PARIS – The Lion of Al-lat (the Lion Statue of Athena) at the entrance of the archaeological museum of Palmyra was savagely destroyed by ISIS, the jihadist group that conquered in May the historic caravan city in the Syrian desert north of Damascus. The Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova firmly condemned this action as it “reflect the brutality and ignorance of extremist groups and their disregard of local communities and of the Syrian people.”
The Lion of Al-lat, a unique piece of more than three meters high, survived more that 1900 years and is “the most important sculpture destroyed by ISIS so far”, denounced Mamoun Abdelkarim, the Director of National Antiquities of Syria, quoted by the news agency Sana. The statue originally adorned the temple of pre-Islamic goddess Al-lāt and was rediscovered in 1977 by Polish archaeologists. Representing a feline, the husband of Al-lat, protecting a gazelle between its legs, it is “the symbol of the ancient city and its people, and of the protection that the strong owes to the weak”, said UNESCO in a statement on its website.
The gazelle symbolized Al-lāt’s tender and loving traits, as bloodshed was not permitted under penalty of Al-lāt’s retaliation. The lion’s left paw had a partially damaged inscription which read: tbrk ʾ[it] (Al-lāt will bless) mn dy lʾyšd (whoever will not shed) dm ʿl ḥgbʾ (blood in the sanctuary).
In a video posted by ISIS online, militants are also shown as they hammer what are described as “ancient funerary busts” in a public square. “The destruction of funerary busts of Palmyra in a public square, in front of crowds and children asked to witness the looting of their heritage is especially perverse. These busts embody the values of human empathy, intelligence and honor the dead. They also represent a wealth of information on costumes, jewelry, traditions and history of the Syrian people. Their destruction is a new attempt to break the bonds between people and their history, to deprive them of their cultural roots in order to better enslave them,” Bokova added. Syrian activists later said that the busts were in fact copies of ancient originals, and that the destruction was staged to cover illegal smuggling of antiquities outside of Syria. Trafficking of archaeological items is a major source of financing for ISIS and has been repeatedly condemned by UNESCO.
News of the destruction resonated in Bonn, where only last week the UNESCO Committee for Cultural Heritage launched the campaign Global Coalition Unite for Heritage, which aims to strengthen the mobilization of governments and all heritage stakeholders in the face of deliberate damage to cultural heritage, particularly in the Middle East. “I reiterate my call to all religious leaders, intellectuals, young people, to stand up against the manipulation of religion, to respond to the false arguments of extremists in all media and through the campaign #unite4heritage”, Bokova said commending “the courage of the youth from the Arab world who are committed to protecting their heritage as a source of strength, resilience and hope in the future”.
UNESCO called on all Member States, the art market and experts to join forces to curb the illicit traffic of cultural property. I call on all researchers, artists, filmmakers and photographers to continue to cooperate and join forces with the UN to document and share the wealth of the Mesopotamian civilization. “Neither bombs nor jackhammers can erase this great culture from the memory of the world”, said Bokova.
An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. Standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, it married Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. It grew steadily in importance as a city on the trade route linking Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire, marking the crossroads of several civilizations in the ancient world. The history of Palmyra during the Umayyad era testifies to the centrality of the Arab-Muslim world, of its ability to connect distant cultures and civilizations, and is an integral part of modern Arabic and Muslim identity. (AB, July 4, 2015)