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The Modern Monuments Man: Khaled al-Asaad


This time last year, I wrote an article for Sotheby's Institute of Art's MADE IN BED publication entitled "2020 - A New Decade of Cultural Conservation". I spoke about the importance of safe-guarding our historic sites and shared cultural heritage. Spurred by Donald Trump's declaration which pertained to a war crime, I felt it important to outline the necessity of maintaining ties to our past, our ancestors and most of all, our humanity.

Last week the body of the 82 year old archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad is believed to have been found in Syria. Asaad was brutally beheaded by The Islamic State terrorist organisation in 2015 whilst endeavouring to protect the whereabouts of hidden artefacts from the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria. A report from the BBC states that Asaad was detained by the terrorist group, interrogated and then murdered in a square in Tadmor - on the grounds that he refused to co-operate and reveal where he had hidden the artefacts.

Born in Palmyra in 1932, Al-Asaad was a father to eleven children, an archeologist and academic. Becoming the principal custodian of the ancient site in 1963 enabled him to eventually secure Palmyra the recognition of a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. Working alongside American, Polish, German, French and Swiss archaeological missions, Asaad dedicated his life to the excavation and restoration of the ancient city site.

"He was a fixture, you can’t write about Palmyra’s history or anything to do with Palmyrian work without mentioning Khaled Asaad"

- Amr al-Azm, former Syrian Antiquities Official

Palmyra - A city in the Middle of the Syrian Desert

The ancient city of Palmyra, located 210 km northeast of Damascus, lies between the Mediterranean Sea and the Eurphrates River. Built in the midst of an oasis, it began to prosper under Roman rule during the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE, identifying as an economic centre which thrived on trading activities. The ruins left at Palmyra reflect the intricate layout of a once bustling city. Several monuments are identifiable including the Senate House, Temple of Bel, the Grand Colonnade and Diolectian's Camp - a Roman military complex built under the Emperor Diocletian. Art work found decorating the monuments remains a tribute to the influence of the surrounding Roman and Persian cultures.

Sadly, 2015 saw the seizure of Palmyra by The Islamic State which resulted in the almost complete destruction of the Temple of Bel and Baalshamin. These monuments were considered to be some of the greatest early architectural achievements of the Mediterranean world and stand as a loss to global heritage. Moreover, it was during this seizure that Khaled as-Asaad was detained by the terrorist group and persecuted for not revealing the whereabouts of artefacts he had managed to salvage before the attack.

The Monuments Men and Women

The Monuments Men and Women were known as a group of some 345 individuals assembled to retrieve artworks looted by the Nazis during the second world war.

"Most of whom volunteered for service in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section during World War II. Many had expertise as museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, librarians and educators. Only their job description was simple: to protect cultural treasures so far as war allowed".

- Monuments Men Foundation

The work of the original Monuments Men and Women was largely forgotten until the art historian, Lynn H. Nicholas, spent a decade researching the work of Rose Valland - an integral figure involved in the restitution of Nazi-looted artwork during the war, and to whom, we owe a great deal of gratitude to this day. Khaled al-Asaad is only deserving of the title, The Modern Monuments Man, for the ultimate sacrifice he made in a desperate attempt to protect an integral part of, not only Syria's cultural heritage, but our global heritage.

The battle to protect our cultural heritage can be traced back long before terrorist organisations decided to loot and destroy as they deemed so fit. 300 BCE saw Alexander The Great loot the city Persepolis of its treasures before burning it to the ground. Closer to home and maybe more relatable, the age old tale of vicious Viking raids on Irish monasteries insights a deep, grumbling rage at the unfairness of losing our precious artefacts to mere plunderers.

Cultural heritage not only refers to tangible culture - monuments, landscapes, books/manuscripts, artwork and artefacts but also stretches to encompass intangible culture such as traditions/folklore, language and knowledge. The desecration of cultural heritage at Palmyra and the murder of a dedicated individual who was trying to protect it, can only be classified as a direct attack on the accomplishments of humanity.

Image of The village within the Temple of Bel, taken during the early 20th Century.

The death of Khaled al-Asaad, alongside the destruction of the ancient site at Palmyra, is a brutal awakening to the importance of actively preserving our cultural heritage - especially in times of war and turmoil. Immortalising those who have dedicated their lives to the protection of our cultural heritage is the only way one can attempt to atone the past. Our responsibility lies in remembering the heroic sacrifice of Khaled al-Asaad by continuing the pursuit of safe-guarding these heritage sites - for now, for future generations to come and for the good of humanity.

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