19 January 2014

Wrack and Ruin in Syria

It's hard to understand the scale and spread of killing in Syria, until you see this map.  

So, Jacopo Ottaviani, a freelance journalist who also describes himself as a map lover, made this map which has just appeared in Foreign Policy magazine:

It visualizes the approximately 74,000 people who died  [in Syria] from March 2011 to November 2013. Every flare represents the death of one or more people, the most common causes being shooting, shelling, and field execution. The brighter a flare is, the more people died in that specific time and place.
Ottaviani's map -- unlike mine -- is animated so you can watch the flares  growing in size and frequency as the fighting spreads from a smattering of towns three years ago to reach the political and commercial capitals of Damascus (= scus, its last letters just seen on the lower-left of the map) and Aleppo -- that most ancient and glorious city now so badly damaged that its battered buildings, debris fields, and bomb craters can be seen from outer space.  Meanwhile, the Death March moved relentlessly on to the borderlands and into the Kurdish northeast.  Growing like a cancer, as Ottaviani puts it.

And then the counting suddenly stops -- at 74,000 deaths, a grim milestone reached in November 2013.  Not because the violence had subsided.  On the contrary, best estimates now reckon more than 100,000 Syrian lives lost.  But because United Nations is no longer updating its casualty figures:
"It was always a very difficult figure," a U.N. spokesman told the Associated Press. "It was always very close to the edge in terms of how much we could guarantee the source material was accurate. And it reached a point where we felt we could no longer cross that line. So for the time being, we're not updating those figures."
Counting or not, the brutal war grinds on.

The plucky independent Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) still keeps a daily tally. Today's figures are not yet out but yesterday 194 people were killed; the day before, 201 died.  The reports become almost laconic:
The SOHR received footage of the slaughter of the 3 members of the military intelligence ambushed by the town of al-Husun, initially reported on 12/1/2014. Their throats were slit and their heads cut off by fighters from Jund al-Sham. This was done in the Krak des Chevaliers, a UNESCO World Heritage [Site]. The video also showed the summary execution of a man accused of dealing with the Syrian intelligence.
And so it goes.

Krak des Chevaliers is far from being the only archaeological site under fire.  

Spot the tanks 

Moderate to severe war-related damage has been confirmed by satellite images at 10 out of 30 studied sites in a recent survey.

Take Tell Qarqur in northwest Syria (near Hama), for example -- hardly a World Heritage Site but its mound (left) contains the history of 10,000 years of human occupation.  Recent images show pretty clearly what's happening there: tanks are sitting inside bunkers carved into the top of the mound (at the black arrows).  Apparently, the prominent surfaces of ancient mounds built up over several millennia serve as strategic grounds for military installations overlooking the flat surroundings.


Tanks are up on the hilltop citadel that overlooks Palmyra, too.  And, as you see from Ottaviani's map, the fighting has not spared Zenobia's city. I counted over 60 incidents flashing on the map, starting slowly, then one-right-after-the-other, a pause, and it flared up again, rat-a-tat-tat.  Zenobia's blog has been covering the violence in Palmyra since March 2012 but, after a suicide bombing in February 2013, it became eerily silent.  As the map shows, however, there was no pause in the killing.  Nor does there appear to have been a pause in the looting of its archaeological treasures.

Aqma is missing

The limestone funerary portrait of Aqma, daughter of Atelena Hajeuja (left) has just appeared on the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.  She is number 9 on this list published by the International Council of Museums.  Aqma died some time in the middle of the 2nd century CE and her effigy was placed in the elegant Breiki family tomb in the southeast necropolis.  After the Breiki tomb was excavated (1958), her portrait was taken along with those of her relatives to the Palmyra Museum.  If she was stolen, I fear the worst.

Museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors are encouraged not to acquire such objects without having carefully and thoroughly researched their origin and all the relevant legal documentation.... Any cultural good that could have originated from Syria should be subjected to detailed scrutiny and precautionary measures.

Fat chance!  Aqma is probably already hanging on a marble wall somewhere in Saudi or in the Gulf .  The interest such collectors have in the preservation of Syrian antiquities is always in inverse proportion to their desire to flaunt their riches.

The kidnapped Aqma was last seen with her right hand touching the edge of her veil where it drapes over her shoulder -- as if in the act of drawing a curtain around her personal space.*  It is now truly curtains, I fear, for Aqma.

* Quotation from Jennifer Heath, The Veil: Women Writers on its History, Lore, and Politics.  Univ. of California (2008) 28.

Sources: In addition to Jacopo Ottaviani's article, 'Death March' in the January 15, 2014 issue of Foreign Policy, I have made use of the Facebook page of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR); Denise Chow, writing for LiveScience on August 19, 2013 , 'Syria Civil War Scars Seen from Space';  Megan Gannon, again for Live Science on January 17, 2014, under the same title.


Top: With the kind permission of the developer, Jacopo Ottaviani, a screenshot of his CartoDB map, the original of which appeared in the January 15, 2014 issue of Foreign Policy

Middle: Military tanks inside bunkers carved into the ancient mound of Tell Qarqur.  Photo credit: Google Earth (view full size image here), via  Live Science, January 17, 2014.

Below: Limestone funerary  relief ca. 150 CE from the Brieki Tomb.  Inscribed "Aqma, daughter of Atelena Hajeula, Alas!"  Her hair is piled up in the ornate Roman style called melon rib, fashionable from the middle of the second century into the third.  Her jewellery was once gilded and other parts were painted, traces of which can still be seen.  Palmyra Museum B  2666/8967.   Photo credit:  Syria, Land of Civilization, Travelling Exhibition 1999, Quebec, Cat. # 334.


  1. Words fail me since a long time. The world did not learn much from Iraq 2003 and UNESCO is powerless, even if the Syrian regime has signed the Geneva convention. Both sides create havoc and nobody can prevent it.

  2. Fairly unlikely that Aqma will end up in Saudi or the Gulf, although middlemen there are involved in the trade and i agree with you about hypocrisy in the peninsula ; sadly and much more likely that Aqma will end up hanging on a wall in Europe or the US.

  3. Barbarians will always attempt to acquire culture on the cheap (for them) -- as if surrounding themselves with priceless objects somehow makes them immortal and better than everyone else. Silly men. My guess is that she disappeared into the bowels of China or a tower in New York City.


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