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As Palmyra falls, Paris heritage show looks to the future

Francois Mori, AFP | French President Francois Hollande (C) at the inauguration of the "Eternal Sites" exhibition December 13, 2016 at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Inaugurating an exhibit on endangered Middle Eastern heritage sites Tuesday, French President François Hollande called the show “a militant act”. But the curators are looking ahead to peace and reconstruction.


Palmyra fell to the Islamic State (IS) group last year. Then this spring, the ancient city was retaken by Russian-backed Syrian forces. That lasted until this weekend, when the IS group recaptured the area, which houses a UNESCO world heritage site dating to the Roman Empire. Amid heavy fighting, Russian military officials on Saturday announced that they had forced out IS jihadists from Palmyra. But that turned out to be premature. By Sunday, the city was back under IS control.

Palmyra, an oasis refuge on the ancient caravan trails crisscrossing the Fertile Crescent, has long been sought by conquerors, invaders and empire-builders.

These days, the city is being seized, liberated and seized again at such a dizzying pace, it’s hard to know what’s going on in the eastern Syrian desert city.

But now, in a museum thousands of miles away from the Syrian desert and a world apart from the ravages of war, the stones of this ancient city are telling a different story.

It’s a story that tends to get lost in the speed of modern life, with news cycles spinning out jihadist propaganda and politicians vowing to annihilate terrorists from the face of the earth.

A new show, "Eternal Sites: From Bamiyan to Palmyra," at the Grand Palais in Paris aims to highlight the indestructible legacy of endangered heritage sites. Inaugurated by Hollande and the UNESCO chief, Irina Bokova, on Tuesday, the free exhibition runs from December 14 to January 9.

Opening the show before a select audience Tuesday night, Hollande said the exhibit was dedicated to protecting world heritage. "This exhibition is a militant act for visitors who will come not because it’s free, but because they want to be actors, not just spectators, in protecting heritage," Hollande said.

But while politicians talk of protecting heritage, experts are concentrating on reconstruction after the conflicts, drawing lessons from history and past wars.

"Eternal Sites" focuses on heritage locations in the Iraq-Syria region that are threatened or inaccessible for different reasons. While the exhibit outlines the dangers plaguing heritage sites, it also offers lessons on the cycles of destruction, restoration, rebuilding, and above all, highlights mankind’s stubborn refusal to forget.

Marrying ancient arts and modern technology

Images of giant, sun-washed stone walls and crumbling mud bricks greet visitors as they enter three cavernous rooms at the Grand Palais. "Eternal Sites" offers viewers an immersive exploration of four inaccessible sites: Palmyra, the Crac de Chevaliers crusader castle, the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, and Khorsabad, the ancient city in northern Iraq that was the capital of Assyrian King Sargon II, who ruled from 722 to 705 BC.

Plunging visitors deep into history of the sites, the images are made more interesting by new photographic techniques that use drones to capture footage and photos of inaccessible sites and digital algorithms that enable a 360-degree reconstruction and projection of the locations.

The exhibit, hosted by the Grand Palais and Louvre museums in collaboration with Iconem -- a Paris-based company using digital technology to aid archaeological missions -- is a marriage of ancient artifacts and cutting-edge advances.

Palmyra, for instance, is represented by images of the site captured by Iconem’s drones in April and July, when the city was under the Syrian regime's control.

The exhibit also displays an exquisite funerary relief from the third century featuring a couple – a man and his wife – drinking from a ritual cup.

Funerary reliefs, said Marielle Pic, director of the Middle Eastern Antiquities Department at the Louvre, were common features in funeral towers outside the center of Palmyra. “These are the types of objects that were destroyed by Daesh,” said Pic, using the Arabic acronym for the IS group. “When we speak of Palmyra, we tend to talk about the big temples, like the Temple of Baal, the Temple of Baalshamin and the Arc de Triomphe [Monumental Arc]. We don’t speak of funerary reliefs.”

The 43 x 63 cm relief provides the sort of detail that can enrich an understanding of ancient civilizations. It features a man, wrapped in a toga-like garment of the Roman era over pantaloons embroidered in a distinctively oriental style reminiscent of the shalwars from the Khorasan region of present day Persia, Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.

“Palmyra is between the East and the West,” said Pic, explaining the fusion of styles. “Palmyra is in the center of the desert, an oasis with a lot of palm trees and a point where all the treasures from the caravan routes meet.”

Shortly after IS militants fled Palmyra this spring, experts estimated that 80 percent of the ruins -- including 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and priceless artifacts -- were unharmed. But with the recent resumption of fighting, those estimates might need updating.

Threatened Islamic sites

The show’s curators have been careful to pick sites from antiquity to the Roman Empire, the Islamic era as well as of the medieval Christian interaction with the Islamic world.

While two sites -- the ancient Roman city of Palmyra and Khorsabad – hail from the pre-Islamic era, the Crac de Chevaliers and the Umayyad Mosque are from the Islamic era.

That was an important consideration for Yannick Lintz, head of the Louvre’s Islamic Art Department. “When we see the propaganda by Daesh, of course they want to show how they can destroy civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Khorsabad, Palmyra, that are part of European consciousness. But in the Arab world, they show how they are destroying Shiite culture,” Lintz said. “As head of the Islamic Art Department, I get angry with the unconsciousness of European media, which shows Daesh as an Islamic group destroying older civilizations. It was important for me to show a new truth, which is Islamic cultural heritage is as threatened as ancient civilizations.”

Cultural heritage has always been threatened by man, time and the natural elements. Khorsabad, for example, is a city built by mud bricks, and its greatest enemy has been the natural elements that reduced the city to mountains of rubble, which were first discovered in 1842, by the French consul general to Mosul, Paul-Emile Botta. Some of the paintings of the region by Botta’s friends, such as French orientalist painter Eugene Flandin, are also on display at the exhibit.

Sometimes manmade damage is not intentional, but a product of negligence and indifference. The Crac des Chevaliers, for instance, was damaged in the fighting between the Syrian regime and rebel fighters who took shelter in the 12th century crusader castle built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. The fighting, which peaked around the summer of 2012, saw some damage from mortar shells to the walls of the immense medieval structure.

Rebuilding glass-and-concrete business districts

For experts such as Pic and Lintz, who have devoted their lives to the preservation of cultural heritage, the latest twists and turns of wars and conflicts are tragic, but not debilitating. As historians, they know that mankind can be as destructive as it is creative.

The focus, for them, is on the future. “We’re in the same situation as Europe was after World War II. It’s level zero and it’s going to take a lot of debate and discussion about how do we rebuild and how do we reconstruct. What we need is a real scheme, a plan to rebuild and restore, which is more complex,” said Lintz.

Some postwar reconstructions have arguably been as tragic and more irreversible than the damage wrought by war. Beirut’s reconstruction after the Lebanese civil war, for instance, saw the destruction of ancient sites at the hands of developers in a rush to rebuild a soulless, glass-and-concrete business district in the heart of the Lebanese capital.

Meanwhile, in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, residents complain that the destruction of ancient sites in the fighting between Turkish security forces and Kurdish fighters is aimed at granting real estate developers linked to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the opportunity to rebuild ancient neighbourhoods without consulting conservationists.

“We are the experts and we can be active only if the local owners -- governments and politicians -- want it,” Lintz said. “That’s something out of our power. But I think every small influence helps. And I think shows like this are important. It’s important to access a large public to create a large opinion, because opinion -- public opinion -- is important for politicians. It’s important to let people know that we don’t want to do politics, we just want to help you to value your own cultural heritage.”

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