Treasure Hunting
Tour de Force
Studio Zeitgeist
Farid's Pearls of Wisdom

Treasure Hunting

World Heritage

March 24th 2016

History is occasionally allowed to repeat itself, as a stand at the European art fair TEFAF artfully shows. Placed on stand 436, the one belonging to Swiss art gallery Rhéa, one finds the sculpted head of king Demetrius II Nicator, ruler of the Seleucid Empire (present-day Syria).

When this rather unpopular monarch was defeated in a battle at Damascus in 126 BC, he fled to the city of Ptolemaisin present-day Libya. However, his wife closed the gates against him. After some wandering about, Demetrius was killed on a boat near Tyre (present-day Lebanon). When the Syrian-British Asma al-Assad rediscovers her own progres- sive political points of view and plays a similar trick on her husband Bashar, this makes for an interesting historical parallel.

While the world heritage sites in Syria are crumbling, slowly but steadily, we, mere mortals, get to take a look at some of the remaining artefacts at one of the world’s most influential art fairs. At the same time, the filthy rich are making some purchases for their private collections. I would like to take this moment to repeat the quote by Lucebert I shared with you last week: ‘Everything of value is defenceless’. This line is particularly relevant to the realm of world heritage. The art displayed at TEFAF may have a joint insured value of 2 billion euros, but it is by no means safe from IS’ wrecking balls.

As Mike Giglio of Buzzfeed, reporting from the 900 kilometer long Turkish-Syrian border, strikingly put it: “What we call Sy- ria is disappearing building by building, refugee by refugee, artefact by artefact.”

Almost ten million Syrians have fled their home country, their cities in ruins, with the Cultural Heritage Initiative of the Ame- rican School of Oriental Research estimating that over 25% of all archeological sites in Syria have been pillaged since the beginning of the civil war.

It is up to the international community to save the remaining 75%, if only partially. The United States have sanctioned the trade of Iranian and Syrian artefacts (to be clear: Demetrius’ head is not one of these), which is a start. It will not suffice, however. With a total budget of 300 million dollars, Unesco is sadly lacking the means to call a halt to the looting and destruction. Perhaps we should employ our ground forces to defend the art treasures.

I could just kick myself for not dropping by Aleppo, the termi- nus of the Silk Road, when I visited Syria in 2005. When the war finally ends, I will have to rely on the virtual reality tour. Let us hope that this month’s peace talks go according to plan, so that some of the real Syria will remain. The country and its inhabitants are worth it. 

back <