Showing posts with label Daesh. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Daesh. Show all posts

December 19, 2016

Who saves the culture of Mesopotamia and the Levant - Part I

In the first of a series, ARCA will be highlighting some of the people on a mission to protect and/or seize back the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, from those who seek to profit from or destroy it.

Since the start of the conflict, ARCA has received frequent queries from people concerned about the theft and destruction of sites throughout the Levant.  Often we are asked if anything is doing about the situation. While the form of the question often is posed in the singular format of what is anyone doing specifically about ISIS, ARCA would like to underscore that the problem of looting and destruction is not restricted to one identifiable nemesis operating in conflict zones, although Da'esh has been particularly adept at making a public display of its iconoclasm. 

Today's blog post highlights one forward-thinker in Iraq, who has show what can be done, if people think about a problem in advance of when they are actually faced with one. 

On July 20, 2014 jihadist troops of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took control of the Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah, a monastery located near the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh, 30 km southwest of Mosul, in the Nineveh Plain of Iraq.  The site dates back to the 4th century CE.   

Occupying the site, the militants ejected the Syriac Orthodox monks with nothing more than the clothing on their backs, refusing to allow them to take any of the church's sacred objects.  In fear for their lives, the monastery's guardians were forcefully ejected and walked some ten kilometers before intersecting with Kurdish Peshmerga forces.  

On Thursday, March 19, 2015 ISIS fighters released footage which showed that they had rigged the tombs of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah with explosives, dramatically detonating the monastery's revered historic shrines.    

Image Credit: Alsumaria News 
While the church at the Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah itself was not earmarked for detonation along with its shrines, the historic site would did suffer extensive vandalism.  During its occupation, religious wall decorations were drilled out, and/or defaced. Inscriptions written in Syriac were scraped off the walls, crosses were taken down, and statues knocked to the ground and smashed. Throughout the monastery extensive graffiti was scrawled on practically every available surface.

The statue of Mar Behnam on horseback, dating from the 16th century,
has been completely destroyed
Sadly, as the desecration took place after the dramatic footage of the damages to the Mosul Museum and just before the demolition of Nimrud, the world's press gave the monastery's fate little in the way of press coverage.  Those that research iconoclasm tried to take limited comfort in the knowledge that some of the monastery's important manuscripts, dating back centuries, had been digitized. 

Dr. Lamia al-Gailanim, an associate fellow at the London-based Institute of Archaeology, reminded list-serv members of the Iraqi crisis group that Mosul had twelve Medieval shines with muqarnas domes.  In total, the exquisite remains accounted for half of what the country of Iraq had in terms of this specific style of monumental vaulted architecture.  By 2015, as Da'esh gained more and more territory, all the Mosul-area domed shrines suffered attacks.

On Sunday, November 20, 2016 the Baghdad-backed Babylon Brigades in cooperation with the Iraqi army liberated the Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah and the world got its first look at the damages inflicted. It is believed that the militants may have occupied the site as a base of operations and some news reports have said the site was utilized by Da'esh's morality police. Whatever the case, the group's trademark shows throughout the trashed the interior.

As the mixed military force secured the site and the zones surrounding the monastery, the first photos of the extent of the rampage were released on social media.  Little had been spared.  Even the grave marker for Monsignor Francis Djahola, who was a well known part of the monastery religious community until his recent death, had been desecrated.

Father Yousif Sakat
Then, on December 9, 2016, those affiliated with the monastery announced something joyfully unexpected. 

Thanks to the forward thinking of Father Yousif Sakat, over 400 books and manuscripts, some illustrated by hand and dating back 800 years, had been kept safe.  Miraculously, they had been hidden directly under the noses of the militants. 

As a custodian for the monastery’s Medieval collection, Father Sakat knew that if he abandoned the monastery and left the library collection behind, it would be vulnerable to destruction or potential looting.  Sakat watched as the situation grew increasingly tense and as the nearby cities succumbed to the rule of ISIS.  As the militants grew bolder, he noted that individuals had defaced the monastery’s exterior and on occasion, hurled stones at the building to intimidate its occupants. 

Anticipating that the jihadist would eventually take control of the monastery and knowing that they might set fire to the collection, Sakat started to think about what he could do to protect the collection himself.

The fast-thinking priest moved the monastery's most important books and manuscripts into metal drums. He then placed these containers in a discreet area where he hoped they would avoid suspicion.  He then sealed the hiding place shut with a wall of concealing cement.

In December 2016, once the father felt sure the site was no longer at risk of possible recapture, he and a team of workers returned to recover the books from their hidden storage chamber.

Publishing the extraction on Facebook Amjad Hinawi uploaded 49 images of the remarkable books as the room was breached and reopened and the collection retrieved. ARCA has posted a selection of these photos here with the group's permission.


Just as the 72-year-old librarian from Mali successfully saved his own country's collection by stuffing them into millet bags and smuggling them out of harm's way, Father Sakat's ingenuity shows that a lot can be done, even when practically everything else has been lost. 

Having said that, there is a palpable urgency to better preserve these rich and varied historic collections, especially those at smaller religious sites, with little means and funding.  It is no longer cost prohibitive to digitize and catalog literary historic records and vulnerable sites such as these need to consider what potential risks their might be, now or in the future to their original collections.

Consideration before a threat occurs.

Just asking the simple question what are we doing about this (now), followed by what can be done better (before a threat or crisis occurs) in a first step in emergency preparedness.   Even in times of economic hardship or political unrest cultural heritage institutions with limited staff can make a world of difference to an otherwise grim outcome.

Luckily, the collection from the Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah was not stored inside the shrines that Da'esh detonated.

Luckily, many of its manuscripts were already digitized.

Luckily, Father Yousif Sakat had the foresight, time and the means to purchase and use the supplies needed to hide his monastery's collection.

But what if any one of those things hadn't happened?

For now, the library of the Monastery of the Martyrs Mar Behnam and Marth Sarah are being stored elsewhere for safekeeping.


October 23, 2016

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Another case for the ICC? Iconoclast who detonated the Maqam of Prophet Yunus (Jonah) confesses on tape after capture

In Mosul's frightening and uncertain future, perhaps one bit of hopeful news may be developing.  It appears that the Iraqi Shi'ite paramilitary group Al Nujaba has released a video with a captured combatant who claims to have been one of the iconoclasts responsible for the destruction of the Shrine of Jonah/Mosque of Yunus (Nineveh, Mosul, Iraq). 



The newly released video also appears to circle out a specific male individual who, from the footage, also seems to be implicated in the destruction of statues and artifacts within the Mosul Museum.

During the video, the captured militant admits that he was part of Daesh's Hisbah [the religious police] and admits to bombing three different bridges as well as taking part in the attacks on the Hatra ruins and the destruction at Prophet Yona's tomb. 

The Mosul Museum is the second largest museum in Iraq after the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.  A video showing the destruction of historic artifacts was widely circulated by Daesh on February 26, 2015.

As the image in the recent video is quite blurry, ARCA has uploaded a screenshot from the original Mosul Museum destruction video which shows the individual, dressed in a long sleeved robe called a dishdasha, in higher definition. 


Military offensives to recapture cities from a dug-in military force are always fraught with peril.  If fighting forces manage to recapture the city of Mosul, it will be the fifth time in thirteen years of conflict that the city has changed hands since 2003. As the history of previous offensives in Iraq has painfully demonstrated, in liberating Mosul, one group’s victory does not necessarily bode equally well for others divided along different ethnic and sectarian lines.

By: Lynda Albertson

July 7, 2016

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ISIS Releases Video showing its destruction of the Palmyra Museum's Artifacts.

ISIS has released a new "heritage snuff" video that shows its destruction of the Palmyra Museum's Palmyrene funerary portraiture as well as desecration of the museum's mummies which DGAM personnel had stored in a protective bricked-sealed enclosure at the museum prior to ISIS overtaking the city in May 2015.


The 57 second video shows militants lifting funerary reliefs from shelving and dropping them forcefully onto the floor.  Other historic artifacts are subjected to repeated blows with sledgehammers, filmed for cinematic effect. 


More disturbing however is the footage of the desecration of human remains that had once been stored on exhibit within the museum.  Lined up on a sandy street in Tadmur, the mummies were crushed with what appears to be a heavy military vehicle. 


On display at the Palmyra museum since August 4, 2005 thanks to a Japanese grant and the efforts of archaeologists from Italy and France who helped extract them, the mummies of two men and two women were originally found wrapped in many layers of cloth in the Palmyra valley.  Well preserved, they provided a fascinating glimpse of the area's funerary practices during the first and second century C.E.  Given their age, they were considered to be a cultural and biological patrimony of inestimable value for the Syrian city.      

Italian archaeologist Professor Paulo Matthiae once compared the find of the mummies to those found in Egypt. In a book on the ancient Syrian city of Ebla, Matthiae states

"The valley of the tombs of Palmyra is one of the most wonderful places of the region of antiquities in the Graeco-Roman world like the most famous tomb valleys in Egypt." 

ISIS considers worshipping or mourning at grave sites to be equal to idolatry and have often destroyed burial sites throughout areas under their control.

March 11, 2016

Friday, March 11, 2016 - ,,,, 1 comment

Palmyra - An example of when traffic whoring and page view metrics are more important than accuracy

In the last 72 hours I have spent a frustratingly amount of time playing Whac-A-Mole to bad reporting from a number of professional journalistic sites and individuals who rightly want to draw the world's attention to the ongoing battle of Palmyra, but who wrongly choose to do so using less than thorough reporting techniques. 

On March 9th, Twitter user @rt0ur (Russian Tour) posted an image that didn't explicitly list itself as new, but which showed comparison images to some of the destruction wrought on the ancient site of Palmyra.   A snapshot of both the text and image used in this tweet can be seen to the right.  

As concerned individuals search for recent news via social media on the state of Palmyra's heritage and Tadmor this seemingly "new" imagery cascaded into a series of rapid retweets from users following the conflict who assumed the imagery was new.  Unbeknownst to many who saw the tweet and reposted, the image was originally published last summer on August 9, 2015 in Issue 11 of Dabiq (Arabic: دابق ), the online magazine used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for propaganda and recruitment.  

Sometimes reposting an image, assuming that it is "new", is an honest mistake.  

It is unrealistic to expect the passive consumer or the generalist journalist mining information on social media to ghoulishly scroll through, screen-catch, store and then recognise every image ever published by ISIS via the deep web or video sites.   But the dishing-up of old news repackaged as "new" news serves to highlight how the world's news is spread with rapid velocity over social media. It also underlines how easy it is for news to become distorted unintentionally or in some cases intentionally by individuals or organisations with Twitter and Facebook accounts. 

It also draws attention to how audiences that assume a more active role in providing analysed content; those who participate actively in developing "breaking news" or expert analysis reports on the state of heritage through social media, need to exercise due diligence in their researching.

“The fact that a tweet by a journalist is restricted to 140 characters does not mean that journalistic ethics can be ditched.” London Journalist, David Brewer 

Across the world people are trying to make sense of the horrendous situation in Syria, focusing on Palmyra in particular and wondering what, if anything, anyone can do to help.  Sometimes the only thing individuals feel they can do is spread the word on what's happening.  Unfortunately some web-based journalists and social media users think that having an engaged audience is also something worth manipulating, using journalistic shock and awe tactics to encourage more viewer traffic or increase followers. 

Using web platforms and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, that feed upon audience interaction via retweets and repostings, followers and retweeters sometime end up serving as echo chambers, for those that choose to manipulate content.  Without integrity, social media journalism becomes easy to manipulate and users reposting inaccurate or tainted information can unknowingly support a specific opinion or agenda, driving web traffic towards unethically behaving news sources.

Propagating one's own viewpoint or opinion isn't inherently bad. Opinions do matter, and voicing them is a good thing, but encouraging followers to read published content by distorting factual accuracy is akin to "traffic whoring". 

In the biz, some of the less taste-worthy news agencies actually assign staff to “traffic-whoring duty.”  But the lure of offering up posts that content providers know will garner more page clicks and attract more followers can lead web journalists to intentionally distort reality.

Content providers often subscribe to a carrot and stick formula of SEO-rich headlines plus key words sprinkled with enticing visual imagery known to appeal to their intended market audience.  But these ingredients are only part of the recipe of good web-based journalism.  The formula can be harnessed, and used ethically or manipulated and used dishonestly.

Sometimes reposting an image is abject manipulation.

An example of unethical reporting is when a news agency or social media account holder intentionally creates a false illusion of reality, complete with dramatic photo or video, packaging their creation as "breaking news".  Such was the case yesterday when a video was posted on Twitter by @ruptly (Ruptly), a video news subsidiary of RT (originally Russia Today), the Russian government-funded television network.  


At first glance, viewers were led to believe that they were looking at new video footage, likely obtained through boots-on-the-ground soldiers advancing to retake Palmyra.   In reality and ironically, it is a video from May 20, 2015, the day that insurgents swept into Palmyra's military air base, prison, intelligence headquarters and the city's ancient sites.

The original video was posted by Ruptly to Liveleak on May 20, 2015.  The "breaking news" version on March 10, 2016 showed a different opening image and spliced out the government backed soldiers engaging with Daesh militants as they fought near the ancient ruins.

When I pointed this out to Ruptly, they silently withdrew the video late yesterday without further explanation or acknowledgment of their fast switch.   But not before the extracted video had been retweeted several times. 

The same type of sensationalist, false reporting was propagated by Breaking News, @BRnewsKING though their report yesterday centered on multiple airplane strikes at Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma'ani Castle (Palmyra Castle).


Again branded by heritage activists as "new" news, the report was picked up and then analysed by geopolitical analyst and microblogger @markito0171 who spent time pinpointing aircraft. 




It is one thing to accidentally misrepresent current affairs, propagating someone else's error in assumption.  It is another thing to intentionally amplify incidents, turning the imagery into page view chasing gutter journalism thereby manipulating the chain of historical events.  When the latter happens content providers create a reverberation, often in a partisan manner, that only serves to further polarise parties to a already complicated asymmetrical conflict. 

I encourage news organisations, journalists, analysts and citizen activists reporting on the Syrian conflict to slow down on retweeting, to be more transparent about, and more attentive to, the way in which reporting has an impact across the conflict heritage ecosystem. Viral journalism is great, but only if we police ourselves and demand factual accuracy from our sources.

Ethical journalists should strive for honesty and be courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.  Good journalism seeks the truth and reports it, even when the truth isn't necessarily something we are happy about. 

Good journalists also take responsibility for the accuracy of what they report and verify information as best as is possible before releasing it to the public. When errors are made or situations misinterpreted, journalists should be accountable and transparent to their errors, acknowledging mistakes and correcting them prominently. 

Lastly I believe that journalists should live by the creed:

Being the first to report should never compromise the truth.  

Op Ed by:  Lynda Albertson, CEO ARCA
@sauterne (Ergo Sum)

ARCA
@arca_artcrime
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