Meet the men taking up arms to protect the Middle East’s ancient treasures

That you need guns to protect ancient sites from Isis is a given — shamefully, you can’t rely on the West to help

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

Leptis Magna was deserted when I last visited — no wonder. Tourists daren’t visit Libya these days and so I had the ruins to myself. I climbed the steps of the vast Roman theatre, looked out to where the Wadi Lebda meets the sea, then stopped. Men with AK-47s. My immediate fear was that they were Islamic State. Isis move closer to Leptis Magna every day and it would make sense for this most spectacular site to be next on their hit list.

Their last great coup was on the other side of the Med, when they blew up the Temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra, known as ‘the Pearl of the Desert’. It’s part of their cultural jihad, but they also do it for the global outrage that follows. No such thing as bad press for Isis.

As the gunmen approached, they looked less threatening and began to speak. They were, they explained, not Isis but a group of local volunteers protecting the site from the Islamist terrorists: Neighbourhood Watch, with Kalashnikovs.

That you need guns to protect ancient sites from Isis is a given. Look what they did to Khaled al-Asaad in Palmyra. The 82-year-old archaeologist, director of antiquities, refused to disclose the whereabouts of artefacts which had been moved for safekeeping. He was tortured and beheaded, and his headless corpse strung up with a placard saying ‘Director of Idolatry’.

Khaled al-Assaad (Photo: Getty)

Dr Asaad had been urged by family members, colleagues and friends to leave Palmyra after Isis took over. But he had been working at the sites for 45 years, discovering some of its most famous treasures including a trove from the Sassanid dynasty, which ruled from c. 200 to 600 ad, and he felt he had a duty to protect them.

I’ve been around the world reporting on Islamist atrocities, and for all the hand-wringing done by western politicians over the desecration of monuments, it seems to me that it’s the brave civilians who feel this duty most keenly.

All over the world, civilians are quietly doing their bit. I met Samir, a 24-year-old archaeology student and opposition activist from Damascus, who regularly crossed the border from Turkey into Syria to chart missing artefacts. He told me that the commanders of Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra (an al–Qaeda affiliate) were making money by selling off the most valuable antiquities. Samir was shot dead near Aleppo three months ago by a smuggling gang that works with the Islamists.

Two years ago jihadists who had overrun half of Mali began to burn ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu, and in response the residents took the most valuable scripts from the city’s Ahmed Baba Library and hid them in their homes.

After the Islamists were driven off by French forces, one man, Dramane Maulvi Haidara, showed me a book of Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) which he had managed to save. There were pages of exquisite calligraphy and fraying Moroccan leather covers from the 14th century.

‘We must now get these somewhere safe,’ he said, ‘because they will be back.’

Dramane was right. The Islamists are now back and carrying out renewed attacks, but Timbuktu’s most treasured historic manuscripts are, for the time being at least, safe in the capital, Bamako.

Leptis Magda

In fact the official West — its governments and armed forces — have a distinctly iffy track record on protecting our cultural heritage. In Baghdad in 2003, after the city’s ‘liberation’, American soldiers stood by as the National Museum and historic sites were looted. The Bush administration wanted it to appear that the action of the rampaging mob was a popular expression of rage against Saddam Hussein. These scenes were replicated in Mosul, Nineveh and Tikrit.

Though they won’t thank you for saying it, our own soldiers also took part in the destruction. US and Polish soldiers used Babylon as a military depot, causing severe damage. Attempts were made to gouge out the famous dragon carvings of the Ishtar Gate, and brickwork dating back 2,500 years was crushed by armoured vehicles. Invaluable archaeological fragments were used to fill sandbags and trenches were dug through the ruins.

John Curtis, the keeper of the British Museum’s Ancient Near East department, visited Babylon at the invitation of Iraqi colleagues and said what had happened was ‘tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain’. The US countered that the looting at Babylon would have been worse had they not been there at all.

Now, in another country and another war, my friends among the Syrian rebels ask: why did the US-led coalition not do more to protect Palmyra? There were daily bulletins of the Isis advance on the city and warnings of the certain destruction of the Unesco world heritage site if they managed to capture it. But no air strikes took place to stop the jihadists. Even now, it is local people who are forming the resistance, with little or no official support.

It’s the same in Libya. The men I met at Leptis Magna, around a hundred of them, get no funding from the Tripoli Dawn government in the capital Tripoli, nor the rival government, recognised by Britain and the West, based in a hotel in Tobruk.

One of the Leptis Magna watchmen, Mohammed al-Shaqiri, said: ‘Why should there be any surprise that we will fight to save this place? Generations of our families grew up around here. Who are Daesh [Isis] to order us about our history?’

With no faith that either shakily established local governments or western forces and aid agencies will help, men like Dramane in Mali, Mohammed in Libya and Dr Asaad in Syria risk their lives to protect the treasures of the ancient world. If anything survives the cultural desecration of Isis, it is thanks to their quiet heroism. We in the West should be ashamed not to have done more to help them.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Kim Sengupta is defence and diplomatic correspondent of the Independent.

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Show comments
  • Sunshine Sux

    Our governments and media have shown whose side they’re on.

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  • CO Jones

    Leptis Magna? Virtually nobody in the UK has heard of it, and fewer still have the vaguest idea where or what it is. Even the caption to the photograph of it gets the name wrong: Leptis Madga, indeed!

  • Suriani

    Human civilisation, the most endangered thing on the planet.

  • Gilbert White

    In the long term are two or three corridors in the Louvre or NG. worth more than all the world’s refugee children?

  • Old Nick

    Do you know of the remarkable work of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library who are even now in Bamako digitizing the Timbuctoo mss., so that even if (heaven forbid) they are destroyed the texts will survive for scholarship: http://www.hmml.org/

  • jeremy Morfey

    Either Islam was founded on superstition or it wasn’t. The Muslims cannot have it both ways. Either the Holy of Holies, the Kaaba is a meteorite sent from Heaven with the imprint of Abraham to which all faithful must direct their prayers, or it isn’t. The space around it is holy and must be treated with reverence by those who believe in this sort of thing.

    Yesterday, out of nowhere a great storm whipped up and a thunderbolt struck one of the cranes demolishing the Grand Mosque in Mecca, bringing it crashing down over those gathered around the Kaaba to pray. On Friday.

    If you believe in divine providence that created the Kaaba, then you should take warning of Allah’s displeasure at the conversion of His holy sanctuary into a shopping centre and hotel complex for the megarich, and the destruction of centuries of heritage.

    Allah has spoken to the Wahhabis.

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  • Richard

    Human Rights and various other legal fabrications have trussed the West up like a Turkey. We are unable to do anything at all, we cannot even save ourselves from hordes of migrants if they wish to come here. We are a spent force, which becomes increasingly obvious with each passing day.

    • Shorne

      Oh do shut up.

      • Richard

        As another ‘Richard’ I have to agree with the Richard who posted above. We are a Spent force and we are indeed now unable to control our own destiny, let alone the destiny of others.

        • Abie Vee

          But, um, who exactly is “we”? And does all of this “we” sign off the same hymn sheet as you? What is this destiny of which you wail?

          As a free-born Englishman, I realised at a very early age that my freedom was little more than the freedom to do as I was told… obey the law, pay my due taxes, and die for the privilege if called upon. There isn’t much more to it than that.

        • Shorne

          I suppose this is about UK laws being made in Brussels well
          ‘According to the House of Commons Library , from 1980 to 2009, 186 out of 1302 UK Acts (14.3 per cent) “incorporated a degree of EU influence”. If we exclude those Acts which only included “passing reference” to the EU, this proportion reduces to 10.1 per cent.’
          Here’s a Telegraph headline from earlier this year
          ‘Most of our laws are not EU-made… the total number of EU laws currently in force is 22,398, many of which do not apply to Britain. But the complete number of laws of all kinds currently on the UK legal database is 75,820’

          Perhaps one of the two Dicks could say what EU generated law is most affecting them at present.

        • Shorne

          I suppose this is about UK laws being made in Brussels well
          ‘According to the House of Commons Library , from 1980 to 2009, 186 out of 1302 UK Acts (14.3 per cent) “incorporated a degree of EU influence”. If we exclude those Acts which only included “passing reference” to the EU, this proportion reduces to 10.1 per cent.’
          Here’s a Telegraph headline from earlier this year
          ‘Most of our laws are not EU-made… the total number of EU laws currently in force is 22,398, many of which do not apply to Britain. But the complete number of laws of all kinds currently on the UK legal database is 75,820’

          Perhaps one of the two Dicks could say what EU generated law is most affecting them at present.

          • edithgrove

            If you think yours is any kind of reaction to the destruction of ancient monuments by Isis and the EU’s inability to form any kind of coherant response then you and the EU are both useless dicks.

          • Shorne

            Everything ISIS does is wholly repellent. Your comment has nothing to do with mine, it is classic trolling characterised as it so often is by an inability to spell, coherent in this case.

          • edithgrove

            as I said, a useless dick, I’d say pedantic dick but you don’t quite rise to that.

          • Shorne

            You have yet to explain what ISIS have to do with fictitious claims that Britain is wholly governed by the EU. The reason of course is obvious, you can’t.

          • edithgrove

            If I’d made the statement you claim I would be happy to explain it, but of course I didn’t, you’re just trolling.

          • Shorne

            I pointed out that the EU did not make the majority of the Uk’s laws, you mentioned ISIS for no discernible reason.

          • edithgrove

            I mentioned Isis because it is the indirect subject of Mr Sengupta’s column, for instance he writes, “If anything survives the cultural desecration of Isis, it is thanks to their quiet heroism. We in the West should be ashamed not to have done more to help them.”

          • Shorne

            If anybody defeats ISIS it will be America and/or Russia.

          • King Kibbutz

            That would appear to be reason, and quite discernible.

          • King Kibbutz

            ‘I suppose this is about UK laws being made in Brussels…’

            Brussels or Westminster – we are powerless to stop the deluge of immigration; and we are cowed by political correctness. All is ticking along nicely.

          • Mr B J Mann

            Yes, it’s only a few little things like our Elf n Safety legislation, our ability to alter taxes, or to control our borders……

            Then, of course, there’s legislation that doesn’t come from Europe, it was just a coincidence that similar laws started popping up in different EU countries at the same time:

            Like smoking bans and g-y marriage?!

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    Problem with these “Middle East’s ancient treasures” is that by and large, they remain “unknown” treasures to the world. I consider myself fairly educated on major world historical sites, but many of these places now destroyed by ISIS never made it in any documentary on US TV. Never.

    Petra was covered a couple of times. Egypt covered a lot, So was ancient Rome, ancient Greece, the Mayan, Aztec, Inca. with a lot of European and American history both on Cable and direct TV

    When the so called “world famous” Bamyan Buddhas which were the largest ancient giant statues of the world, were blasted into smithereens by the Taliban, the news covered that destruction for a maximum of about a week. Then it would be brought up every now and then as the years passed. I personally knew of their significance, but those I spoke to in the US were genuinely just shocked of some “Buddha statues” blown up.

    For example this site “Leptis Magna”, I have never even heard of this place and I can assure anyone the media nor the Television programs ever made a documentary on this site or the many sites already destroyed by IS.

    • Richard Baranov

      You can look at Leptis on You tube, magic! If you ever get the opportunity you should go. Libya is full of ancient cities and towns, not all of them Roman. It is/was, truly a wonderful place and so are the people and it isn’t far away at all. When things settle down I fully intend to return. Would love to live there again, stunning white beaches too.

      • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

        Well Richard you had to ask me to Google this site. If I did not even know it existed I would not have the incentive to find out. it is a catch 22
        Outside of Googling could you name 3 historic places in Sri lanka?
        How about India outside of the Taj Mahal.?
        Most of the people I know and that includes places like California. the deep south, New York not only do not know but think it is cool not to know. People who do are often referred to as nerds. I have not for I would punch them. It is more “cool” to know what the latest fashion is from Hollywood or what cool drug one can take.

        • Richard Baranov

          Namaste! Sri-Lanka: Temple of the Tooth, Adams Peak and Sigiriya. India, the Ajanta Caves, Nalanda and Bod Gaya. You asked the wrong question of me, take a look at my Bio on Disqus 🙂 I would probably flounder over Europe.

          • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

            Ayebovan Richard
            Good except Adam’s peak is only sacred for the imprint of a foot. I would have gone for the conventional Pollonaruwa and Anuradhapura
            You passed with flying colors regarding North Indian sites and your salutation fits that part of India.
            Had you named Halebid, Mahabhalipuram, Hampi I would have expected the salutation of

          • Richard Baranov

            Thank you for the compliment. Adams peak because I’m Buddhist. But you are Sri-Lankan, are you not?

          • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

            You are welcome. Which Buddhist branch? most westerners follow
            (Japanese) Zen Buddhism
            (Tibetan) Vajrayana Buddhism
            and some the Hinayana Buddhism
            I am Catholic. Mother was Anglican but converted to Catholicism when she married my Catholic father. His father was a Buddhist and a Buddhist Scholar. He would transliterate ancient Pali scripts that the Sri Lankan Buddhist Order could not. But his wife (my grandmother) was a staunch Catholic.
            On my mother’s side her great great grandmother was a Hindu. they were estate owners. So you can say my “background” is Christian, Buddhist, Hindu. (almost in that order)

          • Richard Baranov

            I became Buddhist well over 55 years ago. My teachers were what was then called Singhalese, bhikkhus at the London Buddhist Vihara, not sure if it still exists. I them met the first Tibetan teacher in Britain and was ordained as a Nyingma bhikkhu. Now a days I would say I am a classical Mahayanist, my basic teachings are from the Mahaprajnaparamita sastra and the Bodhicaritavatara, so basically Madhyamaka, a natural growth from studying the abhidharma of Vasubandhu. In terms of practice I do Tonglen, which is somewhat similar to the practice of Metta, you can find it on the web and also a practice to do with Amitabha & Sukhavati, I suspect you understand what I’m on about? I did not teach Tibetan Buddhism but concentrated on teaching people the basics from the perspective of the Mahayana Dharma, not how the West interprets it. I seem to spend more time correcting peoples perceptions of Buddhism than much else, sila and prajna are almost ignored in the West in favour of an insipid version of what they like to call “meditation”. Because I was only 12 when I started practicing Buddhadharma, my education is almost entirely Buddhist so I take a rather dim view of how Westerners present Buddhism. They clean it up, sanitize it and, in my opinion, distort the Dharma very badly because they wish to make it fit the Wests concepts about what the Buddhadharma is rather than what it actually is. Now a days I no longer teach but concentrate on practice, for the sake of all sentient beings. Although sometimes I think I’m far to crabby to succeed on that one! So anyway, basically I’m mainstream Mahayana but if you scratch me you will find a Theravadin underneath :-).

          • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

            Just got your comment. Nice to hear the word “Singhalese” instead of “Sinhalese”.

            Gone are the days when Ceylon was “Ceylon’ and not “Sri Lanka”. I still consider myself a “Ceylonese”

            2600 years of Buddhism means Hinayana and Mahayana were mixed, even in Ceylon. Vajrayana managed to be almost pure due to its isolation in Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan.
            The Dharmachakra or the Dharma of the Buddha is very flexible.

            The way i see it Buddhism does not really deal with the divine even though in Mahayana Buddhism the Buddha is treated as a divine.

            when it expanded it did not uproot the existing cultures but melded with them example is the Chinese fat “laughing Buddha” which is alien to the Subcontinent.
            Askoka even sent emissaries to Ptolemaic Egypt. Had Egypt adopted Buddhism it would have included ancient Egyptian rituals.

            You must know about the “Devil dance” of Ceylon. it is pre Buddhist including the Devil masks. So in that sense if the Western world takes from Buddhism that fits into her myriad cultures it would not be out of place for the vast world of Buddhism Most of the tests you wrote I only know them by name and not content

            Another is Japan. She took Buddhism and incorporated it into her Shinto faith and the Samurai code

            China took Buddhism but also kept alive Confucianism and Taoism. None of them opposed one another. Even in India Hinduism and Buddhism co existed for centuries borrowing parts from one another

            Thanks for sharing such a long personal history you have had with that faith.
            One thing I remember about my Grandfather was him showing me old Pali parchments and the instruments he would use in deciphering them. I was too young to fully appreciate what he was sharing with me.

          • Richard Baranov

            I completely agree with you except for one thing. You say: “The way i see it Buddhism does not really deal with the divine even though in Mahayana Buddhism the Buddha is treated as a divine.”
            This is a common misnomer, in fact, Mahayana is no more theistic that the Theravada. This fact is rather graphically illustrated by the end of many sadhana that end: “The person does not exist, the deity does not exist, and this act does not exist, all dissolves into Sunyata.” In fact, the Mahayana teaches anatman just as much as the Theravada, if not more so via the teachings of the Sunyavadins/Madhyamika who taught the sunya of all phenomena, not just the person. This understanding is the pivot of Mahayana thought. As you probably know sunya is not a thing, it is a device or method indicating the non-substantiality of things (nihsvabhava). Within this framework of Sunyata, the absence of all self existing phenomena because all is interdependently caused (Pratityasamutpada), theism, along with atman, are not possible. All this is Upaya, methodology or skill in means and refers to nothing objectively real outside that context.

          • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

            Thanks, just got your comment.
            The concept of the Avalokistesvara, the Bodhisattva, or beings who almost reach the state of Nirvana but “sacrifice” that in order to lead others to that path comes from Mahayana Buddhism.
            the concept of many heavens, Hells, angels etc, are in that branch of Buddhism. After saying all of that it does not preclude what you stated
            Remember in Hinduism the concept of Monism (not Monotheism) were the Atma merges with a energy force that is timeless, nameless formless parallels “anatman’.

            Finally is the Buddha himself the statues of the Buddha show a bulbous top. It looks like a top knot, but it is not for Siddhartha cut off his top knot when he left his city of Lumbini.
            that bulbous spot on the top of his head is called the “Usni” or a source of energy. You probably know that.
            The massive elaborate halos seen in early Buddhist statues and carried to this day were one of the first examples of the “aura” of spiritual energy shown in any faith and well before Christianity.
            the fingers of the Buddha are webbed. Supposed to represent his divine origin
            the story of mother earth coming as witness the purity of the Buddha when Demons accused him of doing wrong. The image of her wringing her hair of all the water which in countless rebirths, the Buddha stayed “pure” sprung forth from her hair and washed away the “divine” beings of evil.

            I am trying to summarize too much in just a comment. Hope it makes sense to you. Siddhartha never claimed God hood but since then and in the following centuries it became so
            Final thing. In Vajrayana Buddhism the Buddha is seen mating with the Hindu Goddess Tara.

          • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

            Forgot to mention one more thing which you may already know. The Buddha is also considered one of the avatars of the Hindu God Vishnu

  • warmingmyth

    While on the subject of arms and ancient treasures, it would appear that Russia is about to be accused of indiscriminate bombing in Syria probably of civilians but possibly of archaeological treasures: