Syria’s antiquities and the Arab media

Indeed by Al Manar’s own admission, it does not seek to be objective but to promote Palestinian victimhood and diatribes against the State of Israel and its supporters.

second temple artifacts 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Israel Police)
second temple artifacts 311
(photo credit: Courtesy Israel Police)
In an article published last Friday (March 29, 2013) the Al Manar website ran a similar story to The Jerusalem Post op-ed titled, “Saving Jewish antiquities in Syria,” but with an interpretation in line with the position of Hezbollah and the Assad regime. The original narrative was taken over and a dramatic story of intrigue and cross-border violations emerged: “Israeli commandos rob rare items from Damascus synagogue.”
Al Manar is a world away from the free press and a source to which, ordinarily, I would not give credence.
Indeed by Al Manar’s own admission, it does not seek to be objective but to promote Palestinian victimhood and diatribes against the State of Israel and its supporters.
As a consequence, Al Manar is deemed to be a vehicle of terrorist networks and is carefully monitored by US intelligence and others with regional interest.
The synagogue at the center of the Al Manar article was that of Jobar, one of the most revered in Syria and one which has suffered periodically.
During Passover 1840 the synagogue was desecrated by an angry mob as part of the events associated with the “Damascus Affair” in which the medieval blood libel resurfaced.
In March of this year the synagogue’s exterior was shelled while the prayer hall was spared. Not that Al Manar wanted to address this. On the contrary, it used additional photographs from various sources to construct a very different account, and led the reader to believe that there was evidence of theft. What the piece did achieve, unwittingly and through distortion, was to highlight that the antiquities were indeed vulnerable. And through Hezbollah propaganda channels this has been brought to the attention of the regime, and by extension the CIA and Interpol.
The theme of pillage is very familiar.
That antiquities have been stolen and heritage sites plundered has generated much comment in both free press and state-controlled Syrian Association News Agency, SANA.
In May of last year Emma Cunliffe, an archaeologist and research fellow at the University of Durham in England, produced a report for the Global Heritage Fund entitled, “Damage to the Soul: Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Conflict.” It is a superb attempt to catalogue the destruction of national and World Heritage Sites such as the crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers and the ancient cities of Hama, Bosra, Damascus and Aleppo. The work is necessarily and sadly incomplete – through no fault of its author.
The Syrian civil war has pursued, if not intensified, since the date of publication and our knowledge remains in many case fragmentary at best. And unlike other conflicts, our knowledge is often dependent upon amateur video footage which, by its very nature, can be highly misleading.
The good news, if it can be so called, is that Cunliffe’s report should be updated in the next three months and will make reference to the Jewish sites. There is agreement that these places of worship – which are not Syrian national or World Heritage Sites – have been neglected in the prevailing discourse and that, although perhaps peripheral, they are very much part of the historical fabric of a multi-ethnic Syria.
It is a much-needed task. The last attempt to reference the synagogues in any fashion was in 1994 when the photojournalist Robert Lyons produced a study for the World Monuments Fund as part of its Jewish Heritage Program. This was 20 years ago, long before the war and before the Assad-sponsored restoration of the synagogues in the Old City of Damascus.
Lyons’ survey was three-quarters complete.
For now there still remains the very real fear that, despite formal petitions to both the regime and the FSA to avoid conflict in and among heritage sites, these pleas will be disregarded and that Damascus – the last frontier in a brutal civil war – will be drawn in. The fate of Syria’s Jewish past hangs in the balance.

The writer is a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, British Museum.