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.

Read full article: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/five-years-needed-to-rebuild-palmyra-2hnzfbqcs

PHOTO: CHRISTOPHE CHARON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

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.

Read full article: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/poor-egyptians-dig-up-homes-in-search-of-antiquities-vmcv8mzdn

PHOTO: AMR NABIL/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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.”

Read full article: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hobby-lobby-under-investigation-over-sale-of-5th-century-bible-fragment-thvs8zq93

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.

Read full article: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/archaeologists-race-to-save-nubian-history-from-nile-waters-q6r2rnckw

PHOTO: BEL TREW

Libyans protect their heritage against jihadist onslaught

The TimesBel Trew, Leptis Magna

It is hard to imagine an encroaching battalion of Islamic State militants when sitting on top of the Leptis Magna ruins. The sound of waves and birdsong are the only things that break through the silence at the Unesco world heritage site, 80 miles east of Tripoli. As one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world and one of the most unspoilt sites on the Mediterranean it should be heaving with tourists and archaeologists.

The entire 2,500-year-old ruin, however, home to marble basilicas, sweeping forums and an ancient seafront theatre, is empty except for a single Libyan family and a handful of local volunteers in sandals and T-shirts guarding the site with battered rifles.

It is not difficult to see why the tourists are keeping their distance. Libya has descended into violent chaos since the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi and Isis — which has established a stronghold on the coast — has attacked the two main checkpoints that lead to and from the site in the past few months.

“We are mostly guarded by local volunteers but if it’s particularly tense, like after a bombing, we call the militias in,” said Fathy, a wiry man in his fifties. “People feel uneasy.” Dressed in a full suit, he has loyally (and incongruously) manned the site’s empty post office for 20 years.

Read full article: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/foc-r26959dzv

PHOTO: BEL TREW

Family describe horror at city custodian’s beheading

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
The family of the custodian of Palmyra who was beheaded by Isis in August described their horror to learn that the octogenarian had been killed because he refused to tell the jihadists where treasures were hidden.

The blood-soaked headless corpse of Khaled al-Asaad, 81, a former chief of the Unesco world heritage site, was strung up on traffic lights by Isis. His severed head was placed between his feet, and next to it was a sign accusing the antiquities expert of being an “apostate” and “director of idolatry”.

His son Mohamed, who worked at the Palmyra museum that was turned into a courthouse by militants, learnt of his father’s murder on the internet. The family fled the city immediately.

“The news hit me like a thunderbolt,” he said. “They took him to the main square of the city and beheaded him in front of people. Whoever tried to leave was killed as well. Our father was a man who served his city and country for decades. His murder was ugly and shameful.”

Asaad, who was nicknamed Mr Palmyra, was appointed director in 1963 and held the position until 2003, when he handed the mantle to his son Walid. The archaeological ruins became a family business. Walid, Mohamed and Assad’s other son, Omar, joined him in the field of antiquities, while two of his daughters, Zeinobia and Fairuz, worked at the site’s museum. His son-in-law, Khalil al-Hariri, was also employed at the museum.

Read full article: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/family-describe-horror-at-killing-of-citys-custodian-5flgkj7z7

PHOTO: MARC DEVILLE/GETTY IMAGES

Pearl of the desert is still shining after Isis assault

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
Eighty per cent of the ancient city of Palmyra is still standing, the world’s top archaeologists have declared, easing fears that Isis had destroyed the Unesco world heritage site during the ten months of its occupation.

Early assessments of the 2,000-year-old desert city were still under way yesterday as experts confirmed that two temples and a 1st century arch had been razed to the ground.

Archaeologists fear that other parts of the site have also been excavated by jihadists hunting for gold.

“We need at least three weeks to give a proper assessment as the army is still removing land mines,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director of Syria’s antiquities agency, who added that several sites had been booby-trapped.

Palmyra has been repeatedly attacked since the Syrian war started five years ago. Regime soldiers looted the city long before Isis seized it and the jihadists bombed parts because they believed that the monuments were idolatrous.

Mr Abdulkarim said: “In terms of architecture 80 per cent of Palmyra still remains. We thought it had been destroyed completely but we know it is saved. This is not just good for Syria, or the government or the opposition, but for humanity, for the cultural world.”

Read full article: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/pearl-of-the-desert-is-still-shining-after-isis-assault-cbqjhk3mr

PHOTO:  VALERY SHARIFULIN/CORBIS