November 6, 2014

Editorial Essay: “I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.”

By Lynda Albertson

“I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.” 

--attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche in a million places, but as the experts will tell you, it's not true.

I open this blog post with this pseudo quote from Nietzsche because it makes both my point and captures my feelings when I open a newspaper or turn to the Web for updates on conflict antiquities. In the rush to publish about atrocities to cultural heritage during war, some media outlets, possibly too eager to report the news first, do not take the time to verify facts, defaulting to simplistic headlines. This may be born out of a need to assuage their readership in a highly competitive and financially stretched market. Journalists are often pressured to churn out reports too quickly. But it times of conflict, this can be a deadly mistake. We don't need sensationalism or propaganda.  We need truth in journalism.

Yesterday I came across CNN’s Style page's photomontage of what it called “The greatest buildings you'll never see: 19 priceless monuments lost in battle”.  This photo report can be found under the slightly misleading URL descriptor "precious-monuments-lost-in-middle-east-conflicts".

I selected this article not because it is any worse than any other article being published by other news organization but because it had so many short "facts" that the average Joe citizen might assume as truth.  

My problem with many of the images and their accompanying descriptive texts in this, and other similarly-styled cultural heritage news reports, is that they represent information that is not wholly accurate or worse, for the sake of brevity, leave out important key components -- details that with a little more patience on the part of the green-lighting editors could have easily changed this from a  sensationalistic read-and-move-on piece into one that gives the reader more knowledge. Many people have a desire to know what nations in conflict zones are up against when wars are fought where the world's cultural heritage is at risk.

If harried journalists would consult experts, or at least take the time to data-mine the Web for collaborating imagery, we might have more knowledge about what is and isn't happening. I shouldn't have to read a news article and ask myself "did this really happen?".  Maybe in the case of conflict antiquities and heritage issues during war, we all should be reminded that that is, in fact, exactly what we should be saying to ourselves.

With the help of many, here is a bit more comprehensive information on the 19 images reported in the CNN article.  Feel free to write to me via ARCA's Facebook feed or my Twitter account if any of you have corrections or additional information to report.  I am not an expert on the Middle East so if there's something that needs tightening up, let me know. 

Great Mosque of Samarra, Iraq


"Once the largest mosque in the world, built in the 9th century on the Tigris River north of Baghdad. The mosque is famous for the Malwiya Tower, a 52-meter minaret with spiraling ramps for worshipers to climb. Among Iraq's most important sites, it even featured on banknotes. The site was bombed in 2005, in an insurgent attack on a NATO position, destroying the top of the minaret and surrounding walls."
The Malwiya Minaret is perhaps the most famous and intriguing piece of architecture in Iraq but it was not destroyed. The pinnacle of the minaret was damaged during the explosion which rained debris on the minaret's ramp but overall the minaret sustained limited damage.  What the article doesn’t mention is that US troops used the summit of the heritage site as a sniper's vantage post from September 2004 until March 2005, only vacating the monument when ordered to do so by Iraqi antiquities officials. Insurgents bombed the minaret one month later. Military forces have also rethought their policies on using high heritage structures for vantage points.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan


"The Buddhas of Bamyan, Afghanistan - The most spectacular legacy of Buddhism in the war-torn country, among the tallest standing Buddhas in the world -- the larger at 53 meters, the other 35 -- had survived over 1,500 years since being carved out of sandstone. The Taliban considered the monuments idolatrous and destroyed them with dynamite."

Bamyan? Bamian? or Bamiyan?  CNN's fact checkers chose to go with "Bamyan" as the spelling for the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan.   In terms of accuracy I think it may have been better for the news agencies to refer to the site by the name utilized by UNESCO when describing the cultural Landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley.  Also the Buddhas popularly referred to as the "Solsol" and the "Shahmama" aren't buildings as the opening headline for the photomontage describes.  They are in fact monuments so lets give this one a pass as the descriptive content is otherwise accurate.

The ancient city of Bosra, Syria


"Continually inhabited for 2,500 years, and became the capital of the Romans' Arabian empire. The centerpiece is a magnificent Roman theater dating back to the second century that survived intact until the current conflict. Archaeologists have revealed the site is now severely damaged from mortar shelling."

While the town located in Southern Syria's Da’ara governorate itself has sustained significant war damage, including mortar impacts near the ancient Roman theater, the theater itself appears to be ok. Satellite imagery analyzed for an April 2014 report conducted by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s Penn Cultural Heritage Center (PennCHC) and the Smithsonian Institution, and in cooperation with the Syrian Heritage Task Force, the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) showed that there are no visible signs of damage aside from an earthen ramp constructed over a staircase located at the theater's Eastern entrance.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo, Syria


"A world heritage site originally built in 715 by the Umayyad dynasty, ranking it among the oldest mosques in the world. The epic structure evolved through successive eras, gaining its famous minaret in the late 11th century. This was reduced to rubble in the Syrian civil war in 2013, along with serious damage to the walls and courtyard, which historians have described as the worst ever damage to Syrian heritage."

By "this" we can assume CNN meant the minaret and not the entire site.  Images of the mosque's courtyard have been widely circulated in the press.  Heritage for Peace gives a breakdown of the reported damages as "Minaret destroyed, al-Warka library burned, damage to the shrine of Zachariah, extensive damage to courtyard and some galleries".   While significant, I wouldn't say that one site realistically reflects the worse damage to Syrian heritage. 

Norias of Hama, Syria


"These 20-meter wide water wheels were first documented in the 5th century, representing an ingenious early irrigation system. Seventeen of the wooden norias (a machine for lifting water into an aqueduct) survived to present day and became Hama's primary tourist attraction, noted for their groaning sounds as they turned. Heritage experts documented several wheels being burned by fighters in 2014."

Information from Hama indicates that one of the 17 Norias has been damaged, the Noria-Ga’bariyya, which had been previously rehabilitated in 2010 by Hama’s Archeological Authority.  According to the DGAM the restored modern wood wheel was heavily damaged at the top, but the original stone base remains intact. The full report is available in English here, and more completely in Arabic here.

Citadel of Aleppo, Syria


"The fortress spans at least four millennia, from the days of Alexander the Great, through Roman, Mongol, and Ottoman rule. The site has barely changed since the 16th century and is one of Syria's most popular World Heritage sites. The citadel has been used as an army base in recent fighting and several of its historic buildings have been destroyed."
While a missile attack on August 11, 2012 damaged the citadel’s massive gate and destroyed the iron doors I found no collaborating information that its historic buildings inside -- the Ayyubid palace (built in 1230 and destroyed by the Mongols in 1400), two mosques, a hammam and a rebuilt Mamluk -- have suffered damages.

However, according to the AAAS report, significant damage has occurred south of Aleppo's citadel, the location of many historical government buildings. Structures near the citadel such as the city's Khusriwiye Mosque were demolished and the Grand Serail - the former seat of the Aleppo governor -- was heavily damaged.  In addition, the dome of the 15th Century Hammam Yalbougha an-Nasry was destroyed.

Aleppo Souk, Syria


"The covered markets in the Old City are a famous trade center for the region's finest produce, with dedicated sub-souks for fabrics, food, or accessories. The tunnels became the scene of fierce fighting and many of the oldest are now damaged beyond recognition, which Unesco has described as a tragedy."

Aleppo’s sprawling Souq al-Madina, as the souks of Old Aleppo are known collectively, is purported to be the largest covered souq in the world.  It also hasn't gotten a break in this conflict. 

Thanks to a German posting in Wikipedia I have included their photo of a model that shows how substantial the Aleppo souq  which may help explain why knowing the exact number of losses is hard to estimate from the safe confines of our respective computers.  The labyrinthine souks stretches for eight kilometers an the number of quoted shops it held varies enormously and I have seen  numbers as high as 1550.  If anyone has any concrete data, I am happy to list it here as well as evidence of how much of the combined souqs have been damaged.

Deir Ez-zor bridge, Syria


“This French-built suspension bridge was a popular pedestrian crossing and vantage point for its views of the Euphrates River. It became a key supply line in a battle for the city, and collapsed under shelling. Deir Ez-zor's Siyasiyeh Bridge was also destroyed.”

Again, not a building but it could be considered a monument.  Facts check out. In September 2014 Syria's state-run television said government forces were responsible for blowing up the al-Siyasiyeh Bridge over the Euphrates river.

Nimrud, Iraq


“The ancient Assyrian city around Nineveh Province, Iraq was home to countless treasures of the empire, including statues, monuments and jewels. Following the 2003 invasion the site has been devastated by looting, with many of the stolen pieces finding homes in museums abroad.”

To quote Dr. Donna Yates, a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow's Trafficking Culture “Iraq's 'Nimrud Treasure', 613 pieces that made Tut's tomb, look like Walmart”, survived '03 looting in a bank vault.

While some objects originating from Nimrod (Kalhu) went missing from the Iraqi capital during the first conflict, we haven't much cultural heritage trafficking information from the actual zone itself. While the area is famous for depicting reliefs purported to show the first documented handshake in human history, recent clashes with ISIS in Nineveh left the Police Director of Nimrud and his son dead.

Despite media reports that looters have used chain saws to carve reliefs depicting scenes from daily life from the walls of the palace and selling pieces on the black market neither Paul Barford in his article "UNESCO on What is happening at Nimrud" or others seem to have come across photographic evidence to support those claims.  That’s not to say many important museums around the world don't have substantial collection pieces from Nimrud taken over a hundred years ago as well as pieces looted before the NATO invasion.  Science magazine also did some sleuthing reporting on the sale of trafficked Nineveh (Nimrud?) fragments in 2001.

Crac des Chevaliers, Syria


“The Crusader castle from the 11th century survived centuries of battles and natural disasters, becoming a World Heritage site in 2006 along with the adjacent castle of Qal'at Salah El-Din. The walls were severely damaged by regime airstrikes and artillery in 2013, and rebels took positions within it.”

Crac des Chevaliers castle, shows ”moderate structural damage" and the AAAS report describes  damage to a 6 meter gash in its southeast tower and three visible craters to the northern part of the castle.

Jonah's Tomb, Iraq


“It was entirely blown up by ISIS militants in 2014 as part of their campaign against perceived apostasy.”

This one is confirmed via  Dr. Sam Hardy’s detailed reporting on this the event as the confirmation of and destruction to the Shrine of Jonah/Mosque of Yunus were unfolding. If you are interested in conflict archaeology, I recommend following Hardy's academic website Conflict Antiquities.   If he posts something as fact, it's been checked and crossed checked.

In July 2014 Hardy reported that "it still was not clear how much damage has been done to Jonah’s Mound (Nebi Younis), the archaeological remains on top of which Jonah’s Tomb and the Mosque of Jonah were built." 

Khaled Ibn Walid Mosque, Syria


“The sacred mausoleum has been completely destroyed, and much of the interiors burned.”

Thanks to Heritage for Peace for pointing me to video footage of the mosque posted by the Association for the protection of Syrian archaeology. It shows that the Khaled Ibn Walid has been significantly damaged but doesn't reflect seem to reflect total destruction.

Northern Roman Necropolis, Palmyra

Palmyra, Syria


“It is feared that Palmyra has now been devastated by looting.”

How does "it is feared"  equate to the photo-montage's header of buildings or monuments lost in battle?  How about talking about the fact that the Northern Roman Necropolis in Palmyra has been damaged by road construction and the many earthen berms built to provide cover for opposing forces?

Armenian genocide museum, Syria


“The complex was destroyed by ISIS in 2014.”

Portions of the structure, although receiving damage remain.  A breakdown of the events leading to the damage can be found on the Conflict Antiquities website here.

Cyrene, Libya


“in the wake of Libya's revolution, vast tracts have been bulldozed including its unique necropolis complex.”

Many would argue that Libya isn’t in the Middle East but I will leave the politics of geography aside given Libya's ongoing conflict and cultural significance.  I have to say though that the photo chosen is misleadingly dramatic in terms of visuals even if the historic significance of the actual site damage can be seen here on the Archaeology News Network.   CNN would have done better to use The Art Newspaper's approach which specified that a mile-long section of the necropolis was flattened "in the hope of selling 500 sq. m parcels to real estate developers."

Museum of Islamic Art, Egypt


“Shortly after re-opening, a car bomb targeting a nearby police building caused catastrophic damage and forced the museum to close again.”

I wish news sites and even people like myself would try to avoid using unquantifiable terms like “catastrophic” or "significant" or "substantial" and simply list actual damages like UNESCO has in this report on the MIA’s hit.  It would give credit to the reader’s ability to discern for themselves what is or isn’t “catastrophic” though in this case, I agree.

Quaid e Azam residency, Pakistan


“The residency was attacked with rocket fire by a separatist group in 2013, and almost completely demolished. A new structure is being built on the site.”

The photomontage doesn’t make clear that the “new structure” is a rebuilt version of the Ziarat residency, restored to its original form under the directives of Pakistan's prime minister and the chief minister Balochistan at the cost of Rs 150 million.

Al- Omari Mosque, Gaza


“The walls, dome and roof were destroyed by Israeli airstrikes during the recent fighting in Gaza”

Some walls and roofing still standing as these photos attest though significant damage was sustained. 

'Old Beirut', Lebanon


“officials say just 400 of 1200 protected historic buildings remain.”

Thought this was a good image slide to conclude on.  By the time the Ta’if Accords were signed more than 150,000 Lebanese had died and 1 million individuals had been displaced or had fled the country.

In August 2014 the United Nations reported a chilling figure in the Syrian conflict listing 191,369 men, women and children reported as killed between March 2011 and the end of April 2014.  

Accuracy in journalism is important.  Monuments and cultural heritage and objects from our past are important, but people are the most important.


Hi Lynda, On the tower (officially not a minaret) of Malwya I was the one who managed to get the sniper off the tower who finally after 3 months of begging, deliberating and discussing with US military. I was at that time the senior adviser to the Ministry of Culture at the US embassy in Baghdad. After discussions of course with Donny George (DG SBAH) and UNESCO. I send a helicopter to make sure the situation was as reported in the Washington Post in January that year and Donny send the local inspector of the SBAH.

On the Nimrud treasure. Yes it was discovered in the flooded vault of the National Bank in 2003 with the help of National Geographic (sic). The treasure was then restored at the National Museum. Donny and I stopped an intended traveling exhibition of the treasures as we felt that the Iraqis had the right to see the treasures first. Besides, a Danish exhibition maker was making a lot of money off the exposition that even the Danish Government did not want to support the plan.

In general, very good blog, I am glad that someone is being critical on the reporting. Though, we should take into consideration that the information we get from the people working on the ground are archaeologists etc and no journalists. They are not so much used to be very precise. We always stress to provide time, date and location of the information, if possible witnesses, otherwise the information is not very useful. And of course, it is a war out there and people do not always have to chance to do the job as they wanted to.
Greetings Rene Teijgeler

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