This past Tuesday, my friend Jeff Thompson in the Art History department put together a panel entitled “Sewanee Responds: A Panel Discussion on the Destruction of the Ancient City of Palmyra.” Panelists included Sara Nimis (Mellon Globalization Fund), Nick Roberts (History), Jacqueline DiBiasie Sammons (Classical Archaeology) and yours truly. I learned a lot from my colleagues about the situation in Palmyra–the sale of antiquities by ISIS, their ideological commitments, the lack of good options for the West, etc.–and was especially impressed by questions from students and others.
In my own remarks, I make reference to three articles:
- Heather Pringle, “ISIS Cashing in on Looted Antiquities to Fuel Iraq Insurgency,” National Geographic, June 27, 2014, who notes: “Listed among ISIS’s key financial transactions were records of illicit antiquity trafficking. In one region of Syria alone, the group reportedly netted up to $36 million from activities that included the smuggling of plundered artifacts.”
- Gary Vikan, “The Case For Buying Antiquities To Save Them” Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2015, who says: “In times of extraordinary risk, we should be open to dealing with bad guys to create a safe harbor for works of art. This is an act of rescue and stewardship—and should be done with the explicit understanding that eventually, when the time is right, the objects will be repatriated to the country of their origin.”
- Leon Wieseltier, “The Rubble of Palmyra,” The Atlantic, September 4, 2015, who writes: “But there are different reasons for admiring ruins. We need not dwell on them only to vindicate ourselves. We can dwell on them also to vindicate a notion of humanity. We preserve them to illustrate not divine purposes but human purposes. They are proof of the astonishing multiplicity of answers to life’s questions that have been created by our tirelessly self-interpreting kind. We restore them and we display them as a cosmopolitan way of regarding particularities, as an expression of our humane respect for the resourcefulness of the spirit over time. We imbue them with meanings that their makers could not have grasped, except perhaps in places such as Palmyra. Where others saw truth, we see beauty—but the beauty is not merely formal. What a spiritual accomplishment it is, to cherish—and in the case of Khaled al-Assad, to die for—the vestiges of a faith in which one does not believe.”