Since ISIS seized control of Palmyra- a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Syria- in May, the nation's cultural heritage has continued to be targeted.
Staff writer Yoon Ju Chung sat down with Jennifer Gates-Foster, a UNC assistant professor of classical archaeology, who said this destruction should be classified as a war crime because it obliterates traces of Syrian history.
The Daily Tar Heel: Why is the city of Palmyra and the Arch of Triumph historically important?
Jennifer Gates-Foster: Palmyra was a trading hub and a point of contact among a lot of communities that were active in the Roman era. At other times it was also a capital of its own distinct imperial state, the Palmyrene Empire. After that state was defeated, the Romans began actively trading with individuals. So (this ancient city) could give archaeologists a view into a cosmopolitan life of people in the Roman Empire.
The Arch of Triumph was a symbol of the site just like tower tombs and the Temple of Bel, which had been blown up several weeks ago. It was a highly decorative marking of intersections and roadways in the city. This monumental street system was valued for both the quality of architectural carving and the state of preservation.
DTH: Why is ISIS deliberately destroying historical objects?
JG: They are strategically targeting items that are valued and known by Western audiences because those items guarantee media coverage during its time of setback or eclipse by other events.
DTH: What do you think about Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s rare statement of condemnation towards the ISIS?
JG: That’s interesting. He has been very quiet about the destruction of Syrian antiquities because it’s well known and clearly established now that his army, the forces of Syrian rebels that he’s combating, and ISIS — all of them — are guilty of targeting antiquities and cultural heritage sites to shelter munitions.
DTH: Is there any way to prevent destruction or illegal excavation of Syrian antiquities?
JG: Neither of those are achievable goals right now. Without essentially forces on the ground, without kinds of empowered ally on the ground in Syria who’s willing or able to do something, we can’t do anything essentially except for documenting what’s happening … There is no way to intervene without military force on the ground. And I’m not saying it should be. I don’t think any archaeologist would argue that preserving antiquities is worth a single life. But at the same time there is a practical limit.
DTH: Are scholars paying attention to what’s happening in Syria? What will happen?
JG: Once Palmyra is gone, it’s gone. I’ve been to the site. It was an amazing, extraordinary site. It cannot be reconstructed. It’s gone. Your generation and my children will never see the site. It can be described, seen through photos and artifacts in museums, but the experience of that site on the ground at real time is impossible. It’s a point of incredible concern for all of us. We feel powerless to do anything.
DTH: Do you agree with UNESCO’s argument that the destruction of archaeological sites should be considered as a new war crime?
JG: I agree. I think that the UN defines war crimes as crimes against humanity and I do believe that the destruction of cultural patrimony represents the destruction of the past and heritage, which is really a part of these people’s community.
In addition to ISIS making political statements about their power to gain attention in the West, they also actively try to obliterate any traces of the past and eliminate any kind of memory about the ancient past because it is against their ideological framework.
By doing that they are orphaning Syria, taking a long history, which belongs to them and is a part of their identity, away. To destroy that is to rip from this community essence of self. I think it’s a terrible crime against that community.
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