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​Al-Asaad and the identity of a people

interview with Serena Maria Cecchini

Palmyra before its destruction

Palmyra before its destruction

Milan has decided to honour the memory of Khaled al-Asaad, the keeper of Palmyra murdered by IS for defending the archaeological heritage of the city, by dedicating him a tree in the Garden of the Righteous on Monte Stella hill and a room inside the new Museum of Cultures. al-Asaad’s sacrifice brought the defence of the historical heritage of Syria, a country that witnessed the passage of the great cultures of the Near East, back into the spotlight. We talked about this with Professor Serena Maria Cecchini, director of the Italian-Syrian archaeological mission to Arslan Tash and deputy director of the Italian archaeological mission to Tell Afis (Saraqeb - Idlib).

What is your relationship with Syria?

I went to Syria for the first time in 1965 as a coworker to Paolo Matthiae, who then ran the mission to Tell Mardikh, the ancient Ebla. I excavated that site for some years, then I dealt with the Phoenicians in Italy and Tunisia, but I went back to work in Syria in the Eighties, as deputy director of the mission to Tell Afis – a site next to Ebla. From 2006 to 2010 I then ran a mission to Arslan Tash, a site fully comprised within area in Northern Syria under full Kurdish control, only a few kilometres away from Kobane. I had had my concession extended until 2011, but unfortunately we had to leave the site earlier because of the first signals of unrest in the country.

This year I turned “50 years of Syria”, and therefore it is a great suffering to witness what happens. For the whole of us Syria is like a second homecountry, we have friends and colleagues who are suffering over there. The mission to Tell Afis owns two homes in a city at the crossing point between the big highways that stretch from Aleppo to Damascus and from Aleppo to the seaside, a strategic point as such continuously shelled and targeted by the different factions of rebel fighters. People have now been living in the fields, we receive desperate letters..

The pictures of the destruction of Palmyra remind us of the notorious video of the demolition of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan (Afghanistan), Nimrud in Irak, and other monuments always in Syria. What are the effects of such havoc?

Everything in the East – in Syria, as well as Lebanon – is a testimony of the passage of the great cultures of the Near East. Do not let forget, in fact, that this is the land where the concept of town emerged for the first time, it was the seat of the first urbanisation, the passage from picking to agricolture and from hunting to breeding, the area of birth of the writing we still use today. Destroying it is like cutting off the ties with one’s own family, and this is even more true about Palmyra and its Roman past, that belongs to us in some way. When I was asked what Palmyra is like, I always said: “Imagine you are walking in the desert and you find yourself in front of the Roman forum, or even something greater”. It is a terrible loss, and unfortunately fundamentalists are going on wrecking havoc: after the temple of Bel, they are destroyng the great towering graves, as well. It is a kind of rage that is targeted also at the Islamic monuments belonging to other religious streams; some years ago in Tell Afis we restored a small cenotaph of Sheik Hassan, highly revered in this area, but unfortunately one of the first things the IS did was to demolish it.

Thus, is there a tie between the artistic heritage and the identity of a people?

Of course. Among else the civilisation of the Near East has very close ties with its artistic heritage, because it shows how many souls there have been and are still there in that region. Destroying it means on the one hand to cut off memory, on the other hand to deprive the future generations of it.

To what extent does the involvement of the local populace matter for the protection of the artistic heritage?

As reported also by the Direction of the Antiquities and Museums of Damascus, th local population tends to protect the antiquities when it is made aware. Those who have worked at the excavation sites defend them even more strongly, and take a proprietoral interest in defending the relics that have been found with a great deal of effort … The local people are aware that that is first of all a heritage of theirs, perceives an important tie with the monuments, but of course it is difficult to defend them when faced with such violence..

The archaeological sites nonetheless are not only threatened by the destructions of fundamentalists, but also by smuggling…

Of course, and I believe this havoc is also aimed at drawing the attention of the international illegal market, which value these relics more and more. It is well-known that London has become a great marketplace for these finds; some have been retrieved, but I do not know ho many have been sold or are in unknown hands.

The officers of the Directorate of the Antiquities and Museums are working to rescue the relics, and they are also filing and digitalizing them. What is the importance of such deeds?

The Directorate is carrying out an extraordinary work. Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim also paid visit to some sites that are in the occupied areas, thus running a great risk.

Besides Khaled al-Asaad, recently also a young officer of the Damascus Direction, Qassim Abdullah Yehya, lost his life to a shelling on the citadel in the area of the restorations. These men do immense sacrifices: they have a devotion that is even moving, beyond all ideology they are committed to their work and the country’s antiquities, which they feel as their heritage. Let us not forget that one of the key factors of the Syrian economy was tourism, that flourished on these things.

Digitalization is very important, because it enables archaeologists to put data about the finds to the disposal of distant or foreign people. Moreover, in case of loss, this is a way to memorialise them. It is also possible to start from these data to rebuild part of the relics that have been destroyed, although we fear stones literally crumbled and this operation has become very difficult.

After over 4 years of war in Syria, what can be the role of intellectuals?

Intellectuals bear a social responsibility in passing on values and memory. I also think to the younger generations: intellectuals, once things improve, will play a key role. It suffices to notice that millions children and young boys and girls do not attend school anymore in Syria; therefore we will need many people tho can transmit the memory of the heritage and the millenary history of this country.

Milan decided to remember Khaled al-Asaad, this brave Palmyra keeper who was brutally assassinated in August for refusing to reveal fundamentalists the whereabouts of the city’s treasures, by planting a tree in his honour in the Garden of the Righteous Worldwide. What message can arise from this acknowledgement?

The story of al-Asaad show us that if everyone does his or her own duty in his or her span of control, things are more likely to improve. The Director of the Antiquities wrote in the bulletin that he had asked Khaled many times to leave the city, but he had never wanted to. Also his elder so, who had replaced him at the direction of Palmyra, was arrested and then released. Al-Asaad knew what he risked remaining in town, but he did not want to leave. This is why, as Paolo Matthiae wrote, Khaled al-Asaad is a Righteous man. 

23 September 2015

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