A Destroyed Past
The scholar of Near Eastern archaeology has had to follow the deliberate destruction of invaluable cultural treasures in the media. Treasured archaeological sites are being used as instruments of war and destroyed for religious and media strategic reasons.
In addition to a massive humanitarian crisis, the Syrian War has led to mindless physical destruction. As everyone can see in the footage ISIS has published, the ancient Mesopotamian area, called the cradle of civilization, has suffered from destruction and looting. In the late winter, the terrorists released a video that shows Mosul museum's artefacts dating back thousands of years being smashed to pieces with sledgehammers and drills. In a more recent shot, parts of the ancient ruin city of Palmyra are being blown up.
ISIS uses religious reasons to explain the destruction of archaeological sites, but at the same time it is a part of a conscious media strategy.
-They justify the destruction on the grounds of Prophet Muhammad's order to destroy idols. But because other countries feel that ancient sites are a part of our common cultural heritage, ISIS wants to show the Western world that it can do what it wants with them, says Sanna Aro-Valjus, Docent of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Helsinki.
The Western media maintains that videos of people being beheaded published by the terrorists will not be shown, but material that shows cultural treasures being destroyed has been widely available through different media outlets.
- It is painful to watch these destruction videos, but me and my colleagues are frequently asked for expert statements on them, so you can't really choose whether to watch them or not. The destruction of historical material may seem secondary compared to humanitarian suffering, but particularly for the Syrians and the Iraqis, cultural heritage is an essential part of identity.
From the point of view of a professional, the obliteration of well-documented and researched sites is not a primary concern. These include for instance the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, which was blown up in April, and the colonnaded street of Palmyra. For archaeologists, a more serious concern is looting. When structures are destroyed, important information disappears and it can never be reconstructed.
People and History Must Be Protected
ISIS is known to sell small artefacts that it has looted to finance its operations, but also all other Syrian Civil War parties engage in the illicit trade of antiquities. We also need to think about the future. The preservation of ancient sites is very important for the mental healing of people, and the sites would have an important role in the process of reconstruction of Near Eastern societies.
-These antiquities also have economic effects through tourism. International agreements and UNESCO are incapable of protecting them. I feel that it would be important for the international community to have the right and the resources to send security troops to protect antiquities. But as we saw with the Iraq War in 2003, the leaders of the occupying country USA were also not convicted for the looting of the museum in Baghdad. Despite the fact that according to agreements it was their responsibility to secure it and their failure to secure it was a gross war crime, Aro-Valjus emphasizes.
Situations change fast. When we talked in June, Aro-Valjus noted that the magnificent city of Palmyra had long been suspected to be destroyed. According to information available at the time, ISIS had planted mines in the historic part of the city. The researcher reckoned that ISIS would first focus on establishing its position and would only begin destruction after that. At the end of August, the situation had progressed to this point and the terrorists were said to have blown up for instance a significant temple in Palmyra.
News of the murder of Palmyran archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad (1932-2015) was particularly shocking. The retired museum director had refused to flee his home town, which had been occupied by ISIS, and to leave it in the hands of barbarians.
- I met al-Asaad a few times in July 2000 in his office at the Palmyra Archaeological Museum. So I didn't know him well, but I particularly remember his friendliness and helpfulness. It is deeply touching when someone you have personally met, someone you have had a glass of tea with and with whom you have talked about interesting issues, dies in such a horrific way. He rebelled against ISIS's misrule and it cost him his life, Aro-Valjus sighs.
At the latest after this, concern for other colleagues living in areas occupied by ISIS has grown.
A Second-Generation Assyriologist
Docent Sanna Aro-Valjus ended up in her field through a variety of different stages. His father, Jussi Aro, was a professor of Semitic Languages who had begun his researcher career in the field of Assyriology.
- So I don't remember a time when I wouldn't have known what cuneiform is, Aro-Valjus laughs.
- After I had spent a year studying Classical Philology at the University of Helsinki I left to go study in Tübingen, Germany. In Tübingen I became interested in a field called Altorientalistik, which combines Assyriological philology and Near Eastern archaeology. I did a second major in it. I would have been a prime example of brain drain, but Villa Lante, the Finnish Institute in Rome, brought me together with my current spouse. I came back to Finland to get married. I brought with me such knowledge of studying Near Eastern material culture that didn't yet exist in Helsinki.
Aro-Valjus does research by participating in archaeological excavations, but lately she has done more research in museums, libraries and in her study at home. Her research always integrates textual data with other sources, and the approach moves the research forward better than processing just one type of data.
- I still think that it is extremely essential to visit the area's archaeological sites and preferably at a time when colleagues are there to excavate. So I take to the cities, villages, ruins and to the country, and communication with both colleagues and local people is important. Moreover, leading student excursions is rewarding from a research point of view.
The importance of Assyriology has grown significantly in the world because of the Near Eastern crises. By investing in Assyriology, the University of Helsinki could still profile itself in this field, particularly when a new generation of leading Assyriologists is growing up in Germany and in Helsinki.
Aro-Valjus last travelled to Syria in the autumn of 2010. The trip concluded an intensive period of ten years during which she travelled there often both in her position as the Executive Officer of the Foundation of the Finnish Institute in the Middle East, and as a researcher. Over the past years she has, slightly defying the Ministry for Foreign Affairs' travel recommendations, visited excavations on the Turkish side of the border area.
-At the moment I am preparing a book on Late Hittite statues of gods and rulers, and I am using precisely the aforementioned ways of collecting material. In the Near East, I carefully go through the backyards of archaeological museums and gardens, because there might be an unpublished statue fragment hidden in the farthest corner. The joy of the finder is at its greatest at moments like that. Research is more a way of life than work for me. I am just about to leave for a birthday trip to the Hatay province which is on the Turkish side. I am not afraid, however, because I know the environment.
Text Arja-Leena Paavola