Palmyra’s ‘Monuments Men’ stash ancient relics before Daesh can destroy them

Published May 18th, 2015 - 07:59 GMT

A band of Monuments Men has come together to help hide 2,000-year-old artefacts from the clutches of ISIS [Daesh] as the terror group advance on one of the world's most important archaeological sites.

The ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria are under threat after Islamic State fighters advanced to within little more than a mile of the gates when they swept through nearby villages.

The militants even moved into the residential northern areas of the town itself - the ruins lie to the southwest - and though they have since pulled out, fears remain they could desecrate the UNESCO world heritage site in the same way they have similar treasures in Iraq.

In a nod to the George Clooney film of the same name which came out last year, a group of locals calling themselves the Monuments Men have been rushing to hide and bury museum pieces, gather small artefacts and stand guard over the ruins since the threat first emerged last week.

'I call them Syria's Monuments Men' one of the organisers, British-educated Syrian archeologist Amr al-Azm, told the Sunday Times, in reference to the soldiers and academics who saved European art from the Nazis during the Second World War as dramatised in the Clooney film.

The volunteers have braved the jihadist advance to document and protect ancient artifacts.

Mr Azm was the founding director of conservation at Syria's Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) and used to teach at Damascus University before going into exile in Ohio.

He said: 'When I saw the destruction I thought I couldn't face my children if I just sat by.

'With the scale of the damage that's being done, we're not winning.'

Similar work is being done by volunteers working with Isber Sabrine, a Syrian archeologist living in Spain.

Mr Sabrine has been begging the regime by phone to send reinforcements to protect Palmyra as well as helicopters to remove objects to safety.

He has developed a network of volunteers across Syria, whom he keeps in touch with via Skype, who do 'first aid' to damaged buildings.

They are trained in how to get in and out of key sites, document what is missing and hide precious objects that may be at risk, recording the GPS locations so they can be retrieved later.

Mr Sabrine said: 'If we lose Palmyra it will be one of the biggest cultural catastrophes in history.

'We are really training trainers, then send them inside Syria to train others. It's a chain.

'It's very risky and they are putting their lives in danger.'

As well as cameras and laptops, volunteers are given disguises to pose as antiques dealers so they can photograph looted artefacts for a database.

The ancient city of Palmyra stood on a caravan route at the crossroads of several civilisations and its 1st and 2nd century temples and colonnaded streets mark a unique blend of Graeco-Roman and Persian influences.

The jihadist advance on the well-preserved remains came as an international conference was underway in Cairo to address destruction already wreaked by IS on the ancient sites of Nimrud and Hatra in Iraq.

The militants' see such sites as targets because of their desire to wipe out all traces of 'non-Islamic' history and what they regard as the idolatrous antiquities, icons and carvings they have.

Foreign affairs and antiquities officials from 11 Arab countries gathered in Egypt to condemn the jihadists' demolition of Iraq's heritage with sledgehammers, bulldozers and high explosives.

The Syrian government's antiquities chief Mamoun Abdulkarim said he had no doubt that if Palmyra fell to the jihadists, it would suffer a similar fate to ancient Nimrud, which they blew up earlier this year.

'If IS enters Palmyra, it will spell its destruction... It will be a repetition of the barbarism and savagery which we saw in Nimrud, Hatra and Mosul.'

He said Syria's antiquities officials would try to ensure the safety of artefacts found in Palmyra's archaeological digs over the years and now housed in an adjacent museum.

Mr Abdulkarim has told Reuters the army had regained control of the whole city of Palmyra and that the ancient ruins to the southwest of the city were unharmed. 'The outskirts they had entered were all recovered,' he said.

Provincial governor Talal Barazi also said the army had recaptured northern districts of the modern town of Tadmur which the jihadists had overrun on Saturday.

'IS's attack was foiled, and we ousted them from the northern parts of Tadmur,' Barazi said.

'The army is still... combing the streets for bombs.'

The jihadists launched a lightning offensive across the desert last week from their stronghold in the Euphrates Valley to the east, triggering ferocious fighting with the army, which has a major base just outside the oasis town.

At least 23 regime loyalists and 29 jihadists were killed as IS overran northern parts of the town on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Barazi said the army had killed 'more than 130 jihadists.' He gave no figure for the army's losses.

The governor said Tadmur's peacetime population of 70,000 had been swamped by an influx of civilians fleeing the IS advance.

'We are taking all necessary precautions, and we are working on securing humanitarian aid quickly in fear of mass fleeing from the city,' he said.

The antiquities chief said he had been 'living in a state of terror' that IS would destroy the 1st and 2nd century temples and colonnaded streets that are among Palymra's architectural treasures.

By Tim Macfarlan

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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