Archaeology / History

The Past Defines the Future – Archaeology in Areas of Conflict

On 16th August Al-Ahram reported the looting of the Archaeological Museum in Mallawi (about 300 km south of Cairo) two days before. Nearly everything was robbed, only some items were left behind and only because they were to bulky to carry them away. This robbery leaves a great gap in the Egyptian history since many of those artefacts were not studied yet. Although 216 objects were recovered a few days later, the main part is still missing. Until now, the list of those items robbed is still available at the homepage of The Blue Shield, the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg: Tried loots have been reported in Karnak and Luxor as well, for example the attack on the 1600 years old monastery of Abu Fana.

These news do not surprise me. Countries in a (political) crisis have to sort out their priorities and archaeology always ranks at the bottom of that list. So it happens that uproars and riots loosen the security of museums, of archaeological sites and storerooms used for excaveted artefacts. This phenomenon is well known. In 2012 most of the artefacts available on the black market came from Iraq, where since the second Iraq war many illegal excavations took place. Illegal excavation, or better, tomb raids are desastrous for scientists, destroying most of the needed data for interpretation. The knowledge of the finding circumstances, the so called „context“ is essential for the right analysis. But the raids are not solely a problem of areas of conflict: They also take place at peaceful archaeological sites, for example in Turkey as I myself have witnessed. Locals – believing there has to be some kind of treasure where scientists have been working – start digging as soon as they are gone, always hoping to find something of value. Unstable situations increase the frequency of tomb raids of course.

Is it appropriate to discuss the damaging and destruction of cultural assets in the face of hundreds of thousands of dead? It is. Because the destruction of cultural heritage destroys the future of those who survive. Tourism is, or better – was – one of the most important source of income in Egypt. Without it life will become very difficult for the people. The same goes for Syria. During the last years al-Assad opened the land a little bit for tourists, soliciting the undoubtable rich history and culture of this country. Now tanks are patroulling the streets, where a few years ago tourists were ambling, landmarks, like the over 900 years old minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, lay in ruins. But cultural assets are irreplacable requirements for a possible reconstruction of those countries.

The German Archaeological Institute (DAI) provides many projects in areas of conflict around the world. Most of them are situated in Middle East, but there are also some in Bolivia, Cambodia or Niger.

Even if working is possible there, the crisis of the land has of course an impact on the „how“. Prof. Stephan Seidlmayer, head of the DAI field office in Cairo, stated towards Deutschlandradio in June this year, that the cooperation with the Egyptian Antic Board grew more difficult since the Arab Spring. A new orientation, a new way of communication must be found.

Though, a special training for dangerous situations is not offered or even obligatory. „Those colleagues, who have specialised on a certain region, work there since their study period and are therefore able to recognise and interpret political conditions, developments and dangerous situations,“ states Nicole Kehrer, spokeswoman of the DAI. „But being a department of the Foreign Office we have to abide by the travel warnings of the Foreign Office. That means it is permitted for our employees to travel in regions with active hostilities or imminent hijacking, like it is current for our field office in Sanaa these days.“

In Egypt, where the DAI runs 20 projects, most of the excavations of this winter term could start as planned. „All permissions for excavations were granted by the Antic Board and the Security offices,“ said Kehrer. But not all projects can be realised: Some like Fayoum or Abydos, the prehistoric necropolis of kings, had to be closed because of their bad access to public transport. In spring everything was perfectly normal, and during the summer all members of staff had left Egypt on a regular basis. The scientists have returned, „but most of them left their families in Germany.“ It has to be seen how the situation will present itself next spring.

The field office in Damascus however is closed now; Karin Bartl, head of this office and some of the staff, have moved to Amman in Jordan and are working there at the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology, others have returned to Berlin. „Our Institute in Damascus is currently in sound condition, but in which condition the excavation fields and our houses are is impossible to tell,“ bemoans spokeswoman Nicole Kehrer. German newspaper „Die Welt“ reports the archaeological sites look like the surface of the moon, scattered with craters from loots. Most of those were made by sneak thieves, but some are made by strategical purposes: the findings are to be sold and the money to be used to finance the war. So, not at all a bright prospect for a return.

„We have regular contact to our local staff members who still work at the field office in Damascus, completing work in the archive,“ reports Karin Bartl. „Since 2011 excavations or surveys were not possible, neither for us nor – a far as I know – for colleagues from other institutes. All archaeologists working in this region know each other personally and we maintain contact, also during this crisis.“

Syria contains six UNESCO Wold Cultural Heritage sites which all have been on the Red List since June 2013. Those are the historical cities of Aleppo, Bosra and Damascus, the ruins of Palmyra, Qal’at Salah el-Din and Crac de Chevalier, and the antique villages in Syria’s north. Not long ago UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova urged to stop the destruction und pleaded the Syrians to preserve their cultural heritage. Now, all of them are damaged, some beyond repair. Crac de Chevalier was hit by bombs, Palmyra was under fire of mortar shells and victim of vandalism and looters.

The UNESCO also installed a homepage about the illicit trafficking of cultural property in Syria, displaying the latest news about the current situation in Syria and informing about national and international initiatives to save Syrias heritage.

But there do not has to be open combat operations to complicate the situation for scientists. Archaeology is also used as a political and/or ideological instrument. Nearly every excavation in the Holy Land is critically eyed by priests, rabbis or imams in the eager hope to have a legal claim on whatever is found, only to use it against the others.  Archaeological sites also get damaged and the vicitms of those ongoings are the students and their research in the region. The education is inadequat and leaves gaps. Especially Palestine, suffering from sanctions and isolation, is in archaeological standards still a developing nation.

Destruction of archaeological sites out of ideologigal motives is not unheard of too. The most shocking was the destruction of two Buddha statues in the valley of Bamiyan, Afghanistan by the Taliban on 12 March 2001. Mostly unnoticed however was the destruction of about 2500 artefacts from the National Museum in Kabul.

The German Archaeological Institute wants to participate in the dialogue and exchange within the framework of the German foreign policy of culture and education. An example how archaeology in areas of conflicts can help, is the excavation of the antique city of Ulpiana near Gračanica, Kosovo. For nearly ten years an archaeological summercamp has been taking place, where youths from all ethnical minorities can take part. Roma are working together with Serbs and Albanians. This project is supported by various organisations. The scientific leadership lies in the hands of the DAI, represented by Felix Teichner, and Milot Berisha deputizing for the Kosovarian Institute of Archaeology. But they are also supported by the OSCE, the Embassy of the Netherlands and the National Museum Kosovo in Pristina, represented by the Archaeologist Kemajl Luci.

This project does not heal old wounds, nor is it an utter breakthrough. The older participants are keeping themselves to themselves. The young ones though, during the war in 1999 still children, first started sharing their tools, later the tables during lunch. However they are taking part on a voluntary basis. But: You have to start somewhere.

Katja Puppe

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