not only towards those who are our fellow archaeologists, but also towards those who do not get media attention, who preserve the remnants of the civilised society among the carnage and turmoil, who flee the persecution and are in the mercy of traffickers, the sea and the militants and may enter Europe. We should remember them when the politicians and media talk about the nameless masses who dare to try to survive and risk drowning in the process.

No, I did not visit Palmyra or meet Dr al-Asaad, but I visited other Syrian places and met other Syrian archaeologists, however briefly. Now I and we can at least show some solidarity towards the Syrians. It is cheap and easy to spare a few moments to write a few lines or share a social media post or image in the safety of our own homes.

I was going to write about Roman roads in the Midlands until the 18th of August, 2015. For obvious reasons, those photographs and thoughts can wait another week. Sometimes the world events take over the aspects of our lives.

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