Today, United Nations officials announced the start of operations to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons – just barely a week after the release of a “red list” of cultural artifacts looted from Syria’s national heritage sites and museums.
Yes, there’s a connection.
Weapons and archeological treasures have long gone hand-in-hand, particularly in the Middle East, where not only were they historically even one and the same thing, but where, increasingly, looted treasures provide the best possible currency for needed weapons. And while the Syrian state has shown little (or no) compunction about gassing its own people, so, too, do certain (Islamist, mostly) factions of Syrian rebels appear to have little (or no) regard for the heritage and artifacts of their own culture – a potential sign of what lies ahead for Syria if those rebels ultimately take over. (One expert, for instance, has drawn parallels between the Free Syria Army and the Taliban, noting the Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s spectacular Buddha sculptures in 2001 – a gesture that was at least as much about religious war as it was about winning the political rule of the land.). Writing about the problem a year ago, Time magazine observed,
“Criminal activity thrives in chaos, and the theft of antiquities for a rapacious international black market is no exception. Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan have all fallen victim to looters during previous wars, and Libya and Egypt, rich in archaeological sites, witnessed several attempts at looting during their more recent uprisings. In the case of Syria, however, the full-blown civil war may do more harm than simply the plundering of its culture. The burgeoning market for this ancient land’s priceless treasures could actually prolong and intensify the conflict, providing a ready supply of goods to be traded for weapons. Furthermore, the ongoing devastation inflicted on the country’s stunning archaeological sites—bullet holes lodged in walls of its ancient Roman cities, the debris of Byzantine churches, early mosques and crusader fortresses—rob Syria of its best chance for a post-conflict economic boom based on tourism, which, until the conflict started 18 months ago, contributed 12% to the national income.”
It is a shocking and heartbreaking development in a country that, until recently, boasted a thriving art scene with some of the top talent in the region. Now, artists themselves come under attack: painter Youssef Abdelke ,for instance, was just released from prison this past week, where he’d been held since July by forces supportive of the Assad regime, partially in retribution for a petition he’d signed that called on Assad to resign. So serious are the threats, in fact, that Syria’s Ayyam Gallery, perhaps the premier international showcase for Middle Eastern art, fled its original home in Damascus two years ago for Dubai, taking many of its artists (and their families) along.
“Step by step for nearly two years, the gallery operators moved 15 artists and their families to Dubai – hiring them as employees to obtain visas in line with the UAE system that requires a person or company to act as sponsors,” reported the AP. “Meanwhile, Ayyam managed to ship about 3,000 paintings, sculptures and other works as fighting intensified in the Syrian capital.”
Among the artists: Tammam Azzam, who gained worldwide attention when he superimposed the golden shimmer of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” (1907-1908) over photographs of buildings scarred by bullets and the ravages of war. Azzam’s work becomes particularly poignant in the recognition of the Klimt original, which depicts a moment of profound unity and love – a direct and saddening contrast to the lives of Syrians today.
“”I have to do something for the people there,” Azzam told the AP. “I want to do anything to send any message to people around the world about what is happening in my country: people dying every day, every minute, and nobody can stop that.”
His statement speaks for more than just his own work. Tragically – and tellingly – his words reach out to all of civilization, to a world struggling for balance between those who would demolish, raid, and traffic art in exchange for weapons of mass destruction – and those who create art to replace them.