Past and future

The civil war in Syria war threatens to do irreparable damage to the country's archaeological treasures.

When Unesco described the Great Mosque of Aleppo as "one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world", few would have begged to differ. The landmark12th-century building was an icon of Islamic architecture. As well as a place of worship, it served as a document of history, a national treasure and a testament to the breathtaking beauty that architecture can inspire.

Until two weeks ago, that is, when it was ravaged by fire. Now, the famous stonewash courtyard is charred by flames. The domed interiors, hung with gold chandeliers, lie in rubble. Enamelled mosaic tiles are scattered on the floor alongside broken windows and empty ammunition cases.

The fate of the Ummayad mosque is becoming a sadly familiar story for the cultural heritage of Syria. Earlier this month, the centuries-old Aleppo souk was destroyed, adding to an ever-increasing list of archaeological devastation.

There are six UNESCO world heritage sites in Syria – sites so important to human history that they have an international mandate to protect them; not one of them has so far escaped the conflict unscathed.

The destruction to historic sites is one of the less-reported on results of the civil war in Syria, and understandably so – next to the devastating human cost, it seems almost callous to worry about the fate of inanimate objects. Yet as Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO noted, “the historic and highly symbolic value of this heritage … [needs to be preserved] for the whole of humanity.”

It is difficult to overstate Syria’s archaeological significance – the landscape is nothing short of a palimpsest of world history. Throughout the country, the remains and ruins of building chart the rise and fall of centuries over the millennia. From Neolithic fragments to Bronze age friezes, Roman temples, Mesopotamian trade routes, early Christian churches and some of the most magnificent Islamic art ever created, Syria can rightly be regarded as a living museum. But now, these pages of history are now in serious danger of being wiped for ever.

Syria is a signatory to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, meaning that there is an international incentive to intervene to protect its cultural heritage. Whilst many NGOs and archeological organisations are campaigning for this, the scale of the conflict has largely restricted their actions so far to mere lobbying. UNESCO has released several statements calling for appeals, with the hope of being able to send someone in to assess the damage if the situation permits. Smaller groups are doing their best to publicise their damage as well, and the Syrian-based Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) are actively working on monitoring the situation. Yet, when dealing with a crisis of this magnitude – when the safety and protection of civilians cannot even be secured – people are increasingly asking what hope there can be for architecture?

As Julien Anfruns, the Director General of ICOM (the International Council of Museums) notes, “When we deal with these emergencies, our first action is to evaluate [the damage] …when we are in places in which it is very difficult to intervene because of combats, satellite monitoring is really instrumental.”

Indeed, satellite monitoring of certain cultural sites has been deployed in some areas of Syria already, but the high financial cost and relatively low priority of this means that it offers a far from conclusive picture of the damage.

In response to this, alternate, practical ways to chart the destruction are developing. Syrians, concerned about their heritage, are increasingly using ground-level footage taken on mobile phones and video-cameras to survey the most important sites. One of the most extensive is the Facebook page "Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger". Founded by several Syrian and European archaeologists, the group is endeavoring to compile as accurate a picture as possible of damage to historic sites through posted photographs and eye-witness reports. It is proving to be an invaluable resource.

Lawrence Rothfield, former director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, believes that new technologies offer some of the most effective ways to tackle the crisis. “What we need at the moment is real-time or close-to-real-time evidence, which cell phone technology can provide at a much lower cost [than satellites]”.

“If the warring parties know that they can be indicted for war crimes based on imagery showing they were the first to move onto a protected site or that they are enabling and profiting from the looting of sites, they may think twice”.

Damage from shelling and gunfire is only one of the hazards affecting Syria’s cultural heritage. The almost incalculable international value of such scholarly objects means that looting is a huge danger. As Emma Cunliffe, a doctoral student in archaeology at Durham University, who has compiled one of the most definitive reports on the damage in Syria so far, observes: “Looting is going to be a huge problem. There are a lot of videos online of looting at the world heritage, and that’s very worrying because they’re the prominent ones, and I’ve heard circulating reports of damage at smaller sites as well”. Previous experience with looting, notably in post-conflict Iraq suggests that future prospects are bleak. “In Iraq, these looter gangs were getting up to 200 people, and the problem is you can put resources in place at one site – even if you did have the resources to scare off two hundred guys – they would just go to the  next one. And you can’t have two hundred people at every site”.

Like the Ummayad mosque, many of the most important Syrian sites are built in militarily strategic locations (the crusaders had reasons for their geographic specifications), and these are most likely to be appropriated by one or both of the warring parties in the current conflict. Even with international awareness increasing, one things is guaranteed: as long as the conflict continues, damage to cultural sites will continue. Rothfield says: “The future of Syria's past looks very grim.”

A Syrian rebel inside the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo (Photograph: GettyImages)

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.

@ms_kamila_k

 

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder