Only George Clooney is missing. But we will never know whether among the new 007 agents who move on the Syrian soil in order to save the heritage of humanity there was a double of the American actor who impersonated a “Monuments man”. They work in the shadows, under the constant risk of fall prey to the jihadists.
They were not born as 007 agents, but have become so due to circumstances. More or less as it happened to the so-called ”three hundred valorous” (men and women from thirteen different Countries) who, between the years 1943 and 1951, worked for MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives); a group of educated and passionate people – mostly without military experience, because they were conservators, archivists, museum managers, experts in visual arts, archaeologists – at the service of the allied armies during the second world war and sent to Europe, a battlefield at the time, with a precise mission: to retrieve and to preserve masterpieces of art.
Nowadays, masterpieces are not threatened by Nazism, but by another fundamentalism: the Islamic one. The destruction of artistic masterpieces and of entire archaeological sites at the hand of ISIS, an intention they have been manifesting for some time now and which they have put in practice lately with systematic ferocity, represents a danger; a slap in the face of the humanity’s historical memory. This is the reason why 3 years ago, the general director of Antiquities of the Syrian museums, Maamoun Abdilkarim, organized a troop of 2,500 officials with the precise purpose of recovering and hide as many “treasures” as possible. At present, safe in a bunker in Damascus, there are about 300,000 pieces, but the tireless – and dangerous – work of those 007 agents does not stop here.
Despite the international attention on Tadmour, the Arabic name of Palmira, Abdulkarim warns that many deposits are being swept away. “We are witnessing the destruction of one of the most beautiful cities of the Islamic world”, he says in reference to the historical city centre of Aleppo which is also world heritage. “If the situation does not change, in two years the city will disappear”. More than 150 ancient buildings have been damaged, let alone the hundreds of traditional houses and boutiques of the suq. On the narrow streets of the old city of Aleppo which lead to the fortress and the Umayyad Mosque, it is not difficult to find bazaars full of archaeological finds, and snipers and soldiers who are waving rebels’ and extremists’ flags on the streets.
It is not true, therefore, that the jihadists are destroying everything. Not at all. They blow up everything they cannot transport, temples for instance, and this way they spread propaganda; everything else is marketed. An article from “The Times” has revealed that coins and ancient ceramics, as well as paintings and jewellery stolen by the ISIS militants from Syria and Iraq, were even sold on E-Bay, obviously to the best collector bidder. According to UNESCO, the theft of the finds occurs even on commission, as in the case of the roman mosaic in Apamea, western Syria. “El Pais”, on the other hand, in one of his investigations, traces the route of the Islamic smugglers who, after having plundered the places of origin with the complicity of the local population, sends the finds via Turkey and Lebanon and arrive, in the end, in the hands of great mercenaries of art in the United States, China, Europe and the Gulf.
The trade of looted artefacts in places occupied by the Caliphate is thought to be the source of tens of millions of euros; on the other hand, the Islamic State must fill its coffers, and being unable to do so by taxing a population impoverished by war, they exploit the resources at hand: petroleum and art. Against all this, stands a handful of brave archivists transformed into spies who fight their battle every day. The guardians of memory never sleep.
Translated by Ecaterina Severin