dianadarke

Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “Palmyra”

Collapsing Syrian pound mirrors collapsing confidence in regime control

 

A fake Syrian banknote from Budapest...

A fake Syrian banknote from Budapest…

The collapse in the Syrian pound has accelerated dramatically in recent weeks. Businessmen whose interests are tied in with the Assad regime’s survival are getting increasingly anxious, fearing the exchange rate is now beyond Syrian government control. In March 2016 the Syrian pound traded at around 440 to the US dollar, now it is 650 and rising daily. Before the war began in 2011 it was 47 and had been stable for some years.

The collapsing pound seems to directly mirror the collapsing confidence of merchants and traders once loyal to the Assad regime. Many are buying dollars with their profits and quickly transferring them to bank accounts abroad. Meanwhile Western Union, the accepted method for relations and friends abroad to transfer foreign currency into Syria, has for months only been allowed to pay out currency from abroad inside Syria in local cash.

For Syrians on the government payroll – a staggering 2.7 million people or, even more staggering, roughly 35% of the population now living in the regime-controlled areas – this is a disaster. Life is becoming impossible. A friend who is head of one of the state-run banks in Damascus has been telling me that her monthly salary enables her to feed the family for two days only. More and more people are being forced to sell possessions and property; many are making the decision to abandon ship and leave, even though they know their chances of employment elsewhere are miserable. Neighbouring countries and Europe will inevitably feel the pressure of more refugees.

The reason behind the quickening collapse is thought to be twofold: firstly Russia’s reluctance to back Assad with full air strikes in the regime assault on Aleppo, which has led to another stalemate instead of the quick victory they had hoped, and secondly a new World Bank report estimating Syria’s foreign reserves to be a mere $700 million, down from £20 billion before the war.

ISIS has recently recaptured oilfields around Palmyra, increasing pressure on the regime’s ability to provide electricity to the capital. Income from taxation has plummeted as 80% of Syrians now live below the poverty line. Recruitment rates into the Syrian army are minimal, as more and more young men leave the country rather than be fed into the war machine.

Peace talks are planned to resume in Geneva in the coming weeks. Bashar al-Jaafari, Assad’s head negotiator, arrived late at the last round, after first waiting for the 13 April Syrian parliamentary elections to be completed. Although the Syrian parliament is impotent under the current Syrian constitution and the result was a foregone conclusion with the election of regime cronies vetted by the security services, the message to the international community was clear – the Assad regime is the only legitimate government of Syria.

Assad votin in parliamentary elections April 13 2016

The propaganda value to the regime of Palmyra’s recent recapture in championing this message has also been key. Foreign journalists, normally denied visas, were suddenly invited in and bussed across the desert to photograph the fabulous ancient ruins, still 80% intact, that lie between Syria’s largest oasis and an extinct volcano – the perfect romantic backdrop to Assad’s rehabilitation as national hero valiantly fighting ISIS terrorism. The Russians then bussed in a further round of journalists to witness the absurd spectacle of a Russian orchestra playing in Palmyra’s theatre, with President Putin appearing live on a stage screen to congratulate all involved in the victory. Palmyra was the crown jewel in Syria’s tourism industry and its restoration is scheduled to be the flagship project for rebuilding Syria.

Putin in Palmyra May 2016

The opposition in exile and even the officially-sanctioned domestic opposition have dismissed all such stunts as ‘illegitimate’ tricks to gain leverage in the peace talks. The PYD, the largest grouping of Syrian Kurds, who are busy consolidating their semi-autonomous cantons in the north, have also dismissed the PR campaign. So far they not been invited to the Geneva talks, for fear of upsetting the main Turkey/Saudi-supported opposition.

Syria’s peace envoy Staffan de Mistura is putting a brave face on all such complications, stressing that the peace talks are “flexible”. His optimistic aim remains to achieve a political transition by August and UN-supervised elections within 18 months, where all Syrians can vote, even the diaspora, be they penniless refugees or wealthy businessmen. The upcoming US change of president in November is another pressure on John Kerry and the Obama administration to try to broker a Syrian political settlement with Russian help in the coming months.

The big question remains whether Assad will agree to negotiate his own exit, given all the mounting pressures, especially if it becomes clear his traditionally loyal inner elite are ready to sacrifice him. More likely in my view is that his skilful team in Geneva will simply continue their policy of appearing to offer national unity and reconciliation, even though their survival is at the expense of the entire country.

Related articles:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/369f583a-177a-11e6-b8d5-4c1fcdbe169f.html#axzz48RMygHJj

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36024370

http://www.syria-report.com/news/finance/four-main-factors-behind-recent-rise-dollar-syrian-forex-market

A fake Syrian banknote from Budapest...

A fake Syrian banknote from Budapest…

 

Syria’s Antiquities Chief comes to London

Syria’s Director-General of Antiquities and Museums made his first ever trip to the UK yesterday, on what he described as a one-day visit, ahead of similar visits to Paris and Rome. The most surprising thing was that he was granted permission to exit Syria, and the second was that he was granted a visa to enter the UK. The Syrian government is very keen, ahead of the Vienna talks, to show its cultural face.

DGAM director

And Professor Dr Maamoun Abdulkarim did a good job. In his 45 minute talk, accompanied by many images, the DGAM head addressed a large audience of over 500 in the Royal Geographical Society’s Ondaatje Lecture Theatre, in halting but intelligible English for which he apologised, saying his English was “new”, only learnt 18 months ago. French is his main foreign language. The talk was titled “Syrian Cultural Heritage during the Crisis 2011-2015” and was supported by the World Monuments Fund Britain.

The DGAM chief steered a careful course, talking of “one heritage for one people, no politics, humanity heritage”. He described how he and his 2,500 staff in the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums were in charge of Syria’s 10,000 sites, 34 museums and their 300,000 artefacts, doing their best, working in both government-held and opposition-held areas of the country, with the cooperation of local people. He told how they had emptied 99% of the contents of the museums and carefully boxed them up, after first doing detailed database information on them, then put them in safe places with anti-theft alarms and extra guards. He hoped that in two or three years’ time, the collections might be able to be brought out again and returned to display in the museums.

DGAM empty museums

Three hundred of his ex-students were among the staff helping, he said, showing pictures of them preparing the thousands of packing cases.

He showed photos of the damage in Homs old city, saying they were now restoring the churches, and that the damage inside Krak des Chevaliers was being repaired – Phase One of the repair was complete and the castle was open, he said.

DGAM Krak

At Maaloula he also said journalists had been allowed in to see repair work at the monastery of Mar Serkis. No mention was ever made of which side had caused the damage – unless it was ISIS.

At Palmyra he showed the before and after photos since the ISIS takeover in May 2015, promising that he would rebuild the Temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, the Triumphal Arch and the funerary towers. They had the necessary documentation, he insisted. He paid tribute to Palmyra archaeologist Khaled al-As’ad, beheaded by ISIS.

DGAM Khaled al-As'ad

In Bara and other Cities of the Dead he said they had successfully persuaded local people living in the ruins after their homes had been bombed, not to cause damage to the stones by lighting fires. He mentioned that these 700 Byzantine era towns were his own speciality.

In Apamea, Doura Europos and Ebla he showed photos of massive-scale illegal digging and looting, but said that in Ebla they had now secured the site against further damage. He showed photos of the mosaic museum at Maaret Numan and said they had protected it with the help of local people. In Bosra he showed photos of people clearing the vegetation from the tiers of the Roman theatre, saying they were working with the opposition groups now controlling Bosra, to protect the site.

He spoke of how 6,000 stolen artefacts had been recovered by Syrian police. He thanked INTERPOL, UNESCO, ICOMOS and the World Monuments Fund, and expressed his gratitude to expert help from the British Museum and Durham University.

He ended by saying he had felt “isolated” by the international community because he was “public” (working for the government), but hoped that everyone could come together to help save Syria’s cultural heritage in a way that was “scientific, not political.”

He received loud applause, was praised as “a hero” by his host, John Darlington from the World Monuments Fund, and was then rushed off to an interview with Sky News.

Related:

http://www.dgam.gov.sy/index.php?m=337

(the new Arabic/English website of Syria’s DGAM)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p036zqq6

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28191181

Can Russia save Syria?

Caption reads: "The Time of Masculinity and Men."

[Caption] “The Time of Masculinity and Men.”

Since the uprising against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, no one has been more supportive of him and his ruling elite than Russia’s President Putin. The increased Russian presence was discreet at first, but gradually began to manifest itself in surprising ways. Plastered on buildings in central Damascus in December 2014 for the first time street I saw private adverts offering Russian lessons. Then I read in local newspapers that the Faculty of Arts and Humanities in Damascus University had just opened a new department for Russian language and literature in response to rising demand.

“Analysis of the labour market,” announced Syria’s Minister for Higher Education, “indicates an urgent need for the Russian language.”  Record numbers of students, it transpired, had applied to study Russian, indicating as the Minister explained the “strength of the relations between Syria and Russia, especially in the current social landscape.”

When I asked my Damascus friends and neighbours about this development, they laughed and joked: “Yes, we’re looking forward to the new lady Russian teachers. Russia is becoming the new foreign language in Syria now!”

russian language

Of course Russia’s relations with Syria go back a long way, to the early 1960s, when Hafez al-Assad and his Ba’athist comrades enjoyed steadfast support and military hardware from the Russians. The Syrian Armed Forces have for decades been supplied with Russian aircraft and tanks, and most top Assad regime military officials received training in Moscow. At university level there were many exchanges with Syrian students sent to study in Moscow while Russian professors were brought to Damascus to teach students in both arts and sciences.

Today Russia has long-term interests in coastal Syria, notably its naval base in Tartous and its oil-exploration rights in Syria’s territorial waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. In recent months these interests have come under threat from rebel opposition groups making a series of gains at regime expense in Idlib province, posing the first real threat to the Lattakia region, Assad’s Alawite stronghold, where much of Syria’s displaced population is now concentrated. Russia is additionally concerned at the number of Chechens who have joined ISIS, said to be as many as 4,000, fearing they may return to Russian soil and wreak havoc domestically in revenge-driven ‘blowback’.

chechens in isis

The Russian airstrikes within Syria which started on 30 September 2015 have not come out of the blue. They will have been months in the planning, possibly as far back as May 2015, when ISIS first seized Palmyra in a lightning offensive, taking advantage of a strategic redeployment when the Syrian army withdrew from Palmyra in order to bolster manpower in Idlib province.

Although Palmyra, situated on its own in the middle of the desert, does not fall within Russia’s area of interests in Damascus and Syria’s western coastal regions, it will not have escaped the Russian strategists that recapturing Palmyra and returning it to Syrian regime control would be a massive PR coup before ISIS can destroy what remains of the archaeological site in what appear to be monthly staged explosions. In August it was the Temples of Baal Shamin and of Bel, in September the funerary towers and most recently on 5 October the Triumphal Arch.

Palmyra Baal Shamin destruction palmyra arch

It would also fit the Russian narrative of seeking to drive ISIS out of Syria and should be a relatively realistic goal, since ISIS has only had a little over four months to dig in, not long enough to put down strong roots in the small town of Tadmur adjacent to Palmyra. On top of the obvious international kudos Russia could gain from such a move, it would be an important strategic reclaiming of the regime’s oil and gas fields in the area, as well as protecting the regime’s nearby air bases. So far Russia is denying it has struck targets round Palmyra, despite initial Syrian reports to the contrary.

As Russia raises the stakes ever higher with surprise cruise missiles launched onto targets inside Syria from the Caspian Sea, after first gaining permission to fire over both Iranian and Iraqi airspace, the West watches helplessly from the sidelines. Putin is becoming Syria’s saviour.

Syrian kissing putin

Russia and the Syrian army appear to be coordinating their strategy with the clear aim of eliminating ISIS and other opposition groups. The West’s strategy remains in disarray. The US-led coalition has been completely upstaged, its year of expensive airstrikes achieving remarkably little to date. The addition of British air power to that equation will change nothing.

Meanwhile Russia’s strategy on Syria has been consistent from the start. Now it has caught the ball from its Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi team players and is running with it, ready to score a series of goals which is bound to terrify and demoralise the opposition groups and even send them fleeing the country to join the exodus to Europe.

As Goethe wrote centuries ago: “Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.” Putin seems to suffer from no such difficulties. While Obama, NATO and the West continue their endless talking shops, Russia is creating new realities on the ground that will shape Syria’s future, maybe even for the better. If Putin succeeds where the West has failed, in eliminating ISIS and reuniting the country, ordinary Syrians will forever thank Russia.

putin and bashar handshake

Caspian sea Russian strikes on Syria 7 Oct 2015

 Related articles:

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/28168/Damascus+University+Opens+Russian+Language+Department

https://dianadarke.com/?s=russia+assad

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34453739?ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbc_breaking&ns_source=twitter&ns_linkname=news_central

http://tass.ru/en/defense/826656

http://tass.ru/en/defense/826967

https://en-maktoob.news.yahoo.com/assad-allies-including-iranians-prepare-ground-attack-syria-115512216.html

http://sana.sy/en/?p=56985

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/06/nato-chief-jens-stoltenberg-russia-turkish-airspace-violations-syria

 

 

 

 

Syria’s soul is being erased – Britain’s role

The world thought it could ignore the Syrian crisis with impunity. Let them kill each other; it’s so far away and nothing to do with us. Bruised by failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the West had no appetite for involvement. But four years of indecision disguised as “noble non-intervention” has been a decision with deadly consequences, as Syrian refugees quite literally wash up on Europe’s shores. After remaining unmoved by thousands of images of carnage and devastation caused by President Assad’s barrel bombs, one image has changed perceptions overnight.

Aylan Kurdi drowned on beach Sept 2015

Syria is the cradle of civilisation, where the cross-fertilization of cultures and ideas resulted in a highly creative and innovative people. It is no accident that the first phonetic alphabet was invented here, the first musical notation, the first hymns, the first female choirs and even female orchestras. This blend and fusion of cultural influences is part of the Syrian identity, an identity that has been traditionally open, tolerant and welcoming.

Palmyra, the desert oasis city on the Silk Road linking the Mediterranean to the Euphrates River, Mesopotamia and beyond, represented this fusion of cultures through the blended Roman Oriental style of its architecture, its statues, its temples and its funerary monuments. Open to trade and the worship of many gods of the region, it too was part of the Syrian identity.

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This is the identity which ISIS is intent on destroying. Masquerading as true Muslims, they are blowing up anything they can claim is idolatrous, anything with human or animal forms, while in practice Islam has always coexisted with earlier cultures – except in Wahhabi Saudi Arabia of course, which has also destroyed all manifestations of earlier religions.

Palmyra Baal Shamin destruction

But ISIS is only part of the jigsaw. Syria’s cultural heritage is also being destroyed by the Assad regime’s relentless aerial bombardment and barrel bombing of opposition-held areas like Aleppo, along with residential areas, schools, hospitals and ordinary citizens. All are inextricably linked, all are part of Syria’s identity and this rich, multicoloured fabric of Syrian society is being shredded systematically, day after day with no end in sight and no one coming to help.

Syrian fighter jetbarrel bombing syria

The result is the wave of Syrian refugees  in ever greater numbers fleeing to Europe, their only option since the wealthy Gulf Arab countries have closed their doors, and their official asylum applications are repeatedly turned down. Today I heard Raida, a former resident of my Damascus house, speaking to the BBC from Beirut about her six failed applications to Saudi Arabia, her failed applications to Canada, Austria, France and the UK. Her dignity shone through when she ended by saying she would never resort to people smugglers, neither would she give up her struggle for a better life.

My Damascus House (photo credit copyright Fiona Dunlop)

My Damascus House (photo credit copyright Fiona Dunlop)

The dignity also shines through in the Syrian refugees interviewed on the road as they walk through Hungary to Germany. They are well-behaved and respectful of each other, in spite of their ordeals. They have not lost their humanity. Neither has Angela Merkel, with her vision and leadership, making me proud to be half-German.

Germany Merkel poster mimicking Bashar's August 2015

Of my British half however, I am ashamed. The British government has shown no vision or leadership, feebly waiting for an American strategy on Syria that never came, then taking a cowardly vote (thanks to Ed Milliband) in the House of Commons against military intervention in Syria after the supposed “red line” of the August 2013 chemical weapons attack. The Department for International Development’s much vaunted overseas aid projects are about as effective as a sticking plaster for a man whose guts have been blown out.

For the last four years Syria has been left like an open wound, untreated, slowly bleeding to death. Had Syrian pleas for a safe haven to be established on the Turkish border in summer 2011 been heeded, hundreds of thousands of refugees now fleeing the country could have stayed inside Syria; their destabilising pressure on the infrastructures of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey would have been avoided; the Assad regime’s handling of the uprising would have been challenged early on; the germ of ISIS would not have been left to multiply exponentially in Raqqa since April 2013 and to grow into the Frankenstein monster it is today, hijacking Syria’s revolution, overrunning Iraq and distorting perceptions of Islam.

isis on move

Syria’s soul is being systematically erased. Only intervention can stop it. It will be infinitely more difficult to establish a safe haven now, four years too late, but it still has to be the first step, to stem the exodus of refugees. For those already on the road, Britain needs to adopt the German approach – take thousands according to each region’s wealth and population spread evenly and equally across the country. If Germany can take in 1% of its population, so can we. The only alternative is to stop Syria’s war, something for which there is, it seems, neither the strategy nor the political will so far.

Related posts:

Syria is not Iraq: 10 key differences https://dianadarke.com/2013/09/01/syria-is-not-iraq-10-key-differences/

A Syrian in Saarbrucken https://dianadarke.com/2015/08/17/a-syrian-in-saarbrucken/

The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Art https://dianadarke.com/2015/02/15/the-prophet-muhammad-in-islamic-art/

How ISIS misuses early Islamic history to justify its actions https://dianadarke.com/2014/08/23/how-isis-uses-early-islamic-history-to-justify-its-actions/

 

 

 

ISIS Road to Damascus starts at Palmyra

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ISIS has confounded its critics. Instead of dynamiting the priceless temples and colonnades of Palmyra, Syria’s most visited UNESCO World Heritage site, it has blown up the cells and torture chambers of nearby Tadmur prison, Syria’s most powerful symbol of Assad regime brutality. Palmyra’s prison, synonymous with suffering in the minds of Syrians, represents perhaps more than any single building in Syria, the 40-year Assad stranglehold on its people.

Tadmur prison

This carefully staged PR coup will have gained it many friends, even from among those who would have thought themselves anti-ISIS. It is like a loud fanfare announcing: Beware, Bashar, your days are numbered and we are on our way to get you.

Think of the wealth that ISIS now has at its disposal through its capture of Palmyra. With the prize of the ancient city came other prizes: the oilfields to the north and the military hardware captured from the regime’s nearby airbase, T4, thought to include 21 tanks, 12,000 machine guns and 40 ammunition stores. Then came capture of the last regime-held border crossing into Iraq, at al-Tanf due east of Damascus with its own road linking into the Palmyra highway to the capital. And don’t forget the sheep. The Sunni tribes of this Syrian semi-desert steppeland, known as Badiat ash-Sham, still number around one million, and are mainly nomadic Bedouin from the Rwala, Beni Sakhr and Beni Khaled tribes. Syria was one of the first lands to be inhabited by the Bedouin outside the Arabian Peninsula and today these Bedouin still rear most of Syria’s sheep, considered the tastiest in the Middle East. Every year 10 million of them are exported to Saudi Arabia, earning high yields.

badia sheep bedouin

Four centuries before the advent of Islam the historic oasis city of Palmyra grew wealthy from the taxes it levied on goods transiting the Silk Road via camel caravans. The highest taxes, according to the famous bilingual Greek/Aramaic ‘Palmyra Tariff’ stone, were due on perfumes, dried fish, olive oil, water and prostitutes. Now ISIS has captured today’s equivalent wealth for itself – oil, military equipment, sheep plus potential extra manpower from the local Sunni tribes. In addition it will no doubt harvest the archaeological site for artefacts, levying its usual 20% tax on anything dug up from the outlying areas.

Armed with all Palmyra’s many forms of wealth, ISIS sees the open road to Damascus, to the exposed heart of the Assad regime.

isis on move

There are few settlements en route, just two more airbases where even more military hardware can be harvested. Inside Syria ISIS has seen that the international community is impotent, with no unified strategic policy, while Assad’s army is in retreat.

The world’s media pours out articles eulogising the ruins, while ISIS thrives like a germ in the perfect environment on the chaos deep inside Syria. May the world’s attention remain focussed on Palmyra long enough to understand that until Syria’s chaos is solved, ISIS will multiply exponentially and grow beyond anyone’s ability to stop it. Damascus is in their sights and Palmyra has been their launchpad.

Related posts:

https://dianadarke.com/2015/05/20/palmyras-double-life/

https://dianadarke.com/2015/05/22/palmyras-legacy-to-isis/

 

 

 

Palmyra’s legacy to ISIS

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This carved block at Palmyra pre-dates the advent of Islam by four centuries, and is thought to show the world’s earliest representation of veiled women, top right. It is one of the countless examples of how practices we now consider Islamic were often traceable to pagan times.

The early Muslim armies captured Damascus in 636 just four years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and went on to make it the capital of their Umayyad Caliphate. It was the first encounter Muslims had with cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, cultures which were themselves the products of rich intermingling of Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian influences and which had in turn been under Greek and Roman influence for centuries. Commerce, as ever the driver of human inter-action, was thriving as new trade routes evolved, while religious and cultural trends co-existed.

The Umayyad Caliphate, far from seeking to ban or wipe out this multicultural heritage of earlier empires and civilisations, simply took over the existing infrastructure from the previous Byzantine and Sassanian rulers, going on to develop its own unique contribution to the art and architecture of the region. The Umayyads absorbed and adopted the customs of the cities they conquered. With the fall of borders, they unified the region thereby encouraging additional cross-fertilisation of ideas and artistic traditions. The results can be seen in all their buildings, from Jerusalem’s famous Dome of the Rock to the lesser known desert palaces like Mushatta (see photos below) and Khirbat Mafjar now scattered all over the deserts of Jordan, the West Bank and Syria.

Mshatta facade 2mshatta facade

When it comes to the case of Palmyra, this rich cultural legacy is especially clear. The carved stone blocks carry motifs of flowers, including the famous Palmyrene Rose, ringed with acanthus and lotus leaves.

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The Palmyra drawings by English architects Wood and Dawkins went on to influence directly the classical revival of the 18th century, where Palmyrene roses are often to be seen on the ceilings of grand British country houses.

The Umayyad desert palace of Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi which stands in the desert some 100km northeast of Palmyra, has a mosque which incorporates columns and capitals brought from the site of Palmyra. The architecture of its monumental gateway displays an eclectic mix of Byzantine, Mesopotamian and Persian styles, with many recycled Roman and Byzantine capitals. Its twin, Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, which lies in the desert  80km southwest of Palmyra, likewise boasted a monumental 8th century facade, now incorporated into the modern entrance of the Damascus National Museum.

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These fusions are clearly visible in the vine scrolls, the bunches of grapes symbolising wealth, fertility and prosperity in both the stone carvings of Palmyra and the decorative patterns of the Umayyad palaces, not to mention later Islamic tile patterns.

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Mythical creatures like griffins, together with birds like peacocks and eagles, animals like gazelles and lions are often found entwined in the Tree of Life, an ancient concept pre-dating Islam by centuries, yet all such motifs are still found on the borders of prayer rugs across the Muslim world. If ISIS claims that such things are idolatrous, it would also have to destroy most of the Islamic carpets and tiles of the Middle East.

And what of the many mosques across the Muslim world that were built on the foundations of earlier churches and temples, such as the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus?

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Would they too have to be destroyed, like these early Islamic mosaic visions of fantasised trees and palaces?

In the nihilistic vision of ISIS there is, it seems, no room for diversity. They have set their course on the total destruction of relics from earlier cultures, thereby denying the roots of the very Islamic civilisation to which they claim to be returning. By destroying Palmyra, they will be destroying their own roots, ensuring their own eventual downfall, since a caliphate devoid of culture cannot endure. What a perfect contradiction.

Palmyra’s Double Life

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[DD]

Nothing sums up Palmyra’s split identity more than this ‘egg and dart’ motif, found repeatedly all over the ancient caravan city’s ruins. The egg represents life and the cycle of rebirth, while the arrow/dart represents war and death. The two live side by side in the endless pattern of life, repeated across the centuries.

This is what is now taking place at Syria’s most famous and magnificent classical site, known throughout antiquity by romantic titles such as ‘Bride of the Desert’ or ‘Venice of the Sands’. In recent days, since news broke on 14 May 2015 of ISIS’s surprise attack launched on Palmyra from its headquarters of Raqqa just 100 miles/two hours’s drive to the north, the site has received worldwide attention with outraged cries of horror at the prospect of ISIS smashing the ancient stones to pieces as they have already done in the Iraqi sites of Nimrud, Nineveh, Mosul and Hatra. Almost every media outlet in the world has carried photos of the spectacular 1st, 2nd and 3rd century Roman streets, its temples and its tombs.

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[DD]

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[DD]

Standing alone in the middle of the desert, unfenced and unprotected, Palmyra is indeed vulnerable to attack. But take a close look at this photo below:

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[DD]

A pair of camels sit awaiting custom in the shade of Palmyra’s monumental entry arch. Behind them is the Temple of Bel, one of the world’s most important religious sanctuaries. But just above the left-hand camel, notice the whitewashed simple building. Originally built as the residence of the Ottoman governor of Palmyra, it functioned in the heady pre-2011 tourist days when Palmyra welcomed thousands of visitors, first as a folklore museum with displays of traditional Bedouin costumes and jewellery, then as the Tourist Reception Centre complete with cafe in the courtyard.

But since 2011 this building has served as the regime’s intelligence (mukhabaraat) headquarters, and it is to here that Assad’s soldiers first fled, after being driven out of their local state security branch in the north of the modern town (known in Arabic as ‘Tadmur’). As fierce fighting raged round the northern security buildings and close to the infamous Tadmur prison in the east, the top regime officials cut their losses and escaped west by road, abandoning their men to the tender mercies of ISIS. Also close by are valuable oil and gas fields, another primary target of ISIS.

Consider for a moment the irony of the situation. While the world’s attention is commanded by the international outcry over the threat to the ancient ruins of Palmyra, they will now learn too of the double life of Palmyra, its modern life under the Assad regime. Palmyra Prison, Syria’s most feared by its citizens, was home for years to men such as Yassin al-Haj Saleh (subject of a 2014 film ‘Syria Our Terrible Country’) and Bara Sarraj (‘From Tadmor to Harvard’ 2011), men who had done nothing to deserve the horrific torture they endured inside the prison. Bara’s unbelievable experience can be digested here:

http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/3500/the-cell-of-survival_bara-sarraj

The prison was closed in 2001 but reopened in 2011 to receive new dissidents of the Revolution. Hundreds if not thousands are once again housed in the buildings originally built as military barracks by French Mandate forces. Once the prison is captured by ISIS, will the inmates join up in gratitude and swell their armies further?

Palmyra prison

Whereas Assad had hoped to gain kudos by presenting himself to the international community as a protector of Syria’s cultural heritage, the ISIS attack has instead exposed the ruthless accoutrements of his regime. Assad soldiers have been photographed running off with their own booty from the Palmyra site:

Palmyra looting Assad soldiers

They, like ISIS, have always seen such treasures as legitimate ‘spoils of war’, and no one has done more damage to Syria’s cultural heritage than the Assad regime. The difference is that while ISIS broadcasts its damage to the world, the Assad regime keeps it quiet and seeks to blame it on others.

Palmyra map

But thanks to the double-sided nature of Palmyra, the world will no longer be fooled.

Related articles:

http://www.apsa2011.com/index.php/en/provinces/homs/palmyra.html

http://www.wsj.com/articles/syrian-monuments-men-race-to-protect-antiquities-as-looting-bankrolls-terror-1423615241

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-32807858

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_news/Middle_East/article1557098.ece

#Syria’s road to extinction

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Among all the other tragedies of Syria, spare a thought for the poor people trying to save its environment and wildlife. When they admit to working for environmental NGOs they draw sarcastic comments: ‘Are you serious?’

But even now there are projects ongoing to save what remains of Syria’s flora and fauna. Most are conducted on a regional basis and are of course apolitical, staffed by people who happen to care deeply about the country’s environmental health and heritage, with an eye to the future for their children. The reality of working on such projects inevitably means involvement by government ministries – most commonly Environment and Agriculture – and this brings more sarcastic comments about being in cahoots with the regime and bringing it legitimacy.

The damage so far has been massive. Take the case of the Talila Reserve 35km southeast of Palmyra (Tadmur) on the road to Deir Ez-Zour. Opened in 1992 and financed jointly by the Italian government, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture, it was the first such project in Syria, protecting the endangered gazelle and oryx of Syria’s badia or desert steppelands. Apart from the animals themselves there is also a collection of wooden chalets housing an excellent explanation of the reserve’s ethos, its purpose, even incorporating Bedouin poetry and wisdom reflecting the Bedouin approach to nature and life generally. All have now been looted, seen as fair game because the reserve is a ‘regime place.’ Gazelle and oryx have been barbecued in the desert, not because people are starving, but because they have no understanding of the preciousness of the country’s wildlife, of the damaging effects of overgrazing by sheep and goats, nor of the attempts to reverse this process for the sake of future generations.

In Syria’s beautiful forests near the border with Turkey around Kassab, regime aerial bombardment of rebel emplacements has caused widespread devastation, often triggering fires which then rage as out of control as everything else in the country.

Only birdlife may be a beneficiary of the revolution, as ammunition has become too precious to waste on hunting birds for sport. Another of Syria’s many ironies.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabian_oryx

http://www.esteri.it/MAE/doc/6_40_175_z.pdf

http://threatenedconifers.rbge.org.uk/taxa/details/abies-cilicica-subsp.-cilicica

Syria’s Threatened Heritage

Aleppo

Aleppo (Photo credit: sharnik)

English: Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria Françai...

English: Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria Français : Temple de Bel, Palmyre, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So far the biggest single loss to Syria’s heritage has been the total destruction in April 2013 of the 11th c Seljuk minaret of Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque.  It is the equivalent to the complete loss of say, Big Ben, to the skyline of London. Like Big Ben it is not just a building, but part of the psyche of the city, something deep-seated and iconic that is hard to quantify as a loss, not just to the outside world but above all to the inhabitants of Aleppo.

The 50 metre-tall minaret, one of Syria’s most important medieval monuments, had survived earthquakes, fires and previous wars, but has now been reduced to no more than a heap of rubble, beyond reconstruction. Its delicate stonework and elegant tracery made it one of the earliest examples of a true Syrian Islamic style of architecture. Aleppo’s famous souks were burnt, and though the wooden doors and merchandise have all gone up in smoke, the stone vaulted roof for the most part survives.

UNESCO has now put all 6 of Syria’s  World Heritage sites on the endangered list, to draw attention to the threat that the ongoing war presents. The two famous Crusader castles of Crac des Chevaliers and Saladin’s castle together constitute one UNESCO site, and have so far suffered damage from shelling, but the damage is reparable. Palmyra’s Temple of Bel has been hit by shells, but that damage is also reparable. The so-called ‘Dead Cities,’ or ‘Forgotten Cities’ as the Syrian Ministry of Tourism preferred to call them, are in the heart of Idlib province and therefore in the thick of a war zone, but since they are entirely built of heavy stone blocks it is hard to damage them. So far the Roman theatre of Bosra in the south has escaped damage, as has the Old City of Damascus, since fighting and shelling has taken place in the capital’s suburbs rather than the old centre, unlike Aleppo and Homs.

Most destroyed of all so far have been other sites, not UNESCO-listed, such as the Roman mosaics displayed in the caravanserais of Apamea and Ma’arat Nu’man, which have been badly looted and pillaged. Lawlessness is a tragic side-effect of war, and it may well be that the worst and most serious damage to Syria’s heritage will come from looting rather than actual war-damage. Unfortunately, scum rises to the top in war.

Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. It is an 11th ce...

Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. It is an 11th century castle and was used in the Crusades. It was one of the first castles to use concentric fortification, ie: concentric rings of defence that could all operate at the same time. It has two curtain walls and sits on a promontory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo...

English: Minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, Syria Français : Minaret de la Grande Mosquée d’Alep, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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