What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee;
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.
– Ezra Pound

When Islamic State captured the Unesco world heritage site of ancient Palmyra in May last year and then proceeded to destroy antiquities such as the Temple of Bel, a wave of revulsion swept across the world. But in the last few years those of us who have been horrified each time ISIS has wiped another ancient artefact from the face of the earth have, in the next moment, asked ourselves why we should mourn the loss of a building or stone carving when so many human beings have lost their lives in the conflicts that have devastated Syria and Iraq.

The dilemma of whether it can be appropriate to mourn the loss of material objects when human beings are suffering and dying was confronted in a superb BBC Radio 4 series broadcast in the past two weeks. The Museum of Lost Objects traced the histories of ten antiquities or cultural sites that have been destroyed or looted in Iraq and Syria.

With hundreds of thousands of lives lost, millions of people displaced and some of the world’s most significant heritage sites destroyed, the wars in Iraq and Syria have had an enormous cost. At the same time, historical artefacts, many of which had survived for thousands of years, have been bombed, defaced and plundered. Most are probably lost for ever. But, in The Museum of Lost Objects we heard moving testimony that they continue to be remembered through local histories, legends and personal stories.

One of the best radio series that I have ever heard, The Museum of Lost Objects recreated ten lost treasures and explored their significance across generations and cultures.

In this post I want to set down briefly some of the stories told in The Museum of Lost Objects. Fortunately, though, the series is no lost object since the podcasts can be downloaded in perpetuity, while series presenter Kanishk Tharoor and producer Maryam Maruf have written fully illustrated detailed articles about each object for the BBC News magazine. I recommend them: there won’t be a better radio series this year.

The Temple of Bel
The Temple of Bel before its destruction

The Temple of Bel

Palmyra’s 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel was blown up in August 2015. Consecrated to the Mesopotamian god Bel in the third millennium BC, the building had the appearance of a Greek temple, still surrounded by surviving Corinthian columns topped by carvings of acanthus leaves.

Two thousand years ago, Palmyra was a a stopping point for caravans crossing  the Syrian Desert on a trade route that linked the Mediterranean world with lands to the south and east. It grew rich from this trade, and was strongly influenced by its trading neighbours. Its hybrid architecture blends Greek and Roman with Middle Eastern elements. As Christianity spread across the region, the temple became a Byzantine Church, and then with the coming of Islam, a mosque.

By the early 1900s, when this photograph was taken by archaeologist Gertrude Bell, Palmyra had been a ruin for centuries, though some of the ruined buildings were used as shelters by herders and nomads, while the compound of the Temple of Bel had become a small village.

Arabs in the village in the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, 1900, photo by Gertrude Bell
Arabs in the village in the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, 1900, photo by Gertrude Bell

One of those who spoke in the episode on the temple had links to that time. Syrian archaeologist Salam al-Kuntar from the University of Pennsylvania Museum said, ‘I have a special love for Palmyra because the Temple of Bel is where my mother was born.’ She went on:

People were integrated in this fabric of inhabited heritage. My grandfather was a policeman serving in Palmyra and my grandmother wasn’t even 20 years old when she got married and moved to Palmyra. The Palmyrene women taught her how to make bread and cook. I hear many stories about the building, how people used the space, how children played around, including my mum. So that’s what it means to me.

This is the meaning of heritage – it’s not only architecture or artefacts that are representing history, it’s these memories and ancestral connection to the place.”

Khaled al-Asaad
Khaled al-Asaad, Head of Antiquities at Palmyra

Another tragic story told in the programme which illustrates Salam al-Kuntar’s point about heritage being bound up in memories and lived experience, is the story of Zenobia al-Asaad, whose father, the archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, was head of antiquities at Palmyra for 40 years.

Zenobia’s parents named her after a 3rd Century Palmyrene queen who led a rebellion against Roman rule of the city.

When I was a little girl, I remember sitting in the car with him, driving from our home in the modern part of Palmyra over to the ancient sites. We would walk around together, checking on things, laughing, talking, and the way he talked about Palmyra made me love the city even more, because I knew he loved it. He would explain what some of these things once were – this was a temple, this was a tomb, this city was the place where Zenobia was from, who I’m named after.

Khaled al-Asaad had devoted his life to the study of the city, from its Roman-era tombs to the Temple of Bel. He and his daughter were both living there when IS arrived in 2015. While many fled, he chose to stay.

I told my father, ‘You have to move, you have to leave with us,’ and he said, ‘No I don’t want to leave, I was born in this city and I will die in this city.’

IS fighters beheaded Khaled al-Asaad in public last August. They hung a placard around his body accusing of him being an ‘apostate’, a ‘director of idolatry’ guilty of attending ‘infidel’ academic conferences.

And then all I wanted to know were his last words. What did he say, what did Daesh say to him, did they insult him? What we later heard was that my father – true to character – was calm, and his last wish was to see the city. Then they brought him back to kill him. Apparently he read the Koran quite loudly, and he was smiling, and this upset Daesh, they didn’t like that and when they told him to kneel, he refused.

Now in Damascus with her mother and husband, Zenobia does not want to return to Palmyra. The destruction of its old stone monuments is forever linked with the death of her father.

Palmyra the ancient city will always be a part of me, but I can’t really imagine going back to Palmyra walking along the paths, looking at the sites without my father, he’s the one who made us love this place.

Just like the palm trees in Palmyra, where they really stand strong, rooted in the city, my father will be the same, he will be like these palm trees in Palmyra, rooted in the grounds of the city, always connected to the city and to us.

For World Heritage Day on 18 April, 3D replicas of the arch will be erected in Trafalgar Square in London, and Times Square in New York.

Aleppo's minaret
Aleppo’s minaret

Aleppo’s minaret

For nearly 1,000 years the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo soared above Syria’s largest city, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. But now it lies in ruins.

Founded in the early 8th Century, the mosque endured sackings of the city by the Fatimids, Abbasids, Byzantines, Armenians, and Mongols – and an earthquake. In this episode we heard how the mosque was begun by a Shia ruler and completed by a Turkic ruler of the city who was Sunni. This was in the 11th Century, when Turkic invaders pushed into the Middle East from the steppes of Central Asia. That was when the minaret was erected – as ‘some sort of a monument that was planted in the mosque in order to assert the coming of a new age’, in the words of Nasser Rabbat, a Syrian art historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The mosque and its minaret were surrounded by the constant thrum of activity. The entrance lay through the Aleppo souk – the bustling heart of the Old City, with lines of closely-packed streets, shops, and caravanserais. Heghnar Watenpaugh, a Lebanese-Armenian historian who used to live and work in Aleppo, spoke of the atmosphere around the mosque:

People have lived there for almost the entire time of human history. They have shopped, traded, made things, and they have socialised there. When you enter that space you are walking in the footsteps of the most ancient humans, so it’s a very special area.

the minaret in 2013
The minaret in 2013

In April 2013 the minaret was destroyed, with both Syrian government and rebel forces blaming each other for its destruction.  For Nasser Rabat the minaret is ‘one of the victims of this blind, crazy violent, totally irrational war’. However he added this point:

We have more than 250,000 documented dead individuals in Syria, and the destruction of the country. Not just a minaret. So even though I’m a historian of architecture, I actually do not express strong feelings about the loss of architecture as opposed to the loss of the country, the loss of the people and the loss of the way of life.

Aleppo has recovered from numerous invasions and bloody wars.It’s understood  that the stones of the minaret have been gathered and moved to a safe place, so that one day, perhaps, they can be put back where they belong.

Mar Elian Monastery
Mar Elian Monastery

Mar Elian Monastery

In one of the most moving episodes we heard how for centuries, both Christians and Muslims have travelled to the small Syrian town of al-Qaryatain to venerate a saint known as Mar Elian. But in August 2015, the shrine was bulldozed by  Islamic State and the multi-faith community there was torn apart.

The story goes that about 1,500 years ago, an elderly and pious man called Julian, from the far east of Mesopotamia, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his disciples. On the return journey, Julian felt that he was going to die before he reached his home. ‘If such a fate befalls me,’ he told his companions, ‘put my body on an ox cart and set it loose. Where the oxen stop is where I should be buried.’ He did die, and the place where the oxen stopped was al-Qaryatain in the desert between Damascus and Palmyra. Julian’s disciples built a tomb for him and in time a monastery grew up around the shrine, dedicated to St Julian the Old Man, or, as he is known in Arabic, Mar Elian.

Mar Elian is not only venerated as a saint by Christians. The local Sunni population regard him as a Sufi leader and call him Sheikh Ahmed the Priest. Until its destruction last year, Mar Elian’s sarcophagus was draped in green satin, a traditional mark of homage to a Sufi holy man.

In the programme we heard from the British archaeologist, Emma Loosley, who first travelled to al-Qaryatain 15 years ago to excavate and redevelop the monastery. She told how she found the remote desert community to be remarkably open-hearted and tolerant, and how she became firm friends with the priest Father Jacques Murad. She even found the local people had a myth to explain why Sunni Muslims and Christians – who accounted for about a fifth of the population in 2001 – lived together so harmoniously.

Their belief is that there were two tribes living in this place. With the coming of Islam, the tribes got together and they decided that one tribe would stay Christian and that the other one would try the new religion. Then they had a pact that whichever religion became dominant, they would look after their brothers who stayed in the minority religion.

Every September, in one of the big regional feasts, Christians and Muslims celebrated together the festival of Mar Elian. Thousands of people from villages and towns across the Syrian Desert descended on tiny al-Qaryatain for a day of processions, prayer and partying. Emma Loosley

For a while after the Syrian civil war began, because of the town’s remote location, normal life continued while much of Syria descended into violence. Gradually, though, the monastery’s grounds began to fill with tents that were home to internally displaced Syrians – Muslims and Christians – who had lost their homes in Homs, Palmyra and Damascus and had come to the monastery of Mar Elian for sanctuary.

Then, in May 2015, Islamic State captured al-Qaryatain. IS fighters arrived at Mar Elian monastery, blindfolded and handcuffed Father Jacques, and took him away to Raqqa, Islamic State’s de-facto capital, where he was locked inside a bathroom. Eventually, Father Jacques was moved again – to Palmyra, where he was reunited with about 250 of his parishioners. Men, women and children were kept together in a prison for a further three weeks, before being transported back to al-Qaryatain in September 2015 to live under IS rule.

It was at this point that Father Jacques discovered the fate of the monastery to which he had dedicated his life.

I had already prepared myself that Mar Elian would be gone. But when I came to the site and stood in front of the ruin I felt numb. It was devastating.

The 1,500-year-old monastery had been bulldozed. Loosley’s excavations, the 1930s chapel, the sarcophagus of the saint himself – all was rubble.

Father Jacques (right) was reunited with Emma Loosley (left) after his captivity
Father Jacques (right) was reunited with Emma Loosley (left) after his captivity

Believing that as long as he remained in al-Qaryatain his flock would also feel they had to stay, Father Jacques escaped by dressing up as an Islamist and riding away on a motorbike. Emma Loosley thought he was dead, but in the programme we heard how she was unexpectedly – and joyfully – reunited with him in Rome.

There is now no shrine, and no Christians are left in the little town in the desert.

The Armenian church in Deir al-Zour
The Armenian church in Deir al-Zour

The Armenian Martyrs’ Memorial Church in Deir al-Zour

If any of the episodes in this brilliant series pointed up the ironies of history, it was this one. The Armenian church in the town of Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria is not ancient – it was consecrated  just 25 ago, dedicated to the Armenians who lost their lives in the genocide of 1915. Now the building erected to the memory of victims of violence has been destroyed – blown up during fighting between Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.

The British-Armenian writer Nouritza Matossian visited the church in 2001 and described what she saw. In the basement lay a shrine – a sunken area filled with sand, and laid on top, a pile of human remains from which rose a column of stone that pierced the roof of the church.

I looked at this beautiful shrine and I thought, ‘What an amazing idea to have taken this column which was like a tree, rooted in the ground, and take it right up through the body of the church, right up into the cupola and up into the sky.

The Syrian government had approved the memorial in the 1980s and the church was consecrated in 1991 in memory of Armenians who died in 1915. Nouritza Matossian’s ancestors were among those caught up in the massacre and she told their story.

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, hundreds of thousands of Armenians, mainly from eastern Anatolia, were rounded up and sent hundreds of miles away across the Syrian Desert. Some were forced to walk, while others were taken in trains and caravans to the city of Deir al-Zour. Very few survived the march, and of those who made it to Deir al-Zour, many were killed, or succumbed to disease and starvation. Armenians say 1.5 million people were systematically killed. Turkey maintains the number is closer to 300,000, and denies accusations of genocide.

In the years that followed, Deir al-Zour became a major pilgrimage site for Armenians before the shrine was finally built. But the Armenian Martyrs’ Memorial Church stood for less than a quarter of a century before it was destroyed.

Before the Syrian civil war, there were an estimated 100,000 ethnic Armenians in Syria – most of them descendants of those who survived the deportations. There were small communities in cities across the country but the majority, more than 60,000, settled in Aleppo.

Deir al-Zour made a deep impression on Nouritza  Matossian and she returned to the city in 2007. She told how, at the shrine, she bought a small box as a memento. Inside is a tiny cross made of olive wood, two ears of wheat, two little candles, incense, and a tube of soil.

The priest told me that that is the earth of Deir al-Zour. Some people take earth from where they’re born and they spread it on their grave when they die. This soil has that significance. I always keep this box within eyesight, on my desk. I never expected that one day I would be looking at this box and that church would be gone, destroyed. It’s very hard to accept.

The Winged Bull of Nineveh
The Winged Bull of Nineveh

The Winged Bull of Nineveh

In the first episode we heard about the winged bull with the head of a man, the wings of an eagle, and the hulking body of a bull that stood 2,700 years ago at one of the many gates in the city walls of Nineveh, a protective spirit and a symbol of the power of the Assyrian king.

Known as a Lamassu, the sculpture was a composite of the most powerful and ferocious creatures known in the region, and was huge – about 4.5m high, weighing nearly 30 tonnes. It was hewn from a single slab of limestone in the reign of the Assyrian King Sennacherib, ruler of an empire covering parts of modern Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

Then, a few generations after Sennacherib’s death, Assyria was overrun. Nineveh was sacked and its palaces, walls and Lamassus slowly sank beneath the ground, eventually becoming a series of mounds of dust, sand and earth.

A Lamassu sculpture photographed in 1906 at Nimrud, near Nineveh
A Lamassu sculpture photographed in 1906 at Nimrud, near Nineveh

The name of Nineveh lived on partly because of mentions in the Old Testament and the Koran, and in the 19th Century French and British explorers were inspired by Biblical texts to seek out the famed city. Archaeologists excavated the mounds and found many treasures, including the Winged Bull.

But since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as law and order has broken down, the authorities have been unable to protect archaeological sites. The greatest damage has been done in the last two years, since IS captured nearby Mosul, destroying shrines, minarets, and mosques. When they turned their attention to Nineveh, they blasted away at the face of the winged bull with a drill.

For Lamia al-Gailani, a leading Iraqi archaeologist, there was a deep significance in ISIS gouging out the eyes of the Bull:

We have a saying, gulla abut ainak. An aggressive insult in the Arab world, it means something like, ‘I’m going to poke your eyes out.’

Tell of Qarqur
The Tell of Qarqur

The Tell of Qarqur

This object is not a thing of beauty. To the uninitiated it looks a lot like a hill. But for the archaeologist it is a ‘large mound of collapsed cultural debris’, 30 metres high, it contains layers of information about 10,000 years of human history – the gradual process of change from the very origins of agriculture up to the present, and remarkably all in one place.

We heard from the archaeologist who once investigated the site on the ground, but now monitors its fate during war, using satellite imagery. What the images showed him were tank emplacements and a military garrison.

Jesse Casana, an American archaeologist, worked at Tell Qarqur for nearly 10 years before war broke out in Syria in 2011. He became close to the family of the head man, the mukhtar, in the nearest village to the tell. The mukhtar’s son drove the archaeologists’ bus, while his daughter, a graduate of the University of Latakia, worked first as a translator then as director of one of the areas of excavation.

Concerned for their fate, last summer he was relieved to receive an email from the mukhtar’s daughter.

The family had been forced out of the village after the Syrian military had occupied it, and since that time they had been internally displaced refugees. They said they were hiding, about 30 of them living in a one-room house somewhere near the Turkish border.

If the story of human occupation at Tell Qarqur begins in 8,500 BC – taking in ancient battles, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders and Mamluks – it continues now in the midst of modern war, in this one-room house somewhere to the north, where Qarqur’s displaced inhabitants seek refuge.

The Lion of al-Lat
The Lion of al-Lat

The Lion of al-Lat

Two thousand years ago a statue of a lion watched over a temple in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. After being excavated in the 1970s, it became an emblem of the city and a favourite with tourists. But it was one of the first things Islamic State militants destroyed when they moved in last year.

The animal was feared and admired and this must explain why a statue of a lion twice as high as a human being, weighing 15 tonnes, was fashioned by artists in ancient Palmyra.

In this episode we learned that there are more than 300 words for lion in Arabic. Most describe different moods of the lion. For example, hatam the destroyer, rihab the fearsome, ghazhanfar the warrior, abu libdeh the one with the fur, or the mane. For Bedouin tribes, the lion represented the biggest danger in the wild (the last one in the region died some time in the 19th Century).

The region’s kings, however, were keen to be associated with lions. Some of the earliest known representations of Mesopotamian leaders, from around 3,500 BC, depict them engaged in combat with the creatures. This tradition continues right up to the medieval and early modern period, when Islamic miniatures would often show scenes of the hunt, of brave princes struggling with lions. The lion was both regal and untameable, the quintessence of strength and man’s ultimate opponent.

Today, fathers still name their sons and heirs after the lion: Osama for example; or Al-Assad, the family of Syria’s current ruling dynasty. In neighbouring Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s propaganda would often show him posing as an Assyrian king, trampling on lions while shooting at American missiles with a bow and arrow.

The unacceptable poet
The unacceptable poet

Al-Ma’arri: the unacceptable poet

This lost object is a statue, but neither old, nor of great artistic merit. Its significance for the museum – as for the Islamist militants who decapitated it – lies in the man it depicted.  Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri was an 11th Century poet and philosopher, a remarkable figure, whose ideas and way of life were at odds with his time. He was an atheist.

The statue of a turbaned man with glowering eyes, knotted eyebrows, and a robust beard used to sit near the central museum of Maarat al-Numan. It was twice life-sized and had been cast in bronze in the 1940s by a young Syrian sculptor, Fathi Mohammed.

Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri was born in Maarat al-Numan in AD973. Syrian art historian Nasser Rabbat explained that in the area where al-Maarri lived he was surrounded not only by Sunni Muslims, but also by many Christian churches. Quite often they would be praying side by side in the same space: buildings that were once temples had become churches and were now being used as mosques.

In addition, there were all the splinter groups from Islam: Alawis who rule Syria today, Ismailis, and Shias. Surrounded by all these contending groups, al-Maarri’s verses captured the poet’s disenchantment with all forms of belief:

A squabble in Latakia between Ahmad and Messiah
One bangs his bell, the other, from his minaret, is shouting
Each proclaims the greatness of his faith. Tell me, which rings true?

(Ahmad refers to Muhammad and Messiah to Christ.)

A Collection of Poetry by Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri
A Collection of Poetry by Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri

Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri’s most famous work is Risulat ul-Ghufran or The Epistle of Forgiveness, which is sometimes seen as a precursor to Dante’s Divine Comedy. In it, al-Maarri describes a poet’s trip to heaven and hell, where he meets great men of Arabic literature and sees how they are being punished or rewarded for their life’s work. But al-Maarri outraged Islamic scholars by imagining a heaven that contained non-Muslims.

As put it in his narration:

A poet questioning the claim to divine truth of Islam’s holy books and clerics would be in danger if he lived in certain parts of Syria today, so it is a measure of the open-mindedness of his time that al-Maarri was largely left to his own devices.

In the 20th Century, al-Maarri was portrayed as an example of rational Arab humanism, a hero worthy of the same esteem as the great thinkers of the European Enlightenment. So his statue was erected in the 1940s and generations of school children in Syria grew up learning his poems.

But after Syria’s civil war started, the statue of al-Maarri was sprayed with bullets by fighters who deemed his work heretical. Eventually militants from the al-Nusra front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, finished the job by beheading him in the middle of the night.

Soften your tread. Methinks the Earth’s surface is but bodies of the dead,
Walk slowly in the air, so you do not trample on the remains of God’s servants.

Kanishk Tharoor observed the irony:

You cannot help but imagine what he might have thought of it all. Some people commemorating his humble life with a statue, others attacking it – a frivolous struggle over symbols.

The Genie of Nimrud
The Genie of Nimrud

The Genie of Nimrud

In this episode the series editors placed into the Museum of Lost Objects a looted item. It’s not lost, but sits in a police vault in London. It’s a stone panel depicting a genie that three thousand years ago graced the wall of an Assyrian palace.

The genie is a powerfully built man, with wings sprouting from his back, a design particularly popular with the Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal II, who came to the throne in 883 BC, and made Nimrud his new capital. It is carved in relief on a stone panel, holding a pine cone, and facing a pattern that represents the tree of life. The genie symbolised both protection and fertility: its role was to safeguard and replenish the ancient kingdom of Assyria.

At some point since Nimrud’s excavation, this genie relief was moved into a storage room from where it disappeared. It may have been taken during the chaos of the first Gulf War in the 1990s, though no-one knows for sure.

Eventually in 2002, just before the second Gulf War, it turned up in London, one of the world’s largest antiquities markets. Since 2002 it’s been languishing in police vaults at Scotland Yard, because of difficulties determining the legal owner.

The episode explored the debate about the issue of repatriation, noting that some have argued that it might have been better if more of the Middle East’s archaeological riches had been taken from the region during the era of European imperialism. To them, the iconoclasm of Islamic State seems to justify, in retrospect, the cavalier way in which Western archaeologists and collectors relieved the Middle East of its cultural heritage in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But for others outside the West, it remains a source of grievance that so much of their past sits in the halls and basements of museums in Paris and Berlin, London and New York: westerners can more easily enjoy the cultural history of Iraq than Iraqis themselves.

Looted Sumerian Seal
The looted Sumerian Seal

Looted Sumerian Seal, Baghdad

Looting was also the subject of the final episode of the series. In April 2003, almost the entire collection of ancient cylinder seals was stolen from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad – and it remains missing.

In the chaotic, violent April of 2003, as US tanks rolled into Baghdad, the Iraq Museum was broken into and pillaged. Looters rampaged through the halls, storerooms, and cellars, stealing more than 15,000 precious objects.

The programme’s main witness was Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani who worked for many years at the museum before moving to London. Back in the 1960s, al-Gailani – one of Iraq’s first female archaeologists – spent eight years helping to document the museum’s collection of 7,000 cylinder seals.

These seals were an ancient tool for signing documents or sealing important goods, each carved all over with pictures that told a story. One of Lamia’s favourites was found in Hamrin, north of Baghdad. At 4,600 years old it was the oldest object featured in The Museum of Lost Objects. Just 1.5 inches high, it was also the smallest.

When rolled in wet clay, it vividly depicts an ancient harvest festival, presided over by a powerful goddess. The lower tier depicts more figures carrying items on their heads – probably baskets containing agricultural produce – which are then placed in a big pile in front of the goddess.

The object is a reminder of the importance of ancient Mesopotamia’s relationship to the earth. It was the agricultural revolution in this part of the world that led, eventually, to the birth of human civilisation.

US troops guard the Museum of Baghdad
US troops guard the Museum of Baghdad in April 2003

The programme featured a remarkable story. When Baghdad was captured by the Americans on 9 April 2003, the museum was one of many cultural and historical sites that were left unprotected. It was only at the insistence of the British Museum in London that soldiers were eventually sent to guard what was left of the collection.

According to the programme, the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, phoned the Prime Minister’s office and urged them to contact the White House about saving the Iraq Museum. They did – and tanks arrived outside the building later that day.

Now, thanks to the dedicated work of Iraqi officials, thousands of stolen objects have been recovered. In February 2015, the Iraq Museum was officially reopened for the first time since the American invasion.

Lamia Al-Gailani went back again, and discovered to her delight that some beloved artefacts had made a return journey from her own personal Museum of Lost Objects.

I was going round the museum and seeing some of the objects which I thought were looted. To see them again, it’s like seeing friends.

One of the restored objects was this priceless Warka Vase – a beautifully carved 5,000-year-old alabaster vessel found in the temple complex of the Sumerian goddess Inanna in the ruins of the ancient city of Uruk in southern Iraq.  In April 2003 it had been wrenched from the case in which it was mounted, the foot of the vase remaining attached to the base of the smashed display case.

The vase was returned to the Iraq Museum during an amnesty on 12 June 2003 by three unidentified men in their early twenties, driving a red Toyota vehicle. As reported by The Times newspaper:

As they struggled to lift a large object wrapped in a blanket out of the boot, the American guards on the gate raised their weapons. For a moment, a priceless 5,000-year-old vase thought to have been lost in looting after the fall of Baghdad seemed about to meet its end. But one of the men peeled back the blanket to reveal carved alabaster pieces that were clearly something extraordinary. Three feet high and weighing 600lb intact, this was the Sacred Vase of Warka, regarded by experts as one of the most precious of all the treasures taken during looting that shocked the world in the chaos following the fall of Baghdad. Broken in antiquity and stuck together, it was once again in pieces.

The Warka vase
The Warka vase

Listening to this fine radio series I thought of the ripples of disruption that have spread from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, destroying lives and livelihoods, precious objects and cultural memories – and continue to make homeless and disperse to the winds countless numbers of individuals who carry within them their own memories of the culture that nurtured them.

Beautifully presented by Kanishk Tharoor, the series bore out the words of Julian Baggini, writing in the Guardian at the time of the Palmyra destruction:

Caring about humanity is about more than wanting as many hearts to keep beating as possible. What matters is not just how many people live, but how we live.[…] Caring about how people live also means caring about those aspects of human culture that speak to more than our needs for food, shelter and good health. It involves recognising that there are human achievements that transcend our own lives and our own generations. […]

When Isis destroys ancient sites it is not just attacking buildings, it is attacking the values their preservation represents, such as a recognition of the plurality of cultures that precede and surround us, as well as a respect for the achievements of past generations and a sense that we are custodians for the generations to follow.[…] There is a literal sense in which we are not just atomised animals but minds who are connected to others in different times and places by compassion, history and values. The destruction of historical sites is an assault on this aspect of our humanity.

Refugees criossing a swollen river on the Greek-Macedonian border 14 March 2016
Ripples from a storm: refugees crossing a swollen river on the Greek-Macedonian border, 14 March 2016

You’ll find labels describing what is gone:
an empress’s bones, a stolen painting

of a man in a feathered helmet
holding a flag-draped spear.

A vellum gospel, hidden somewhere long ago
forgotten, would have sat on that pedestal;

this glass cabinet could have kept the first
salts carried back from the Levant.

To help us comprehend the magnitude
of absence, huge rooms

lie empty of their wonders—the Colossus,
Babylon’s Hanging Gardens and

in this gallery, empty shelves enough to hold
all the scrolls of Alexandria.

– from ‘In the Museum of Lost Objects’ by Rebecca Lindenberg (complete text here)

See also

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3 thoughts on “The Museum of Lost Objects: radio series documenting an assault on humanity

  1. Incredible post. The information you present in your posts is comprehensive. I recently became aware of the Voynich Manuscript, apparently undecipherable. It is at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. The entire Ms is downloable. Your clarity of thinking will make a great post on it. I’m not up to it. Thanks for a wonderful site.

  2. I hear the series broadcast and was spell bound….such an emotive mix of historical and personal grief. Your post also held me captivated from start to finish. Very well put together😊

  3. What a truly wonderful post. I listened yesterday to most of the stories (because I read the beginning of this article), and what a treasure to come here this morning and see your images (the heartbreaking befores and afters). Although Nasser Rabat is absolutely right (and the narrators stress this point), it is painful anew to see these ancient objects so viciously or wantonly destroyed. And to read and hear how important they were to people. Thank you for your always careful and considered posts.

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