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The Smithsonian Institution is taking a symbolic stand on the destruction of cultural artifacts in the Middle East. Through December, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is exhibiting a funerary bust from Palmyra, an ancient destination in Syria which Islamic State militants have recently ravaged. Earlier this month, the United Nations confirmed that ISIS has destroyed the Temple of Baal, a grand structure whose prominent high altar and plaza lined with stone columns graced the ancient city for some 2,000 years.
The bust of Haliphat, which is part of the Freer–Sackler collection, is only slightly more recent: it dates back to 231 A.D., when Palmyra was still a wealthy trading outpost within the Roman Empire. The bust has been the subject of extensive research on polychromy, or pigments and paints used to decorate stone monuments throughout the Ancient Near East. Charles Lang Freer bought the bust in 1908 in Aleppo from Joseph Marcopoli, a dealer.
The history of the Haliphat acquisition is at least as fascinating as the sculpture itself—and especially pertinent as ISIS fighters continue to destroy what still remains of Palmyra. Charles Howard Colket, a Philadelphia adventurer and archaeologist, was the first to bring Palmyrene sculpture to the U.S. In 1880, he traveled some 1,300 miles on horseback from Beirut to Baghdad. The following year, Colket made the long trek from Beirut to Damascus and Palmyra, where he collected three Palmyrene sculptures—inspiring several antiquities tours that would follow, including Freer’s visit.
Colket and Marcopoli did not operate as baldly as the tomb raiders who looted the pyramids in the 1820s, when a fever for Egyptiana seized Victorian London. Still, the provenance of many historical artifacts that make up the foundations of museum, institutional, and university collections is often incomplete. James Cuno, the president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, has published widely on cultural property matters, specifically on the obligation of encyclopedic art museums in the West to collect and care for artifacts from the East (or Near East). In Who Owns Antiquities?, Cuno writes about the heat he took in the 1990s, when, as director of the Harvard University Art Museums, he showed Greek vase fragments whose provenance was somewhat murky. (To be clear, the Smithsonian abides by the UNESCO Convention of 1970 and other international museum policies on provenance.)
ISIS has inadvertently drawn some bright lines through the still-fiery debate about where the material cultural history of the world belongs. Some might say that an ancient Syrian artifact has no context outside Syria, and that museums have no business acquiring artifacts whose provenance is lost or clearly illegal. For the counterpoint, ISIS might say that there is no Syria. Artifacts depicting the Mithraic Mysteries have been found everywhere from Rome to the Crimea—but what authentic claim can any of these nations make today on objects detailing the ancient Persian cult of Mithras?
“Nationalist retentionist cultural property laws are based on false assumptions about art and culture: that the parameters of art and culture can be fixed—that the currents of influence can be stopped—and identified as national, as having national characteristics,” Cuno writes. Cuno makes the strong argument that institutions like the Smithsonian are obliged to serve as keepers of the world’s history. As the black flag of ISIS rises over the Levant and cult warriors destroy the national heritage of Syria, who could argue otherwise?
Freer’s bust once marked the tomb of Haliphat, daughter of Oglata, son of Harimai, according to Alex Nagel, researcher and former assistant curator of Ancient Near Eastern Art for the Smithsonian. “Originally, reliefs like this one would have marked the tombs of wealthy Palmyrene citizens, either in tower-tombs or complex hypogea below ground,” Nagel writes in a 2012 post for a site called Day of Archaeology.
Idealist historians hold out for the day when Western museums will return artifacts to their places of origin (Western museum directors less so). The war being waged now in Syria will decide whether anything is left of Palmyra, the Place of Palms, dating back to its golden day under the Roman Empire. Despite the invaluable role that the Smithsonian plays as a central repository of research and history, still I shudder to think that it is the only sensible outcome. The world we strive for—and fight for—is one in which Syria can share in its own sacred history. For now, that is not the world we live in.
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