The Oath of Cyriac: Recovery or Spin?

19 February, 2024
Olivier Bourgeois’ film The Oath of Cyriac (2021), is a docudrama, telling the gripping story of how a small group of archaeologists, museum curators, government officials and volunteers, undertook the monumental task of preserving the Aleppo collection for future generations.

 

Arie Amaya-Akkermans

 

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of Syria for archaeology. The country sits at the heart of the Fertile Crescent, stretching from Egypt to Iraq, one of the regions where archaeologists still believe that modern humans first settled down in cities, developed agriculture and domesticated animals at the end of the Neolithic. Europeans began excavating in the country in the middle of the 19th century, when Austen Henry Layard conducted a few excavations in the Lower Khabur, in the Jazira region between the Euphates and the Tigris. Since then, the wealth of archaeological discoveries in the Syrian plains has been seemingly infinite, with over 150 excavations covering the full range of time from the Paleolithic to the Islamic Middle Ages. In 1994, Yale archaeologist Harvey Weiss wrote that “the pace of Syrian archaeological research continues to accelerate annually.” He presented reports of over 30 active field excavations, but there was a peak around the year 2000, following political changes in the region.

Yet up to 2011, there were still important sites being excavated, such as Tell Brak in the Upper Khabur (as I reported previously for TMR), where archaeologists uncovered evidence of the first civil war in history, in the 4th millennium BCE. All excavations were suspended after the onset of the civil war. The dig house at Tell Brak was looted and the site has changed hands between different factions. Unsurprisingly, Syria has been at the heart of a heated debate about the destruction of cultural heritage since the war began, more than a decade ago. It’s not only the widely publicized destruction of the Temple of Bel and the Roman amphitheater in Palmyra  by ISIS in 2015, but two interrelated effects of escalating violence: The massive urban destruction caused by the fighting between rebels and the Assad government troops for territorial dominance, resulting in unprecedented damage to archaeological sites and museums, for which each side blamed the other, and the ongoing looting of antiquities from the country.

The region of Aleppo was particularly hard hit. The Battle of Aleppo, one of the longest and deadliest in recent memory, raging for five years between 2012 and 2016. According to the World Monuments Fund, Aleppo’s 17th century souk was engulfed by fire, the minaret of the 8th century Umayyad Mosque collapsed, and the entrance to Aleppo’s 4,000-year-old historic citadel was partially destroyed by a missile strike. Along with 28 other museums and places of worship in Syria, the National Museum of Aleppo, sitting right on the fireline between rebels and government forces, was hit by mortar shells that damaged the roof and compromised the structure of the building in 2016. But a plan had been put into action previously by Syria’s Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), to safeguard its contents. After all, the collection, spanning from the Stone Age to the Islamic period, contained precious holdings from Syrian archaeological sites such as Mari, Ugarit, Ebla or the Jazira region.

Olivier Bourgeois’ film The Oath of Cyriac (2021), is a docudrama, telling the gripping story of how a small group of archaeologists, museum curators, government officials and volunteers, undertook the monumental task of preserving the Aleppo collection for future generations: At first, the museum display was emptied out of tens of thousands of artifacts that went into storage, but as the situation continued escalating, it became necessary to cover larger artifacts with sandbags. Later on, wooden protective cases were assembled and filled with sand, and even double walls were built inside existing storages, to hide the sealed boxes with artifacts. These strategies have been deployed by museum administrators in other conflicts, for example when antiquities were buried in a pit at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens in 1941, to prevent looting by the Nazis, or at the National Museum of Beirut after the onset of the civil war in 1975, when parts of the collection were either walled off or buried in cement cases.

This wouldn’t be enough for Aleppo. The increasing hostilities of the battle and the lack of maintenance in the building that damaged exhibition spaces, made the museum unsafe as a whole. A decision was made to transfer the boxes, holding thousands of antiquities in Damascus for safekeeping. The second half of the film recounts this odyssey, in which the group, working in extreme secrecy, hatched a risky plan to transport the treasures by land, via the M5 Motorway, a 450 km highway that connects Damascus with the north of the country, and parts of which have been under control of different rebel groups, since it constituted a vital supply line for the Syrian army. In reality, that wasn’t the only antiquities rescue operation conducted under the watch of Syrian authorities, as some 300,000 items were brought to secret locations in Damascus, from 34 museums, including Palmyra and Deir Ezzor, then partially under control of the Islamic State.

But the strange format of docudrama, not unlike Netflix’s recent (and much criticized)  Alexander: The Making of a God, mixing acting drama with historical evidence and the opinion of experts, presents a too narrow view of a multifaceted story as a compact narrative, casting doubts on its message. Going one step further than Netflix, in The Oath of Cyriac, it is the real-life protagonists of the story themselves who enact a dramatized version of the events, staged at the actual museum, colored with fictional explosions and power outages, while at the same time being interviewed about the circumstances of the time. The storyline leads to a happy ending, in which the National Museum of Aleppo is reopened to visitors in 2019 after six years, as a place of reconciliation for all Syrians, fostering a sense of common historical and cultural belonging, signaling the end of conflict. 

Fact is, the Assad government might have survived intact, but the country is still deeply divided and its reconstruction a long way ahead.

Syrian archaeologists in The Oath of Syriac
“…Maamoun, Desbina, Mohamad, Rahaf, Nawrouz, Nazir and the others…These Syrian archaeologists, museum curators and students refused to be contaminated by the surrounding chaos and acted to protect our common heritage. They do not see themselves as heroes, they have their weaknesses, their failures, their wounds too, but show relentless courage and unwavering dedication to cultural heritage. Their resolutely apolitical fight is an act of resistance which symbolizes the refusal to see disappear before our eyes what has linked men to each other for millennia.” —Olivier Bourgeois

The events surrounding the temporary protection, transportation and eventual safekeeping of antiquities in Syria in this period, might have been more complex than the saga of the film lets us picture. Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director general of the antiquities department until 2017 (now a professor at the University of Sharjah), and who appears in the film as one of the masterminds of the Aleppo operation, told media in 2015 that an estimated 99% of Syria’s museum collections had been preserved. But there were several incidents reported back in 2013, that museums in the northwestern region suffered looting of valuable cultural property, including Raqqa, Hama, Aleppo and Marraat. Storage houses in archaeological sites such as Heraqla, Tell Sabi Abyad and Tell Brak were sacked. In the northeastern region of Hasakah, home to over 1,000 archaeological sites, analysis of satellite images revealed that in 340 of them, there was visible damage that could be attributed to military action or looting.

In an interview with The Guardian, Abdulkarim explained that the problem was not just the Islamic State and its destruction of monuments for ideological reasons, but the plunder of coins, jewels and vases that different militant groups have plundered and sold. Much has been written about antiquities trafficking under the Islamic State, but in fact they simply took over and expanded existing networks of local gravediggers, allowing local inhabitants to carry on with their own excavations, in exchange for a percentage of profits. The situation was so complex that at some point three different antiquities bodies worked in parallel and often in competition, within the same country: The Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums for the central government, an antiquities division set up by the Islamic State, dedicated to explore archaeological sites and market antiquities, and lastly, a loose network of individuals and NGOs in the opposition-held territories. It is believed that all of them have engaged in looting.

Throughout his tenure, during what is arguably the most difficult period for Syrian antiquities in the country’s modern history, in media appearances Abdulkarim insisted that he was not a politician, and focused strictly on the protection of archaeological heritage. Similarly, the director Bourgeois has emphasized the apolitical nature of the project in his public presentations of the film: “The fight of these archaeologists, museum curators or directors, students and volunteers is a resolutely apolitical struggle that is an example for all in terms of morale and symbolic meaning. It is the revolt of those who refuse to see Syrian antiquities disappear before their eyes what has linked us to each other for millennia.” It is an interesting position to take in a production supported by the Syrian Ministry of Culture, and that tells a fantastical story of courage, resilience and leadership, without exposing the viewer to the vicissitudes, moral ambiguities, and contradictions of a conflict that so far hasn’t ended.

This isn’t to say that this isn’t a story worth telling, as the synopsis of the film reminds us of the exceptional circumstances: “For years, these women and men will bid farewell to their families every morning before heading to the museum under a hail of shells, facing sniper fire, often sleeping on the ground of the museum for several days in an attempt to accomplish their mission.” The problem is that it is practically impossible to discuss archaeology, heritage and antiquities in Syria without the politics of the past and the present. In his book, Negotiating for the Past: Archaeology, Nationalism, and Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1919-1941, James F. Goode presents us Syria as the last “terra nullius” of Western colonial archaeology, where the authorities of the French mandate encouraged European and American expeditions to work in Greater Syria, allowing them to repatriate many of their finds, at a time when the rise of nationalist movements in Egypt, Iraq and Turkey had long banned the export of antiquities.

Recently, American archaeologist Kyle Olson posted on X (formerly known as Twitter), a comprehensive thread about partage, the colonial practice of dividing collections between institutions sponsoring foreign archaeological excavations and their host countries. As an expert on Iran, Olson’s focus was on exchanges between Iran and the United States, but it shed light on the incredible journeys of artifacts and the very rare instances of their return. In the case of Syria, the French Mandate (1920-1946), practiced partage extensively and asymmetrically, not only as a means of amassing large archaeological collections, but also as a tool of geographical control, individual profit and colonial legitimation through allochrony, the idea that local populations, as well as their antiquities, belong to another time, not the time of modernity, and require the care of a foreign authority. The return of antiquities to Syria before the civil war was practically unheard of.

The collection of the National Museum of Aleppo, founded in 1931, though extensive, is nowhere near encyclopedic, and is vastly made from partage agreements and irregular local finds. Colonial archaeology, as the manipulation of history, would set a template that would soon find a place in the modern republic. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party founded in 1932 by Antun Sa’adeh, first took inspiration from ancient history as a model for relations between Syria and Europe, and the idea of “remembering your ancestors” has survived in one way or another in Syria, as a unifying discourse of the Ba’ath Party, ruling over a heterogeneous population. In the film, curator Nazir Awad (now coincidentally the director-general of the DGAM), tells us: “We are not defending the objects as materials, we are defending the spirit of the ancestors who made them, and all the history and art that they hold within.” Incomplete as the ancestors’ statues might be, they’re still a potent symbol of power for whoever protects them, or destroys them.

The destruction of antiquities in Syria in fact did not begin with the civil war. Back in 1925, during the Great Syrian Revolt, many artifacts were destroyed at ‘Azm Palace in Damascus as a symbol of the French authorities. In similar ways, the destruction of Palmyra by ISIS was, among other reasons, an attack on the symbols of the Syrian state that had emblazoned the site in currency notes and textbooks. When Abdulkarim called the heinous acts of the Islamic State barbaric, given his apolitical stance, it leaves us wondering what he would make of the displacement of millions of Syrians, the Russian-Syrian war crimes during the month-long Aleppo bombardment campaign of 2016, or the Sednaya prison, infamous for torture and extrajudicial killings. Certainly these were not acts of civilization. Today it’s not possible to ask any of the protagonists in The Oath of Cyriac for their opinion on this, as they all are or were technically government officials, including the captain of the criminal police department of Aleppo.

It’s unavoidable here, however, to mention the challenging circumstances and risks under which archaeologists operate in authoritarian states, as guardians of a past that might not be altogether closed; it is constantly changing according to the politics of the moment. Palmyra stands as a paragon: The site of orientalist European ideas that presented it as a ruin in the post-classical period, although it had always been inhabited by diverse populations, the place where the Islamic State brutally executed archaeologist Khaled Al-Assad, but also where a Russian symphony orchestra played a concert after the site was reclaimed by Assad forces. But archaeology has long lost its innocence, since it provided Europeans with templates for extraction and domination. The abuse of archaeology by authoritarian leaders to rewrite their countries’ histories is simply the final consequence of the application of Western grand narratives about civilization.

The title The Oath of Cyriac refers to Cyriacus of Ancona, a prolific 15th century humanist, who kept detailed records of Greek and Roman antiquities, particularly epigraphy, and that earned him the title of founding father of classical archaeology. The final frame in the film is perhaps an attempt to link the lives of these Syrian archaeologists in Aleppo during the civil war to Ancona’s drawings and detailed descriptions of monuments, particularly in the lands of the Ottoman Empire. It might not be too far from the truth, since the museum has come back to life. But time wasn’t kind to the Italian antiquarian: His six-volume commentaries were lost in the 1514 fire of a library in Pesaro. So many lives and stories have been lost in Aleppo, at the hands of a murderous war. I would like to imagine a possible story in which the artifacts, saved from destruction by the courageous deeds of a few, would stand not only as remnants of the past, but also as future placeholders for all the Syrians who were not saved.

This statement by young curator Nawroz Tobal in the film, it seems to me, encapsulates the anachronism and paradox of Syrian state archaeology: “The value of these objects is of a moral nature. It tells the story of a people, of a civilization, how it began, how it evolved, and how it was constructed. They’re priceless, and very valuable and precious. No matter how you try to determine their value, you will fall short.” 

I would be tempted to agree. But without safe access to the archaeological sites where they originated, without living communities of memory to cherish and study them, without transparent records of their provenance, they’re still displaced objects, totems of state power, and latent remnants of colonial hubris. The Oath of Cyriac, nevertheless, remains a subtle act of soft power, at a time when the genre of archaeological cinema as a public relations strategy has been long archived. With its compelling, human drama the film is incomparably well-equipped to avoid difficult questions about contemporary Syria and its antiquities by presenting us an heroic tale in which the past is anything but silent.

 

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is an art critic and senior writer for The Markaz Review based in Turkey, formerly Beirut and Moscow. His work is mostly concerned with the relationship between archaeology, classical antiquity and modern culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, with an emphasis on contemporary art. His byline has appeared previously on Hyperallergic, the San Francisco Arts Quarterly, Canvas, Harpers Bazaar Art Arabia, and he is a regular contributor for the popular Classics blog Sententiae Antiquae. Previously, he was a guest editor of Arte East Quarterly, a recipient of an experts fellowship from IASPIS, Stockholm, and a moderator in the talks program of Art Basel.

archeologyNational Museum of AleppoSyria

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