Showing posts with label Palmyra. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Palmyra. Show all posts

January 13, 2018

INTERPOL's Most Wanted stolen works of art lists

Image Credit INTERPOL - Works of Art Unit

Every June and December, INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organization publishes a poster which highlights key works of art that the law enforcement organization designates as important stolen works of art taken in incidences which have been reported during the previous six months. 

Distributed via all INTERPOL NCBs (National Central Bureaus) biannually to law enforcement agencies worldwide and available to the interested public on the INTERPOL website, their ID tool raises awareness of specific works of art to be watching for.  

Since the publication of INTERPOL's first stolen works of art poster in June 1972, the organization has brought attention to 534 stolen objects; 51 of these  objects have been recovered. 

In addition to the biannual posters, INTERPOL sometimes publishes highlight posters designed to draw attention to serious multi-object thefts of substation value that occur at single locations.  

Recent examples of these include: 

Image Credit INTERPOL - Works of Art Unit

Image Credit INTERPOL - Works of Art Unit

Image Credit INTERPOL - Works of Art Unit

Image Credit INTERPOL - Works of Art Unit
While Ukrainian border guards recovered 17 of the stolen Old Master paintings worth $18.3 million from the Italian museum, other historical objects in Iraq and Syria are still missing. 

November 30, 2016

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Auction Alert I: Ancient Palmyran Limestone Head Ca. 3rd-5th century A.D.?

Two different online auction websites, Live Auctioneers and Invaluable each have "sold" a listing for the same Palmyrene limestone funerary bust.  The object on offer was sold November 29th through Palmyra Heritage Gallery in New York City with a closing bid of USD $3,900.

As some of ARCA's readers may recall from an earlier blog post, Palmyra Heritage Gallery is operated by Mousa Khouli who also uses the Americanized name of Morris. Khouli has dealt in antiquities and ancient coins in the New York area for quite some time and has operated his business as both Windsor Antiquities and Palmyra Heritage. His ancient wares have been found on vCoin previously and are currently offered on the online auction powerhouse website eBay using a seller profile called:

As detailed in that earlier ARCA blog post, involving another potentially suspect object, Khouli moved to New York City with his family from Syria in 1992. Once in America he opened a gallery specializing in objects from the ancient world in 1995. His father had a gallery in Damascus, Syria for 35 years and his grandfather too worked in the art and antiquities trade, meaning that he should likely be well-versed in the legalities of trading in objects from the ancient world.

But knowing the law and abiding by the law, are two different things. 

In 2008 and 2009 Khouli arranged for the purchase and smuggling of a series of Egyptian antiquities, exported from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and then smuggled into the United States under false declarations to the US Customs authorities concerning the country of origin and the value of the antiquities. The illicit objects included a set of Egyptian funerary boats, a Greco-Roman style Egyptian sarcophagus, a three-part nesting coffin set, which, according to its hieroglyphics, may have belonged to “Shesepamuntayesher” from the Saite period or 26th Dynasty, and several Egyptian limestone figurines. The contents on the shipping labels and customs paperwork supplied for the imported items were intentionally mislabeled as “antiques,” “wood panels,” and a “wooden painted box.” 

Cultural Property Attorney Rick St. Hilaire, who followed the court case against Khouli and other defendants throughout the federal proceedings, reported in April 2012 that the antiquities dealer/numismatist pled guilty to smuggling Egyptian cultural property into the United States and to making a false statement to law enforcement authorities. In November of the same year United States Senior District Judge Edward R. Korman departed from the federal sentencing guidelines and sentenced Khouli to a relatively light sentence for his misdeeds: six months home confinement, one-year probation, 200 hours of community service, and a criminal monetary assessment of $200. 

Yet looking at the documentation for Khouli's recent auction of the Palmyrene limestone funerary sculpture also raises some questions. At the time of the 2008-09 conviction Khouli provided the purchasing collector with false provenance for the trafficked Egyptian antiquities; documents which stated that the objects were part of a private collection that his father had assembled in Israel in the 1960s.

Under the listing for the Palmyrene limestone funerary bust both websites list: "Private NYC Collection acquired From Israel 10-03-2011 with original Export License from Israel" for the object's provenance.  Along with the written detail, each auction included a reassuring photo for the would-be bidder, a rumpled document written in Hebrew and English that states that the object had been exported from Israel through Sami Taha, an antiquarian and numismatist whose website states he is "serving Jerusalem and the world's market for antiquities from the Holy Land by authority of the Israel Antiquities Authority."

Sami Taha's business is operated with the following details:
Twitter Profile: @BiblicalArtifas
eBay Seller Profile: biblicalartifacts.jerusalem

Until August 2016 he listed himself as an authorised Antiquities Dealer, License No.144 *
Ancient Art of the Holy Land
45 Jaffa Gate, opposite David Citadel entrance
PO Box. 14646
Jerusalem 9114601, Israel
The physical location for his shop has since closed though he is still selling actively on the web. 

* Note:  No copy of this dealer's Israeli Antiquities Authority license has been provided on Taha's website.

If the provenance document provided during the sale for this limestone funerary bust is to be believed, the object was shipped from Israel to a collector in Europe. Interestingly the name listed as the importer,  also shows up on other antiquities traceable to Khouli as the collector listed in the provenance of at least three objects being sold or which have sold through various online auction websites, making these objects equally questionable. 

But what does an Israeli export authorization form actually look like?

Below is an example of an authentic Israeli-issued IAA export approval document issued in 2011 (below left). The document next to it is the one provided by Khouli for the Palmyra bust (below right).

Notice that the documentation provided for the purported Syrian object does not identify the export authority in the header, nor is it rubber-stamped or signed.

But why didn't the limestone funerary bust, allegedly from Palmyra, have any documentation from its country of origin, Syria?

Probably because there isn't any.   The general export of antiquities is altogether banned in Syria in all but the rarest of circumstances and the country's cultural heritage is protected by numerous national laws.  A review of the ICOM red list for Syria shows that authentic funerary busts from Palmyra would likely be classified as a movable antiquity, considered immovable in cases where they are parts or decorations of immovable antiquities (such as gravesites) and covered under the following national rulings:

Decree-Law No. 84 of the Civil Code regarding archaeological objects
covered by specific laws - 18 May 1949

Legislative Decree No. 148 of the Penal Code regarding the destructions
of historical monuments - 22 May 1949

Legislative Decree No. 222 on the Antiquities regime in Syria - 26 October 1963, as amended by the Antiquities Law - 5 April 1999
NOTE: Legislative Decree No. 222 encompasses previous national legislation
regarding the protection of cultural heritage:
Legislative Decree No. 295 - 2 December 1969
Legislative Decree No. 296 - 2 December 1969
Legislative Decree No. 333 - 23 December 1969

Law No. 38 on Customs - 6 July 2006

Decree-Law No. 107 regarding local administration - 23 August 2011

Article 69 of the Syrian Antiquities Law specifically provides that an export license may only be granted with regard to antiquities that are to be exchanged with museums and other scientific institutions, and with regard to antiquities given to an organization or mission after excavations are finished.  Neither of these circumstances appear to be the case with the auctioned funerary bust, making the fact that the object has no other substantiating paperwork, prior to 1963, all the more suspicious.

So if the object is authentic, then who moved the bust from Syria to New York, and how and is it authentic? 

ArchaeologyIN (The Archaeology Information Network) has notified Walid Al-Asad, the former director of antiquities and museums in Palmyra on 28 November about the object's upcoming sale and Al-Asad stated that at first glance the auction photo appears to meet the artistic specifications of a Palmyrene limestone funerary bust.  On this basis, ArchaeologyIN formally notified Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Director General, Directorate General of Antiquities & Museums (DGAM) in Syria of the potentially suspicious item.

Questioning its entry into the United States on the basis of the material supplied by the seller, ARCA in turn contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in New York about its concerns regarding the object's limited import/export paperwork and the bust's purported export provenance from Israel via possibly Oslo.

But small organizations and understaffed source countries, acting alone or in cooperation, cannot tackle all of the triangulations between looters, smugglers, dealers and potential buyers. Without the active support of the art collecting community itself, the problem of illicit trafficking will always be a catch me if you can game of cat and mouse.

The appearance of paperwork, should never replace a buyer's own due diligence.

If crafty antiquities dealers can write anything they want about an object's collecting history when promoting their wares for an auction listing then it's ultimately up to the individual collector/buyer to do their own homework before ethically committing to the purchase ancient art.  This is all the more true of antiquities whose purported origins are from conflict-ridden war zones such as Palmyra.

The antiquities dealer says he has an export license?  Do you, as the potential buyer, know what type of actual import and export documentation an ancient object would need to have to have legally passed out of the object's source country and into the hands of the seller in the dealer's destination country?  Do you as a collector know enough about the heritage protection laws in the country where the object originates to make sure what you are purchasing isn't contributing to a country's instability?

As a morally principled art buyer, who are you are entrusting your purchase to? Do you know the background and ethics of the antiquities dealer you are purchasing an object from?  Has that person been involved in dishonest trading in the past?   Have they falsified documentation previously in furtherance of laundering illicit objects through the licit market either for greed or to satisfy collector's demands?

As a buyer, investing in ancient art, the antiquities collector has the right, but also the responsibility, to ask to see all export documentation and to verify that the object's provenance claims are true, before any money changes hands.

Ethical antiquities dealer with a clean object should have no problem with the close scrutiny.  If they do, or if the deal seems too good to be true, then it most likely is.

For more information on this particular dealer's past history ARCA recommends the following Dr. David Gill's Looting Matters posts as well as the comprehensive federal case reporting of Rick St. Hilaire which can be found here. 

By: Lynda Albertson

July 7, 2016

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ISIS Releases Video showing its destruction of the Palmyra Museum's Artifacts.

ISIS has released a new "heritage snuff" video that shows its destruction of the Palmyra Museum's Palmyrene funerary portraiture as well as desecration of the museum's mummies which DGAM personnel had stored in a protective bricked-sealed enclosure at the museum prior to ISIS overtaking the city in May 2015.

The 57 second video shows militants lifting funerary reliefs from shelving and dropping them forcefully onto the floor.  Other historic artifacts are subjected to repeated blows with sledgehammers, filmed for cinematic effect. 

More disturbing however is the footage of the desecration of human remains that had once been stored on exhibit within the museum.  Lined up on a sandy street in Tadmur, the mummies were crushed with what appears to be a heavy military vehicle. 

On display at the Palmyra museum since August 4, 2005 thanks to a Japanese grant and the efforts of archaeologists from Italy and France who helped extract them, the mummies of two men and two women were originally found wrapped in many layers of cloth in the Palmyra valley.  Well preserved, they provided a fascinating glimpse of the area's funerary practices during the first and second century C.E.  Given their age, they were considered to be a cultural and biological patrimony of inestimable value for the Syrian city.      

Italian archaeologist Professor Paulo Matthiae once compared the find of the mummies to those found in Egypt. In a book on the ancient Syrian city of Ebla, Matthiae states

"The valley of the tombs of Palmyra is one of the most wonderful places of the region of antiquities in the Graeco-Roman world like the most famous tomb valleys in Egypt." 

ISIS considers worshipping or mourning at grave sites to be equal to idolatry and have often destroyed burial sites throughout areas under their control.

April 27, 2016

Russian Federal Security Service is investigating several officials and businessmen over missing funds for state-sponsored heritage restoration projects.

On March 15, 2016 Russian state media reported that the country's Deputy Culture Minister Grigory Pirumov had been detained on embezzlement charges.  

Earlier that day, the Federal Security Service - the main KGB successor agency known under its Russian acronym FSB - announced that several high-ranking culture ministry officials and businessmen were under investigation for allegedly “embezzling state funds allocated for restoration work on cultural heritage sites”.  It is alleged that millions of rubles, earmarked for the restoration of famed cultural heritage sites, are missing.

The detained officials, in addition to Deputy Minister Pirumov, include Boris Mazo, the head of the Russian Ministry of Culture's department of property management and investment policy, as well as several heads of construction companies involved in restoration projects commissioned by the ministry. 

The FSB accused Pirumov of organizing a criminal scheme in which the suspects inflated the costs of restoration works to steal public funds.  Pirumov, who was appointed to the post of Deputy Minister of Culture in March 2013, coordinates and controls work of three departments of the ministry: department of property and investment policy, state protection of cultural heritage and the legal department.  He also oversees activity of the State Agency for management and operation of the historical and cultural monuments of the Ministry of Culture of Russia (FGBUK AUIPIK).

Novodevichy Convent, Moscow - Image Credit: Wikipedia
A source at the culture ministry said that the criminal case was linked to a number of cultural heritage sites, including the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Novodevichy Convent in Moscow.  The convent, in southwestern Moscow, built in the 16th and 17th centuries in the so-called Moscow Baroque style, was part of a chain of monastic ensembles that were integrated into the defence system of the city. The convent was directly associated with the political, cultural and religious history of Russia, and closely linked to the Moscow Kremlin. Women of the Tsar’s family and the aristocracy used it, and members of the Tsar’s family and entourage were also buried in its cemetery.  The convent provides an example of the highest accomplishments of Russian architecture with rich interiors and an important collection of paintings and artifacts.   Restoration works there began last year, completion expected in 2019. Media reports said 800 million rubles ($11.2 million USD at current exchange rate) were allocated for this aim.

Investigators are also looking into financing of the restoration works carried out at the Ivanovsky Convent in Moscow, a theater in the ancient city of Pskov, in northwest Russia, and the Izborsk Fortress.  Preservationists had raised concerns in the past over work done on the fourteenth-century fortress, located in near the Estonian border and restored in 2012 to mark the 1150th anniversary of Russian statehood.  A 2013 audit by the government’s accounting chamber found that 60 million rubles, or about $2 million USD, in funding for Izborsk went unaccounted for. 

All this happens only two months after President Vladimir Putin publicly reprimanded the culture ministry for failing to preserve state monuments.  In December 2015, at the meeting of presidential Council for Culture and Art in Kremlin, Putin chastised officials about decrepit state of the country’s rich architectural heritage.  Galina Malanicheva, Chair of the central council of the All-Russian Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments (VOOPiK), reported at that meeting that the loss of historic sites far exceeded the average annual loss of 10 to 15 officially registered monuments, since due to a complicated listing process just over 10% of Russia’s monuments are officially registered.  The Russian media blamed the subsequent reported resignation of Mikhail Bryzgalov, the culture ministry’s top cultural heritage official, on Putin’s dressing-down. Vladimir Tolstoy, Putin’s chief cultural adviser, denied that Bryzgalov’s departure had anything to do with Putin’s reprimand.  

Aside from the allegation of individuals siphoning off public funds, complaints have been made that the Ministry of Culture is responsible for hiring unqualified companies whose poor quality renovations have irreparably damaged Russia's cultural legacy. 

Russian Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, a close ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin, is in contact with the FSB on these issues. He described to the RIA Novosti news service Pirumov’s detainment as “ a real shock for all of us.” The ministry stressed that in recent years restoration initiatives led by Deputy Minister Grigory Pirumov had "achieved significant success." The Culture Ministry’s press service added that the internal audit announced by Minister Vladimir Medinsky has been underway since March 18 and is expected to take several months

Rumors about Medinsky’s possible resignation have been swirling since the March 16th arrest of Pirumov. On March 28, 2016 Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refuted these allegations.  Medinsky chairs Russia’s Military History Society, which has a powerful influence over the interpretation of Russia’s cultural affairs.   He has also reportedly told UNESCO that Russia is ready to participate in both evaluation of Palmyra's condition and its restoration. 

Izborsk fortress immediately after restoration  © Hope Chenin
Palmyra Aftae Da’esh © Joseph Eid/AFP

In early April, Deputy Minister of Culture - theologian Alexander Zhuravsky was appointed to replace Mr. Pirumov.

The FSB said it hasn't been able yet to track down the missing funds.

By: Olla Birman 

April 13, 2016

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The Road to Recovery - DGAM in Syria Issues Initial Statement Regarding its Plans for Palmyra

This evening the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria issued a statement about their intent and vision for Palmyra and sent a copy to ARCA for dissemination.  This document can be read in its entirety here.

Before undertaking any substantial rehabilitation project on the ancient city it is reassuring to know that the country’s heritage management authorities are carrying out a comprehensive damage assessment in order to document the nature and scale of all the damage before deciding on a measured and scientifically valid strategy for conservation and preservation.

As with any good heritage management plan, if there is any sense of urgency it will be to carry out any needed emergency repairs to stabilise the historic site and to minimise or prevent further damage while a long term comprehensive recovery plan is being considered and developed.

When reflecting on calls to restore Palmyra to its former glory, the internet has been abuzz with people arguing that it is too early to begin to think about heritage.  While it is true that this conflict is sadly far from concluding, a peoples need to rebuild, to find normalcy where it is anything but, is not something that is date-stamped to begin solely once peace has been achieved.

Heritage damage in wartime is often symbolic of what has been lost.  Likewise the yearning to restore emblematic monuments to their former glory can be symbolic of a citizenry's own desire to pick up the pieces of their own lives and put them back together.

In 1940 the German Luftwaffe attacked Coventry in the English Midlands and the city decided to rebuild its mediaeval cathedral the morning after its destruction.  The Second World War also saw 85% of Warsaw's historic centre destroyed by Nazi troops and in 1946 the city initiated a 5 year campaign, (not without its detractors) carried out by its citizens, that resulted in a meticulous restoration of the city's Old Town, complete with recreated churches, palaces and marketplace.

For the Polish citizens of Warsaw who had lived through the horrors of war, the memory of how things were mattered more than authenticity.

Sometimes, the need to restore culture has does not even wait for reconstruction.   In 1993 Zubin Mehta conducted the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Mozart's Requiem inside the crumbling ruins of Sarajevo's National Library, its music reminding us that sometimes food and shelter from the bombardment and strive are not the only things that heal woulds and knit a community back together.

Whatever course of action is ultimately approved by the DGAM for Palmyra, it is my hope that the dedication of the department's team of professionals is not brushed to the wayside during the debate on what should be done and when and by whom.  Syria's heritage staff deserve encouragement and support, not magnifying glass criticism before conservation projects have even get under way.  The staff working for the DGAM are the people who know Syria's heritage needs better than anyone and certainly a lot better than those criticising their work safely miles away from the the day to day suffering during a protracted and bloody war.

If I could wish for anything, I would hope that local people, where appropriate, can be integrated into the rebuilding initiative as a means of healing for the fragmented community of Tadmur.  Being part of restoring heritage together could help the citizens of the modern city begin their own recovery and would also mitigate the "history is more important than humanity" rhetoric that often comes with these types of heritage undertakings.

Director General of the DGAM has affirmed that the
hypogeum of the Three Brothers, which dates back to 160 AD,in Palmyra stayed intact.

Regardless of what projects are ultimately selected and acted upon, it is important that the conservation or reconstruction work be “de-politicised.  Technical experts and conservators need to be able to get on with their work without pressure from political or other interest groups and so that they can focus on being sure that the heritage aid is integrated into a broader humanitarian recovery programme. In this way, and if handled delicately, reconstruction can be the first emotional bricks cementing a post-conflict reconciliation.

The people of Syria’s ability to recover from this conflict will owe much to their own cultural resilience, to people letting people get on with life on their own terms, and to not imposing our ideas onto their social and economic realities.  By remembering that cultural heritage can be a positive tool for reconciliation and social reconstruction, whatever gets decided will assuredly take into consideration the sensitivities of the Syrian people and their need to reestablish the familiar as symbolic symbols of things returning to normal.

The ancient city of Palmyra as a monument is not merely a reflection of the ancient past.  In a single desert location, Palmyra simultaneously tell us something about the country, the people who have for centuries populated the area, the city in all its former glory, and its many battles.  Battles fought in wars long ago and battles fought which are still rawly fresh and indelibly carved into our collective psyche.

Palmyra is as much a reflection of society's ability to survive as it is a message of hope for Syria's future.

Op Ed - Lynda Albertson

March 27, 2016

Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma'ani Castle and the Exigencies of War

Pre-Conflict Condition
Image Credit: Syrian Ministry of Tourism
The exigencies of war is oftentimes very unkind to mankind's cultural heritage, but especially so when it's a historic battlement structure.  Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma'ani Castle, which sits on a high hill overlooking the UNESCO World Heritage Site of of Palmyra in Syria is thought to have been built by the Mamluks.

This newly-liberated castle gets its current name from the Lebanese Maanite Emir, Fakhr al-Din (1590 - 1635), who himself is believed to have occupied the castle strategically during wartime and having extended the present structure from an earlier castle which stood on the rocky outcropping, perhaps dating from the 12th century.

Fakhr al-Din used the castle for a military vantage point to defensively test the limits of Ottoman rule, having expanded his area of territorial control from Mount Lebanon to as far east as the deep Syrian desert. Things didn't turn out so well for al-Din either as he was ultimately captured and subsequently executed by the Ottomans in 1635.

In evaluating the impact of the the current conflict on Syria’s cultural heritage, especially the use of heritage with tactical value like the Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma'ani Castle, there is much to consider legally.

The term ‘armed conflict’ is context-dependent in that the criteria for determining the existence of an armed conflict differ according to whether the armed violence is one fought between two or more states.  An international armed conflict (IAC) is defined by criteria derived from Common Article 2 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions as being between one state and one or more organised non-state armed groups.  

A non-international armed conflict (NIAC) is defined by criteria derived from treaty law as well as key ad hoc tribunals.  The term is used when a situation of violence involves one or more organised non-state armed groups or between two or more such groups.  When a conflict is deemed to be a NIAC it triggers the application of the law of armed conflict (LOAC).  LOAC and international humanitarian law (IHL) are often used interchangeably.

Legal qualification of the armed violence in Syria: a non-international armed conflict (NIAC)

The extent and sustained nature of armed violence, and the level of organisation of the various non-state armed groups fighting against one another or the current Syrian governing authority, have defined the situation across Syria as an NIAC as an armed conflict of a non-international character as of 2012. (See the assessment made by the International Committee of the Red Cross --ICRC).

Under the Hague Convention, as an official state party to the Convention and the First Protocol, the Syrian government is obliged ‘respect’ cultural property in their or other territory. The Convention prohibits their targeting cultural property, unless it is of ‘imperative military necessity’, a term subject to differing interpretations.  When a site is exploited by non-State actors, in situations where those structures prove to be militarily strategic to the opposing force, state military actors are still obliged to take into consideration precisely what substantive content of international law does and does not apply if targeting the site during wartime.

The Second Protocol, which Syria is not a State Party to further elaborates the provisions of the Hague Convention relating to safeguarding of and respect for cultural property and the conduct of the military during hostilities.  Both the First and the Second Protocols lead to the question of applicability of customary international law, of other sources of international law and local law and what they require of warring parties.

The collection of images below show one example of how one heritage site, specifically one with battle attributes that are considered militarily valuable to waring factions, can become a cultural causality of war.

Whether that damage was ‘imperative military necessity’ is something that will be debated for years to come. 

Pre-Conflict Condition
Image Credit: Christophe Charon/AFP
Inside the structure there are several levels and numerous rooms.  The best (and also most vulnerable) Military vantage points are from from the highest terrace to the south.

Pre-Conflict Condition
Image Credit: Syrian Ministry of Tourism
Photo taken January 2011
Image Credit: @lucialessi
Post Conflict - Image Date March 26, 2016
Image Credit Syria DGAM
Post Conflict - Image Date March 26, 2016
Image Credit: Twitter User 

Post Conflict - Image Date March 26, 2016
Image Credit: Sham International
Images of the bridge, replacing the original drawbridge, which gives access over the moat to the castle gate.

2015 Image approaching Castle gate
Image Credit Da'esh
Post Conflict - Image Date March 26, 2016 I
Image Credit: Sham International
Post Conflict - Image Date March 25, 2016
Image Credit: Still from Drone Video Rossiya 24 TV

March 25, 2016

Friday, March 25, 2016 - No comments

March 25, 2016 Video Footage of UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra

Russian war correspondent Eugene Poddubny from  Rossiya 24 TV has posted news footage taken with a quadcopter drone while embedded with with SAA + allies over the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra.

While the speaker narrating the video gets some of the identifications wrong, the images are heartening to see.  Clearly visible is the reconstructed Great Tetrapylon Dr. Khaled al-Asaad's team unearthed during the Palmyra Development Project from 1962 to 1966.  The video also gives an overall view of the Colonnaded Street from Diocletian's Camp, the transversal colonnade and the 2nd century CE, Roman theatre each  of which appear relatively intact.

Missing obviously are the majestic Temple of Bel, once the centre of religious life in ancient Palmyra, the historic Temple of Baalshamin and the Arch of Triumph as well as the ancient tower tombs which were symbolically detonated by Da’esh last year.

Another drone video shows the mostly still preserved Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle  (1590 - 1635). 

March 24, 2016

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Syrian Troops Poised to Recapture Palmyra from Islamic State

 Partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometers (133 miles)
northeast of Damascus, Syria, March 14, 2014. (AFP/Joseph EID)
Throughout the afternoon Wednesday Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes advanced in central Syria seizing high ground within a few kilometres to the west and the south of Fakhr-al-Din al-Maani Castle.  Positioning themselves to recapture Tadmor and the ancient archaeological site, advance detachments of the Syrian government army have allowed news correspondents from Alikhbaria Syria TV to accompany them and film the military's preparations to retake the city over the last two days.

The Triumphal Arch of Palmyra, dynamited by ISL militants
in October 2015. One of a set of stunning albumen prints
produced by Félix Bonfils between 1867 and 1876.
The governor of Homs province, Talal Barazi, has speculated in the press that the military would recapture Palmyra within two days.  In the afternoon, the government forces managed to fully capture the Semiramis Hotel as well as Mount Muthar and the Mozeh Palace, a once luxurious Qatari-owned villa which ISIL used during the occupation as a staging facility.   
Nestled deep in the Syrian desert, the recapture of Palmyra is seen as a strategic as well as symbolic victory for the Syrian government, as control of the terrain surrounding Palmyra's magnificent 2000 year old ruins would provide government forces with a tactical advantage in the ongoing conflict.  By controlling the areas southwest of Tadmor the SAA would also control large swaths of the surrounding desert extending to the Iraqi border affecting supply lines. 

The government's strategy to retake the city from two sides, vs. a siege approach (encircling the city in order to block reinforcements and the subsequent escape of Da'esh militants) may have been decided upon to avoid urban warfare and to afford some limited protection, if possible, to what remains of the magnificent ruins of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.  By giving the Islamic State forces an exit route the Syrian government forces may be attempting to reduce the possibility of desperation-provoked destruction of the archaeological site while forcing the insurgents into unprotected open territory and theoretically away from civilians, though ISIS had been broadcasting in Tadmur for civilians to leave the city, meaning fleeing fighters could be interspersed with fleeing civilians.

The Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Irina Bokova, welcomed the pending liberation of the Palmyra archeological site.  In a statement issued by her office she said the city “carries the memory of the Syrian people, and the values of cultural diversity, tolerance and openness that have made this region a cradle of civilization,"

The Director-General of Antiquities and Museums in Syria Maamoun Abdulkarim expressed his joy Thursday at "the imminent liberation" of the ancient city of Palmyra from the hands of extremists stressing that he will rebuild the temples jihadists had destroyed.

In discussing the last critical days Abdulkarim told reporters  the AFP: "I get a sense of fear and joy at the same time. Of course I am happy with the impending liberation, the dream becomes more and more a reality, and I doubt nightmare to an end, which means that we avoid a complete destruction will be attached to the city's archeological was. "  He further added that "I think that this period of ten months were the worst in our lives.”

On Thursday afternoon, March 24 Syria's Director-General of Antiquities and Museums released the following announcement:

"During the recent few days, the Syrian armed forces has started the battle to restore the city, confirmed information state that the city is being surrounded by both the western and west-southern sides, in preparation to gain control back on the city. 

Upon restoring the city, experts for DGAM will directly plan a field visit for damage assessment, with the collaboration of local and international partners, i.e. UNESCO, ICOMOS, and ICCROM, as the city is enlisted on the World Heritage List.  As previously adopted by DGAM, plans of restoration and rehabilitation should also be prepared consequently in order to open the site back to its residents and visitors as soon as possible. 

We, at DGAM, will do our best to carry a cultural, intellectual, and human message that Palmyreans have always presented to the world, a message of tolerance and multicultural richness, the things that the militants of ISIS hates."

Given the emotional response to the murder of Khaled al-Asaad, a university professor and the former general manager for antiquities and museums at Palmyra, who gave his life in defence of Syria's culture,  it is easy to understand Dr. Abdulkarim's commitment and those of his staff, to securing and conserving the ancient historical site. 

March 11, 2016

Friday, March 11, 2016 - ,,,, 1 comment

Palmyra - An example of when traffic whoring and page view metrics are more important than accuracy

In the last 72 hours I have spent a frustratingly amount of time playing Whac-A-Mole to bad reporting from a number of professional journalistic sites and individuals who rightly want to draw the world's attention to the ongoing battle of Palmyra, but who wrongly choose to do so using less than thorough reporting techniques. 

On March 9th, Twitter user @rt0ur (Russian Tour) posted an image that didn't explicitly list itself as new, but which showed comparison images to some of the destruction wrought on the ancient site of Palmyra.   A snapshot of both the text and image used in this tweet can be seen to the right.  

As concerned individuals search for recent news via social media on the state of Palmyra's heritage and Tadmor this seemingly "new" imagery cascaded into a series of rapid retweets from users following the conflict who assumed the imagery was new.  Unbeknownst to many who saw the tweet and reposted, the image was originally published last summer on August 9, 2015 in Issue 11 of Dabiq (Arabic: دابق ), the online magazine used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for propaganda and recruitment.  

Sometimes reposting an image, assuming that it is "new", is an honest mistake.  

It is unrealistic to expect the passive consumer or the generalist journalist mining information on social media to ghoulishly scroll through, screen-catch, store and then recognise every image ever published by ISIS via the deep web or video sites.   But the dishing-up of old news repackaged as "new" news serves to highlight how the world's news is spread with rapid velocity over social media. It also underlines how easy it is for news to become distorted unintentionally or in some cases intentionally by individuals or organisations with Twitter and Facebook accounts. 

It also draws attention to how audiences that assume a more active role in providing analysed content; those who participate actively in developing "breaking news" or expert analysis reports on the state of heritage through social media, need to exercise due diligence in their researching.

“The fact that a tweet by a journalist is restricted to 140 characters does not mean that journalistic ethics can be ditched.” London Journalist, David Brewer 

Across the world people are trying to make sense of the horrendous situation in Syria, focusing on Palmyra in particular and wondering what, if anything, anyone can do to help.  Sometimes the only thing individuals feel they can do is spread the word on what's happening.  Unfortunately some web-based journalists and social media users think that having an engaged audience is also something worth manipulating, using journalistic shock and awe tactics to encourage more viewer traffic or increase followers. 

Using web platforms and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, that feed upon audience interaction via retweets and repostings, followers and retweeters sometime end up serving as echo chambers, for those that choose to manipulate content.  Without integrity, social media journalism becomes easy to manipulate and users reposting inaccurate or tainted information can unknowingly support a specific opinion or agenda, driving web traffic towards unethically behaving news sources.

Propagating one's own viewpoint or opinion isn't inherently bad. Opinions do matter, and voicing them is a good thing, but encouraging followers to read published content by distorting factual accuracy is akin to "traffic whoring". 

In the biz, some of the less taste-worthy news agencies actually assign staff to “traffic-whoring duty.”  But the lure of offering up posts that content providers know will garner more page clicks and attract more followers can lead web journalists to intentionally distort reality.

Content providers often subscribe to a carrot and stick formula of SEO-rich headlines plus key words sprinkled with enticing visual imagery known to appeal to their intended market audience.  But these ingredients are only part of the recipe of good web-based journalism.  The formula can be harnessed, and used ethically or manipulated and used dishonestly.

Sometimes reposting an image is abject manipulation.

An example of unethical reporting is when a news agency or social media account holder intentionally creates a false illusion of reality, complete with dramatic photo or video, packaging their creation as "breaking news".  Such was the case yesterday when a video was posted on Twitter by @ruptly (Ruptly), a video news subsidiary of RT (originally Russia Today), the Russian government-funded television network.  

At first glance, viewers were led to believe that they were looking at new video footage, likely obtained through boots-on-the-ground soldiers advancing to retake Palmyra.   In reality and ironically, it is a video from May 20, 2015, the day that insurgents swept into Palmyra's military air base, prison, intelligence headquarters and the city's ancient sites.

The original video was posted by Ruptly to Liveleak on May 20, 2015.  The "breaking news" version on March 10, 2016 showed a different opening image and spliced out the government backed soldiers engaging with Daesh militants as they fought near the ancient ruins.

When I pointed this out to Ruptly, they silently withdrew the video late yesterday without further explanation or acknowledgment of their fast switch.   But not before the extracted video had been retweeted several times. 

The same type of sensationalist, false reporting was propagated by Breaking News, @BRnewsKING though their report yesterday centered on multiple airplane strikes at Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma'ani Castle (Palmyra Castle).

Again branded by heritage activists as "new" news, the report was picked up and then analysed by geopolitical analyst and microblogger @markito0171 who spent time pinpointing aircraft. 

It is one thing to accidentally misrepresent current affairs, propagating someone else's error in assumption.  It is another thing to intentionally amplify incidents, turning the imagery into page view chasing gutter journalism thereby manipulating the chain of historical events.  When the latter happens content providers create a reverberation, often in a partisan manner, that only serves to further polarise parties to a already complicated asymmetrical conflict. 

I encourage news organisations, journalists, analysts and citizen activists reporting on the Syrian conflict to slow down on retweeting, to be more transparent about, and more attentive to, the way in which reporting has an impact across the conflict heritage ecosystem. Viral journalism is great, but only if we police ourselves and demand factual accuracy from our sources.

Ethical journalists should strive for honesty and be courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.  Good journalism seeks the truth and reports it, even when the truth isn't necessarily something we are happy about. 

Good journalists also take responsibility for the accuracy of what they report and verify information as best as is possible before releasing it to the public. When errors are made or situations misinterpreted, journalists should be accountable and transparent to their errors, acknowledging mistakes and correcting them prominently. 

Lastly I believe that journalists should live by the creed:

Being the first to report should never compromise the truth.  

Op Ed by:  Lynda Albertson, CEO ARCA
@sauterne (Ergo Sum)


August 30, 2015

Confirmed - Islamic State has Destroyed the Ancient Temple of Bel in Syria's Palmyra

Just one day after UN training and research agency UNITAR had confirmed via satellite images that Palmyra's Baalshamin Temple was destroyed by Islamic State militants, ARCA has received word from multiple direct and indirect sources that The Temple of Bel has also been targeted.  The temple is aligned along the eastern end of the Great Colonnade at Palmyra and its epigraphic remains attest to the temple's dedication in 32 C.E.  After that, it underwent changes through the course of both the first and second centuries. Since the spread of Islam in the 7th century the Temple of Bel has been used as a mosque though the 1920s.

Temple of Bel - North Adyton Ceiling, North Adyton and South Adyton 
The Temple of Bel's cella are unique.  Two inner sanctuaries, the north and south adytons ((a restricted area within the cella of a Greek or Roman temple) are dedicated as the shrines of Bel and other local deities. Both the North and the South chambers had monolithic ceilings. The Northern chamber’s ceiling highlighted seven planets surrounded by twelve zodiac carvings as well as a camel procession, a veiled women, and what is believed to be Makkabel, the god of fertility.  While many believed the temple's repurposing as a mosque would have offered it protection, this imagery may have been the target for destruction under Daesh idiology.

The Islamic State took control of the historic site of Ancient Palmyra on the May 21, 2015.  The extent of the damage to the Roman-era structure is still being investigated.

Due to the number of conflicting reports, ARCA has been continually aggregating reports on the status of the Temple of Bel as more conclusive information came in and could be corroborated.

Update September 01, 2015 07:30 GMT+1 At 7:30 this morning, ARCA posted word that the UN Training and Research Agency (UNITAR) had confirmed that satellite images received have confirmed that the Temple of Bel, in the ancient city of Palmyra in northern Syria has been destroyed. Tom Holland, and London-based writer and historian gave this sad, but fitting eulogy, which we have included in the satellite photo caption below.

"The temple of Bel in Palmyra,
dedicated when Tiberius was emperor and Jesus was alive.
For 1983 years it stood largely intact. Now – confirmed, gone
--Tom Holland
UN Training and Research Agency (UNITAR) posted news of their satellite and image analysis shortly after midnight.  Their written statement reads "We can confirm destruction of the main building of the Temple of Bel as well as a row of columns in its immediate vicinity."

Einar Bjorgo, manager of UNITAR’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme - (UNOSAT) said a satellite image taken Monday "unfortunately shows the destruction of the temple's main building as well as a row of columns in its immediate vicinity."

Image Credit/Image analysis: UNITAR-UNOSAT Copyright Airbus Defense and Space - Findings , based on two images: one taken on Aug. 27 which showed the main building and columns still intact and one post destruction.

Update August 31, 2015 15:10 GMT+1 Speaking to the Associated Press via Skype today, an Islamic State operative has said that the temple (of Bel) had been destroyed, without elaborating. The individual spoke on condition of anonymity because members of the group are not allowed to speak to journalists.

Update August 31, 2015 15:10 GMT+1 Director-General of Syria’s Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) issues a formal statement on their website which reads, in part, "DGAM could not verify this news with confident resources, so the act is not sure nor the size of destruction, hoping it is not true."

Update August 31, 2015 14:30 GMT+1 New York Times article, quoting Syria's Director-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), Maumoon Abdul-Karim, seems to indicate the two inner sanctuaries, the north and south adytons, were the target in this attack on Palmyra's immovable heritage.

Update August 31, 2015 14:15 GMT+1 Reached in Damascus, Maumoon Abdul-Karim, the Director-General of Syria’s Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) has told the Guardian “The temple structure is on a raised terrace that can be seen from afar, and our information is that the temple is still there,” 

Update August 31, 2015 13:36 GMT+1 Speaking to the Associated Press via Skype today, an Islamic State operative has said that the temple (of Bel) had been destroyed, without elaborating. The individual spoke on condition of anonymity because members of the group are not allowed to speak to journalists.

Update August 31, 2015 09:38 GMT+1 A report by Business Insider stated that Mohamed Hassan al-Homsi, an activist from Tadmor who uses a pseudonym, had indicated that the group has used explosives to destroy the inner part of the temple.  Al-Homsi is reported to have said

"They laid the explosives today, using booby-trapped boxes and barrels that were already prepared by IS”

The report also stated that Maumoon Abdul-Karim, the Director-General of Syria’s Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) was reached by phone in Damascus, but that he could not yet confirm the destruction.  Professor Abdul-Karim said

"Rumours about these ruins are always coming out so we have to be careful about news like this."

Update August 31, 2015 03:38 GMT+1 Report via the Washington Post states that a contact in Hom’s outside Islamic State territory, using the pseudonym, Khaled al-Homsi, collaborates reports that the Temple of Bel was blown up Sunday afternoon.

Update August 31, 2015 00:36 GMT+1 An Al Jazeera reporter in the Syrian city of Homs was told that ISIL on Sunday detonated more than 30 tonnes of explosives.  Note: 30 tones would be a significant amount of explosives. If this is correct, the size and sound of the explosion would likely have resembled something similar to what is seen in this video. 

Update August 30, 2015 23:15 GMT+1 AP and CBS and news reported that a resident, possibly from Tadmor and going by the name "Nasser al-Thaer" reported that a substantial blast went off at 1:45 pm Sunday afternoon. This contact also reported "it is total destruction" and that "the bricks and the columns are on the ground."   This witness may be the same person who spoke with AP reporters who confirmed the destruction of Palmyra's Baalshamin Temple Destruction and who previously reported to Syria Deeply on July 21, 2015 that bombs had been planted in the historic temples of Bel and Baal Shamin. 

Update August 30, 2015 22:10 GMT +1 The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has also received word that the temple was targeted but has no further information on the extent of the damage.

Image Credit: Khan Academy

August 29, 2015

UN Training and Research Agency UNITAR Visually Confirms Palmyra's Baalshamin Temple Destruction

By Lynda Albertson
UN training and research agency UNITAR has confirmed satellite images taken on August 25 2015 visually confirms the destruction of Palmyra's Baalshamin Temple by Islamic State militants. 

Comparing images of the ancient city of Palmyra taken on May 22, 2015 by Pléiades Earth-observation system managed by Airbus Defence and Space with a later image taken on or around August 25, 2015 UNITAR has issued a statement saying:  

"We confirm the destruction of the main building, while surrounding columns seem to be less affected."

The destruction of the temple was reported to have happened last Sunday, August 23, 2015 shortly after 4:00 pm shortly after the Islamic State published photos indicating they had beheaded Khaled Mohamad al-Asaad, the retired head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Earlier this week the Islamic State published images showing various containers, containers, presumably containing explosives, placed around and inside the temple as well as an image of what appeared to be a large explosion at the time of the temple’s detonation. 

Comparing site map images of Palmyra by Ross Burns, an author of two works on the archaeology and history of Syria, with the newly released Pléiades image reviewed by UNITAR, one can see that at the time the images were taken the Temple of Nabû had apparently not been subject to intentional destruction.   Nabû’s temple is located to left of the colonnaded street adjacent to the monumental arch of Septimius Severus. Nabû is believed to have been a Mesopotamian god of wisdom and oracles.  The trapezoid-shapped temple dates from the last quarter of the 1st century CE through to the 3rd century.