New pictures show the destruction of Palmyra

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
It will take at least five years and millions of dollars to rebuild the ancient city of Palmyra if there is peace, Syrian officials have said as new pictures revealed the extent of the damage wreaked by Islamic State.

Aerial photographs taken by the Russian air force show for the first time the rubble remains of several monuments within the 2,000-year-old Roman city, located 140 miles north east of Damascus.

The ancient city of Palmyra in 2009
The ancient city of Palmyra in 2009CHRISTOPHE CHARON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Mohamed Asaad, whose family has managed the site for decades, and Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities, said that investigations were still under way to ascertain the full extent of the destruction. Preliminary evaluations, however, show that it would take five years to reconstruct.

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Poor Egyptians dig up homes in search of antiquities

The TimesBel Trew, Matariya
An illicit trade in antiquities is booming in Egypt helped by a growing number of people illegally digging under their homes for treasure.

The authorities are struggling to stop the digs and have raised the maximum sentence for illegally selling antiquities from seven years in prison to life, but the collapse of the economy and the currency has encouraged the trade.

“In our business we deal in dollars most of the time so if you sell something for $10 which was worth seven Egyptian pounds, it’s now worth 18,” one antiquities trader said. “That’s more than double. The business has become more profitable for many people.”

He has worked as a broker for 17 years, acquiring antiquities from looters and selling them to buyers in Europe and the US. He said that a new wave of opportunists had started digging under their homes. The busiest areas are two poor districts of Cairo that sit on top of the ancient city of Heliopolis, which was populated from the pre-dynastic period to the Middle Kingdom, up until 1800BC. “The devaluation could be the reason why many more people who live in areas like Matariya and Ain Shams districts have begun digging only recently,” he said.

Between 2011 and 2014 the country lost $3 billion in artefacts taken from sites and museums, according to the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities. Whole sites, including the 4,000-year-old Dahshur necropolis and Abusir cemetery, have been gutted.

Poor Egyptians are using desperate means to make money as inflation soars and energy and fuel subsidies are cut. Now that the value of the dollar has doubled many are trying to find ancient objects to sell internationally.

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Antiquities experts call for war on Isis looting in Syria and Iraq

The TimesBel Trew, Tripoli
British antiquities experts are calling for an international body to investigate and repatriate stolen artefacts to counter the looting and sale of antiquities from the Middle East.

The pillaging of archaeological sites and museums as well as illicit digging has surged in the security breakdown that followed the 2011 Arab Spring, becoming a multibillion-pound trade.

Satellite imagery of areas in countries such as Egypt and Syria now shows pock-marked landscapes, where opportunist thieves, including jihadist groups such as Islamic State, have dug for treasures to be sold on international markets.

Neal Spencer, keeper of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, said that the only way to try to stop antiquities trafficking, and with it the destruction of ancient sites and thefts from museums, was for better international co-operation and the creation of a full database of objects.

“Archaeologists, museums, law enforcement bodies and reputable art dealers and auction houses must collaborate to create an open, transparent and freely accessible online platform to trace objects moving around,” he told The Times.

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Hobby Lobby under investigation over sale of 5th‑century Bible fragment

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
Egypt is investigating the possible illegal acquisition of national artefacts by an American craft store company, including a 5th-century fragment of the Bible that was displayed at the Vatican.

Hobby Lobby, owned by the multibillionaire Green family, agreed to forfeit 5,000 artefacts this month after a US federal investigation found that they came from Iraq and were shipped under false labels via the UAE and Israel.

The Oklahoma company, which began acquiring historic items in 2009 to set up the Museum of the Bible in Washington, had to pay an additional $3 million to settle civil cases.

The forfeited items include tablets covered in cuneiform, an ancient system of writing. Egyptian officials have raised the alarm about other items within the Green Collection, including 1,600-year-old New Testament fragments.

A spokesman for the repatriations department of the Egyptian antiquities ministry told The Times: “We have launched an investigation into the matter, contacted the embassy abroad and the foreign ministry to try to find more details.”

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The painting princess who fed art critics caviar

The TimesBel Trew, Amman
Silhouetted by the rich reds of his mother’s abstract painting, Prince Ra’ad bin Zeid is explaining how the shock waves of a massacre rippled into the kitchen of a modest London flat.

At the time of the 1958 Iraqi coup, his mother — the Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid, who receives her first large-scale British retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern next month — commanded the attention of the international art scene, holding lavish soirées at her home in the Iraqi embassy in London. The flamboyant painter was working on a scale that few women had attempted, blending Byzantine, Islamic and Persian influences with European abstraction to create huge kaleidoscopic pieces, such as Alice in Wonderland (1952), which dwarfs the 81-year-old prince as he speaks.

His father, Prince Zeid al-Hussein, who was Iraq’s ambassador in London, was great-uncle to Faisal II, Iraq’s Hashemite king. On July 14, 1958 insurgents shot dead 23-year-old Faisal and his relatives in a Baghdad courtyard. Zeid, her husband and their only son, the sole survivors of that royal line, were given 24 hours to vacate the embassy in London. Traumatised, they tumbled into a smaller flat. Zeid, born into Ottoman nobility, had to learn to cook.

Aged 57, Zeid entered the kitchen for the first time, cooking a dinner of rice and chicken. Ever the artist, despite her anguish, the alien lines of the cleaned carcasses struck her as resembling dragons and deep sea creatures. She began painting them and cooking poultry obsessively, her son recalls. She later set the bones in cracked resin, her first venture into sculpture. Four decades later, in her art-packed villa in Amman in Jordan, she placed these pieces, called Paléokrystalos, on motorised turntables. They tumbled shattered light across the room, spinning cenotaphs to one of her darkest moments.

The Tate show will include paintings, drawings and sculptures from more than 40 years, such as the Paléokrystalos and her last big abstract work, Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life (1962), which came out of the period after the coup. “All of a sudden everything came to an abrupt end. My father didn’t know where to put himself. To clothe himself. We couldn’t get to him completely. [It was] almost a blackout,” says Prince Ra’ad.

We’re speaking in the family’s home in Amman, which is still full of his mother’s paintings. In this room alone they range from early, quasi-expressionist interiors to a 1980 self-portrait in which Zeid stares out at us with one arched eyebrow. She looks every inch the artist, yet, despite a long career and critical acclaim during her life, in Europe she has been more or less forgotten. The Tate curator, Kerryn Greenberg, hopes to change that.

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Photo: Cover of Book on Fahrelnissa Zeid, detail of My Hell – Bel Trew


Pagan mummies are latest casualties of Yemen’s fighting

Bel Trew, The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
Rare mummies are rotting in a museum in war-torn Yemen because power cuts are disrupting dehumidifiers and sanctions have cut supplies of chemicals needed to preserve them.

The 12 corpses, tightly curled in leathery baskets, were found buried at different sites in the country and had survived for 2,500 years, but after months of civil conflict the remnants of an ancient pagan civilisation are now being eaten away by microbes at Sanaa University, where they are on display.

They are just some of the objects and heritage sites that are being destroyed in the fighting, which has ruined the country’s infrastructure. More than 80 sites have been damaged by airstrikes and terrorist bombings since the conflict started in March 2015, according to Mohannad al-Sayani, the country’s antiquities chief.

He said that the mummies were the only ones found in the Arabian peninsula and that they hinted at closer ties to the ancient Egyptians. Mr Sayani appealed to the outside world to save the mummies, which date back to 250BC.

Yemen is considered the birthplace of Arab civilisation and is famed for its powerful caravan kingdoms, such as Sheba, home of the biblical queen.

Airstrikes have pounded Sanaa’s old city of 11th-century earthen towers, which earned it Unesco heritage status. Coalition warplanes have levelled an Ottoman fort outside the capital and damaged most of the Marib Dam, a 2,800-year-old engineering marvel. Islamic extremists have blown up Sufi shrines and mosques. Last year Taiz’s national museum, home to manuscripts and pre-Islamic objects, was reduced to ashes by Houthi shelling.

“If the war lasts much longer, eventually much of the heritage will be gone,” Mr Sayani said, comparing attempts to move artefacts to secret underground stores to Noah’s Ark. “The electricity problems in the city have stopped temperature control, which has made them start to rot. Yemen is the only country on the Arabian peninsula where mummies have been found. This makes them of huge importance on their own.”


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Sudan: Archaeologists race to save Nubian history from Nile waters

The TimesBel Trew, Amara West, Sudan
They say the swarms of biting black flies can turn even the calmest men mad when they take over this area of Sudan in the spring. The bugs, however, are just one of the plagues facing British Museum archaeologists at the Amara West dig, 430 miles north of Khartoum. They are also battling scorpions, camel spiders as big as your fist, and crocodiles on the banks of the nearby Nile.

This area may be uncomfortable for the experts working there but it is one of the most exciting frontiers in archaeology. A team of ten is racing to excavate a 3,300-year-old Pharaonic town that is shedding new light on how Egypt’s rulers controlled the Nubian territory that they conquered to the south of their heartlands.

An ivory statue of the Pharaonic god Bes with a Nubian face found at Amara West
An ivory statue of the Pharaonic god Bes with a Nubian face found at Amara West – British Museum

Amara West was the centre of Pharaonic administration between 1300 and 1070BC and as it is excavated the team is able to unearth history and correct assumptions about Nubia.

There was no written form of the Nubian language so for 200 years Egyptologists scrutinised the ancient civilisation through the lens of the damning hieroglyphs of Pharaonic propaganda, in which the Nubians were described as a simple people who needed to be civilised by the advanced dynasties of Egypt.

The latest research at Amara West and other key sites in this area has unveiled the truth, however — the civilisation was sophisticated, and under Egyptian occupation in the 2nd millennium BC there was a blending and borrowing of cultures.

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