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The men saving Syria’s treasures from Isis

A remarkable group of archaeologists are battling to save the country’s ancient artifacts.

On 19 May this year, the ancient city of Palmyra was about to fall. Jihadist fighters were advancing in pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine-guns. They were from the group that calls itself Islamic State, also known as Da’esh and Isis.

Khalil Hariri, an archaeology expert who worked at the Syrian city’s museum, could hear the sounds of the fighting getting closer. Grunting and sweating, he and four friends kept on manhandling wooden crates out of the door of the museum and down to three trucks that were parked outside.

Bullets hit the outside of the museum, sounding like enraged insects as they hissed over their heads. Mortars exploded nearby, sending hot pieces of shrapnel fizzing through the air, blowing shards of wood off the trees and turning them into daggers. The men bundled the last crate into the nearest truck. As they jumped in after it, with the vehicles careering out of Museum Square, a bullet hit Khalil. Shrapnel wounded two of the others.

They drove fast down the road to Homs, away from Da’esh, as they call Isis, not even stopping to treat the wounded until they were well clear of Palmyra.

Against all odds and under heavy fire, five middle-aged men had managed to thwart the new barbarians of Islamic State. In scenes reminiscent of the George Clooney film The Monuments Men, about an army unit that tries to save art treasures hidden by the Nazis, Hariri and his friends had rescued Palmyra Museum’s priceless collection of artefacts, the legacy of one of the world’s earliest civilisations. Ten minutes after the men left, Isis fighters entered the museum. The display cases were empty. Nothing was left inside, except big statues that were too heavy to lift without a crane.

Who were the men who saved the treasures of Palmyra? The first, Khalil Hariri, was the museum’s director. When he left in May, his wife stayed behind in the city with his young son. So rapid was the Isis advance that he had to leave them behind and it took nearly a month to get them to safety. When they were reunited, she told him that the jihadists stormed out of the museum and into their house 30 metres away, looking for him and demanding to know what he had done with the collection.

When I met him this month in Damascus, Khalil inhaled his cigarette smoke to the base of his lungs. “I’m going to get a harsh sentence, if they get hold of me,” he said. He knows this because after the jihadists escaped with the few remaining contents of the museum, Isis men took away his brother and two cousins and killed them. It was, he says, a reprisal.

He was helped in his daring plan by his brothers-in-law Mohammed, Walid and Tarik al-Asaad. Their father was Khaled al-Asaad, the 83-year-old keeper of Palmyra’s antiquities, who was publicly murdered by the jihadists last month.

Khaled al-Asaad was born in the city and served as head of the museum and director of antiquities for 40 years, until 2003. Even in retirement, he was still the man whose opinion and judgement about Palmyra and its treasures mattered most. He so admired Zenobia, the 3rd-century warrior queen of Palmyra who rebelled against the Roman empire, that he named his daughter after her. She married Khalil Hariri.

Mohammed al-Asaad was not scared when the bullets began flying as they were struggling with crates of antiquities. “We believed that what we were doing was important,” he told me. The whole family had been brought up by their father to venerate Palmyra, its buildings and its treasures.

In Iraq over the past year, Islamic State has destroyed ancient sites and reduced statues in museums to rubble. Mohammed’s father knew what might be coming when they reached Palmyra.

So, in May, Khaled al-Asaad refused to leave with his sons. They never saw him again. He was beheaded by Isis fighters in a public square; his body was left hanging on a traffic light.

“My father was 83 years old,” Mohammed told me, “and a true believer in the importance of Palmyra. He was deeply attached to it and refused to flee. He believed that it should be protected against any harm from militants or anyone else.”

I sat with Khalil and Mohammed in the garden of the Damascus museum and talked about how and why Isis had killed Khaled. Mohammed had a picture of his father in better times, downloaded from the internet, on his phone. All the family’s physical mementoes were left behind in Palmyra.

Mohammed was Khaled’s right-hand man at the museum for 25 years; he is proud of his father’s bravery, the way he brought them up, and the love he instilled in them all for Palmyra. “The main reason Da’esh executed my father was he refused to swear allegiance to them. They labelled him an apostate – a non-believer. There were stories that they killed him because he knew the secrets of Palmyra and locations of a hidden store of gold. But that’s false . . . they killed him because he was honest and loved Palmyra and was devoted to it and refused to leave it till his last breath.”

Mohammed added: “We were punished by getting chased out of Palmyra. All our possessions were confiscated. All that’s left for us in Palmyra are the ruins.”

 

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The nihilists of Isis revile all the relics of religious life in the Middle East before the Prophet Muhammad, which they regard as a time of heresy. Palmyra was always a prime target for them because it has Syria’s greatest single concentration of buildings and artefacts from that era. The Prophet died in 632AD; by then Palmyra was already an ancient city, with a remarkable body of architecture. It has survived earthquakes and wars, but is now in greater danger than ever.

It was not an accident that Syria’s monuments men were able to empty Palmyra’s museum. It was part of a plan hatched by Syria’s director of antiquities, an engaging, francophone, energetic man in his early fifties called Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim. He had watched with alarm what was happening in Iraq, and realised as Isis advanced that it was a matter of time before it tried to take its drills and sledgehammers to some of Syria’s heritage, too. Until March the plan had been to bring some objects to Damascus and to hide others locally. But after the fall of a strategic provincial capital, Idlib, to Islamist extremists in March, he gave orders to crate up as much as possible and bring it to “safe places” (he won’t say where they are) in and around Damascus.

When wars are going on, while the killing seems endless, and the fear and the desire to run away and not to stop is overwhelming, it can be hard to think about a time when it will all be over. Looking back and thinking about all the wars that went before – in Syria’s case, over roughly 5,000 years or more of history – and knowing
that all wars end eventually is no comfort for the refugees struggling to escape the battle zone, or to get to Europe. But now history is on the front line of the war in Syria. Perhaps history shouldn’t matter any more. I asked Professor Abdulkarim whether it was right to be concerned about ancient relics when so many human beings were being slaughtered.

“I think it’s two different things; we cannot compare them,” he said. “I understand lives are very important because we are people, too, we are living in this crisis, we know we can be killed in this crisis, too. We understand this question. But our job as archaeologists is saving this heritage. And finally
what we are doing to save cultural heritage in Syria. It’s the memory of the Syrian people, it’s the identity of these people. I’m sure the crisis will finish. Life will be better in the future. But all the damage to the cultural heritage will stay for all the generations. That’s why we are thinking about how we can reduce the damage, how we can save all the collections in all the museums in Syria.”

The National Museum of Damascus is opposite the hotel where the UN is based. Journalists stay there as well. Since the war started, I’ve looked down on the museum many times from a balcony, as the thunder of artillery has broken over the city, and flashes and explosions have come from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and all the other urban battlefields. All that time, the museum has been there, battened down, closed for the duration of the war.

Abdulkarim ordered that the most precious tombs and sculptures in the garden should be encased in concrete to protect them. On my visit this month, we walked past the strange concrete cubes to see how he has improved security. We waited while a four-tonne steel door at the main entrance rumbled slowly upwards. The old steel grille lay on the floor, dusty and fragile-looking. Armoured glass has been put into the windows. The display cases here have been emptied, too, and their contents put into safe storage.

In the basement is a stunningly preserved tomb from Palmyra which was moved to the museum in the 1930s. It shows the man who commissioned it at a feast, surrounded by his family and possessions. He reclines like a Roman, propping himself up on his elbow as he eats, but the carving is in the distinct style of Palmyra. The generations that followed his body into the tomb for two centuries are immortalised in lines of sculpted heads.

 

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Isis smashes up statues and ancient sites on video to scare its enemies and excite its supporters. But the archaeologists say it also makes a lot of money selling off attractive, portable pieces to dealers. To pre-empt them, Abdulkarim’s team has rescued 16,000 cuneiform tablets and 15,000 coins, ceramics and other objects from Deir az-Zour, a city where Isis has been fighting the Syrian army and local tribes. The tablets are relics of a writing system developed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia around 3,500BC. Their makers used reeds to mark clay tablets, creating one of the earliest records of politics, war and trade. Many of the objects are small, easy to hide and to smuggle, and worth a lot of money to collectors.

Syria has monuments women, too. A 25-year-old archaeologist, who does not wish to named, so that she can carry on with her work, led the team that rescued 24,000 ancient objects from Aleppo. The road from the regime-held side of Aleppo to Damascus is dangerous, and in places lonely and almost empty. The Syrian army secured it only last year, and its hold on parts of the road is tenuous. The convoys moved quickly and discreetly in unmarked vehicles because of the risk that they might be robbed. They were high-value targets.

Another young female archaeologist, Mayassa Deeb, is in charge of classifying and repacking all the objects that have been saved so they can be put safely into storage. Each one is photographed, its details uploaded on to a database, then it is wrapped in layers of cotton wool and tissue paper. They are packed into sandwich boxes – the staff have had to improvise – and slotted into packing cases lined with protective foam.

Mayassa is an expert on chariots. She showed me her favourite object: a 5,000-year-old clay model of a chariot that was rescued from Deir az-Zour. If Isis had found it, she said, they would have either smashed it or sold it.

The archaeologists work in an open courtyard in the museum, and sometimes they can hear shells, mostly fired out from Syrian army positions, sometimes coming back in from the rebel-held suburbs. May­assa loves coming to work, because it helps her forget what is happening outside. “It’s hard because every minute we have a noise and we have an explosion, and some die, it’s hard . . . but we work, and sometimes we don’t remember we have a war. We feel safe here, we don’t think about the war. Some people lose their houses, somebody loses his family, somebody goes abroad. Everybody has problems.”

She looked at the clay chariot, about the size of a couple of matchboxes, decorated with tiny marks that were made five millennia ago. “It’s important for everybody because this isn’t just about the history of Syria – this chariot speaks to us about the history of all the human world. For this reason we must keep it.”

I expected the museum to be full of despair because of the attacks on Palmyra by Isis and the desolation elsewhere in the country. Some of the worst destruction is in Aleppo’s Old City. It was a gem, a tight mass of alleys and khans, as full of entrepreneurs as it must have been a thousand and more years ago. Now it is in ruins.

But Professor Abdulkarim and his team are remarkably positive, horrified by the destruction of the most significant relic in Palmyra, the Baalshamin temple, but delighted about what has been rescued. They are even hopeful, if the stones are not too badly damaged, that they can put the buildings back together after the war. Now they want help from abroad. Foreign governments, the professor said, need to crack down much harder to stop the illegal trade in stolen antiquities.

He also talked about rebuilding the great minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in the Old City of Aleppo, which was flattened earlier in the war. “We’ve told them not to touch the stones,” he told me enthusiastically. “If they’re all there, we can fix it.”

Abdulkarim has 2,500 people working to save Syria’s past, on both sides of the lines. Fourteen of them have been killed so far. “We saved 99 per cent of the collection in the [country’s] museums. It’s good. It’s not just for the good of the government. It’s for the opposition, for the humanity, for all Syria. It is our common identity, our common heritage.”

The National Museum and the remarkable people who work there have created an unexpected oasis, transcending politics and trying to save a vital part of their country for better times. In a country full of despair, it was the most hopeful place I have been in Syria since the war began.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and the author of “The Arab Uprisings” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

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A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

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Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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