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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.


Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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A gift for John Berger

The art critic who contains multitudes.

This is the text of a speech given on 18 September at the British Library in London in honour of the critic, novelist, poet and artist John Berger.

There’s a piece in a recent issue of the New Statesman where John Berger, who is one of the world’s most vital corresponders, talks, in a letter he writes, to Rosa Luxemburg, the long-dead (murdered in 1919) revolutionary socialist writer, Marxist activist and philosopher. Yes, but he doesn’t just talk to her, he talks with her, via some of the writing from letters she wrote herself, often when she was in prison. “Freedom,” Luxemburg tells him, and he reminds us, “is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.” In this piece, Berger writes a freedom for her. “No single page and none of the prison cells they repeatedly put you in could ever contain you,” he writes. He also sends her a gift, a wooden box of painted birds, painted words – a box, it says on it, of bird song. He tells her its history and he sends that history along with the box. “I can send it to you by writing, in this dark time, these pages.”

Here’s the gist of an email that came for me a couple of months ago. Dear Ali, can you write an “appreciation” of John’s writing, ideas and influence, about why his work truly matters, and can it be between five and eight minutes long?

How about forty years long? Because I could say that everything I’ve ever written or aspired to write has been in one way or another an appreciation of the work of John Berger. Berger, a force of unselfishness in a culture that encourages solipsism, an insister on open eyes, on the recalibration and re-energising of thinking, feeling, fiercely compassionate, fiercely uncompromising vision in a time that encourages looking away or looking only at the mirror images that create power and make money. Berger, who suggests that the aesthetic act, that art itself, is always collaborative, always in dialogue, or multilogue, a communal act, and one that involves questioning of form and of the given shape of things and forms. Berger, who can do anything with a text, but most of all will make it about the gift of engagement, correspondence – well, I can’t give him anything but love, baby, it’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, and that’s what comes off all his work for me, fervent and warm and vital, an inclusive and procreative energy I can only call love.

My encounters with John Berger, whom I hadn’t met till tonight, have always been vitally personal, coup de foudre then coup de foudre again, then the next time I read him, coup de foudre, struck by light, by enlightenment. I suspect many of his readers would recognise that sense of being literally struck, gifted something that makes you more than yourself – the thing that happens when the work you’re reading or the art you’re seeing actually demands of you that you engage, passes out of itself and takes up residence in the self, in correspondence with it.

This movement, which happens so often in the reading of Berger, concerns art and love and the political heft of both, because in John Berger’s work love and art and political and historical understanding are always in layered combination. There are many other writers and artists who work with this relation, but none with quite the transformatory fusion of his combining, which is a bit like encountering what clarity really is, what the word means, like looking through pure water and seeing things naturally magnified. He writes, in Portraits, a new collection of his writing on art over his lifetime, about the working presence of the word “art” in the word “articulation”, about how the two words share a root, “to put together, to join, to fit . . . a question of a comparable flow of connections”.

In this flow, things simply become apparent, or more apparent. “The speed of a cinema film is 25 frames per second. God knows how many frames per second flicker past in our daily perception. But it is as if, at the brief moments I’m talking about, suddenly and disconcertingly we see between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us. Perhaps it was destined for night-birds, reindeer, ferrets, eels, whales . . .” as he writes elsewhere. Berger grants or creates something extrasensory by what he writes, and in the most natural possible way, as if nature and the human eye are already in their own liaison, and we have to catch up the knowing, get to where we’ll begin to know what it is we’re seeing. It’s a democratic looking. Berger’s take on invisibility is always about inclusion, has always been about the politically not-seen, the dispossessed, the people made to serve under so that there can be ruling classes, and via Berger the ear acts with the eye to hear the otherwise drowned-out and inaudible – the voices of the invisible.

The act of going beyond ourselves is the art act. Writing about Cézanne he calls it “his love affair, his liaison, with the visible”. Here he is on Rembrandt’s A Woman Bathing: “We are with her, inside the shift she is holding up. Not as voyeurs. Not lecherously, like the elders spying on Susanna. It is simply that we are led, by the tenderness of his love, to inhabit her body’s space.” He quotes Simone Weil: “Love for our neighbour, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius.” Unsurprisingly then, but always electrifyingly, he is one of the great writers on the subject of love: “A person loved is recognised not by attainments but by the verbs which can satisfy that person.” And love is an art, and art is a matter of physical love and generation: “At the best moments one draws with the whole body – genitals included,” he says in a piece on Maggi Hambling, in Portraits.

One of the things I love in Berger’s vision is his insistence on the artist not as creator, but receiver, as a figure crucially open and receptive, since art’s impetus is essentially collaborative or communal. Storytellers, he suggests, must “lose their identities”. It’s the only way to be “open to the lives of other people”. This open self-effacement is part of the act: as he says in A Seventh Man, his 1975 book on migrant workers in Europe, “To try to understand the experience of another it is necessary to dismantle the world as seen from one’s own place within it and to reassemble it as seen from his.” Art as a natural border-crosser: “If one thinks of appearances as a frontier, one might say that painters search for messages which cross the frontier.” And since we’re talking frontiers and the crossing of them – if Cézanne said of Monet, “Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye,” I’m going to say of Berger, Berger is only a man, but my God, the multitude of us, here, gone, and yet to come, that’s in him.

What a fruition, what a seer of past and of futures, of the damage that “the poverty of the new capitalism” would do to the multitude across all the frontiers, the people desperate right now to cross the frontiers as the only way to survive. What a gifting of voice to – and recognising and celebrating of, and fury at the injustices done to – the working classes, the underclasses and the people who have had to become migrants is in his work. What a clear vision of “consumerist ideology . . . the most powerful and invasive on the planet”, and of “the innate paranoia of the politically powerful” and the narratives this paranoia inflicts on the world. “Look,” he says, “at the power structure of the surrounding world and how its authority functions. Every tyranny finds and improvises its own set of controls. Which is why they are often, at first, not recognised as the vicious controls they are.” What a foul improvisation millions of people are caught up in at this moment.

Meanwhile, what an energy and a pleasure and a humanity there is, he points out, against the odds, of the poor, and of the people called migrants, when it comes to that survival. That “ingenuity of the dispossessed” is always up against a reductive power at every point, he says: “There is no word in any traditional European language which does not either denigrate or patronise the urban poor in its naming. That is power.” Berger is clear about Power with a capital P, or what he calls in his letter to Rosa Luxemburg, “power-shit”.

“Today, to try to paint the existent is an act of resistance instigating hope.” Yet, “To face History is to face the tragic.” Despair is “intrinsic to the practice of painting”, he says in a piece about Frans Hals; Goya’s light is merciless for the cruelty it reveals; the Fayum painters “worked from dark to light”. And “the self and the essential come together in darkness or blinding light”. Everything in Berger’s own art of describing to us, of picturing for us where it is we live right now, is an act of resistance and hope.

Portraits is full of references to darkness and light, the unifying properties of light, “the attraction of the eye to light”, but the attraction of the imagination to light, he says, is more complex, “because it involves the mind as a whole . . . vision advances from light to light, like a figure walking on stepping stones”. He quotes Pasolini. “Disperazione senza un po’ di speranza: for we never have despair without some small hope.” And here’s Rosa Luxemburg, via Berger, from that recent letter to the past: “‘To be a human being,’ you say, ‘is the main thing above all else. And that means to be firm and clear and cheerful . . . because howling is the business of the weak. To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life in the giant scales of fate if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud.’”

So. A ten-year-old girl in the Scottish Highlands, way back in history, in 1972, is walking to school. It’s an ordinary day, and everything has changed, everything is new, and this has happened simply from a single phrase, a simple verbal act, having entered her consciousness. So, she is thinking, looking at the garage that she takes a short cut through, with the cars up on their raised platforms so that you can see underneath the part of them usually practically invisible, that’s always closest to the road, looking at the mechanics covered in oil and grease with their heads lost in the bodies of the machines, so, she thinks as she walks through the school gates, stands in line with all the other kids, sits down in the given place in the church and looks at the Stations of the Cross on the walls, how they stick out dimensionally, are three-dimensional pictures, and the blue-painted statue of the Madonna up at the front, so there is more than just seeing, there are WAYS of seeing.

That was a start. And “there’s never a conclusion”, is what Berger says in his preface to Portraits. In a world capable of reversing the meanings of “democracy, justice, human rights, terrorism” (“Each word,” he has written, “signifies the opposite of what it was once meant to signify”) we have a writer like Berger, who opens, reveals and reverses the given power relationships so that how we see changes. Way back, in Ways of Seeing (1972), he wrote warningly about how much we are led to “accept the total system of publicity images as we accept an element of climate”. He recognised a new nature, and Berger is, you might say, one of the most potent and authentic of our nature writers when it comes to the nature of the political structuring that gets called the world. He reveals and constantly reasserts the actual nature of things. “Tyrants”, he writes, “have no knowledge of the surrounding earth” from their “guarded condominiums” and their cyberterritories. He quotes Cézanne: “The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.”

From his piece on Jackson Pollock, here’s his definition of genius: “. . . the genius is by definition a man who is in some way or another larger than the situation he inherits.” Look at Berger in the world, and the world after him, then, now and to come. Not that I would characterise John Berger, whom I love, by his attainments, since, remember, a person loved is recognised not by attainments but by the verbs which can satisfy that person. Instead, in appreciation of him, I am and will be verbal: I see. I see in multiple ways. I veer towards that light in all the darknesses, real, historic, contemporary. And because of it, I will see. More, I will look. I will connect. I will co-respond. I will always know the life of dialogue. I will know the value of mystery, of not knowing. I will open. I will shout at the walls and the frontiers to break open. I will keep my nose open for the power-shit. If I despair, it’ll be with hope. I will attempt to pay, at all times, not just attention, but creative attention. I will love. And I will pass on, both to the past and the future, what generosity and gifts and sight and insight have been passed on to me, with love.

Portraits: John Berger on Artists” is published by Verso (£25)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide

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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.”



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.



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