Palmyra’s Arch Frames Democratic Traditions in the Capital

On the Mall amid institutions and museums and with the Capitol as a backdrop, on September 26, 2018 the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) unveiled a reconstruction of Palmyra’s lost arch.

The reconstructed Palmyra arch on the National Mall.

The original arch was destroyed in 2015 by Daesh (ISIS), making international headlines and underscoring how extremism threatens vital chapters of our global history and heritage.

This reconstruction was created using 3-D scanning, printing, and carving technology. The IDA’s reconstruction, carved from the same marble as the original, is an international symbol of resistance and fortitude in the face of extremist groups. This reconstruction has been displayed in New York City’s City Hall Plaza, London’s Trafalgar Square, the G7 Summit in Florence, Italy, and at Dubai’s World Government Summit. Most profoundly, the arch was also unveiled in Arona, Italy by the sons of Khaled al-Asaad, chief archaeologist of Palmyra, who was murdered by Daesh terrorists in August 2015 at the age of 83.

In his speech at the unveiling ceremony, Roger Michel, Executive Director of the IDA, remarked that the reconstruction brings lost monuments back to life. He declared:

Now the arch, quite fittingly, has made its way to the place that symbolizes democracy worldwide, Roman-style representative democracy that is celebrated, not just in the classical buildings that surround us, but also in the design of Palmyra’s monumental classical arch, as well. They all share the same DNA, and remind us that what happens here – what our honored guests do every day in that iconic building framed by the arch behind me – connects us to ancient traditions that have survived throughout the millennia because there is something about them that is worth preserving– just like it is worth preserving the ancient objects that embody and recall the history of that legacy.”

With its Roman columns alluding to an ancient representative democracy, the arch now frames the United States capitol. Fittingly, Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), two longtime advocates for the protection of global cultural heritage, provided remarks at the unveiling. The two Congressmen have sponsored key bipartisan legislation to protect and preserve cultural heritage and to cut off terrorist financing from looted antiquities. Their bipartisan achievements in the cultural protection realm include legislation such as 2016’s Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act.

Find more information on the demand for Palmyra’s looted antiquities here.

From the Nile to the Potomac: International Cooperations Continue in Documenting Cultural Heritage

During the week of September 10, 2018, seven Egyptian archaeological experts—including museum curators, archeologists, and archivists—traveled to Washington D.C. through the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) under the theme “Documenting Cultural Heritage.” The Antiquities Coalition and its initiative with the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), the Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME), were pleased to host the delegates and have an engaging conversation on our ongoing efforts to implement practical solutions to document and preserve Egypt’s rich cultural patrimony. They were joined by the SmartWater Foundation, a not-for-profit company focused on utilizing cutting-edge forensic technologies to protect the World’s cultural heritage, that is at risk of being stolen.

The delegates were very engaged with information on DLME and in particular, the use of 3D imagery. The experts agreed that there is a growing need for more detailed archiving of collections as well as a need for a centralized location of provenance information. The DLME is setting a high bar for record keeping and is a natural partner for institutions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The DLME aims to create an internationally shared digital inventory of cultural artifacts, to include detailed and culturally nuanced descriptions, and confirm objects’ appearance and provenance. Records from the DLME would be made publicly available to encourage scholarly discoveries and a greater appreciation of the region’s rich heritage and living peoples while helping to safeguard fundamentally important expressions of our cultural commonwealth and shared humanity. Learn more about the DLME here.

The delegates then learned about SmartWater, an odorless, colorless liquid that when applied to an object is invisible to the naked eye but can be detected under UV light. After hearing about the successes that SmartWater has had with protecting objects in Syria, the delegates were eager to take the information on this new technology to their home institutions.

As a part of its mission, the Antiquities Coalition encourages international cooperation and the implementation of innovative and practical solutions. Convening archaeological experts with those from the world of technology and forensics has, once again, made for a productive meeting and created new potential partnerships for cultural heritage protection.

About the IVLP

The International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) is the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program. Through short-term visits to the United States, current and emerging foreign leaders in a variety of fields experience this country firsthand and cultivate lasting relationships with their American counterparts. Professional meetings reflect the participants’ professional interests and support the foreign policy goals of the United States. You can learn more about the IVLP program here.

Culture Under Threat: Freer Gallery of Art Unveils New Exhibit on Ancient Yemeni Art in Danger

The International Council of Museums’ “Red List” for Yemen, published 2018
The International Council of Museums’ “Red List” for Yemen, published 2018

Yemen: Culture and Conflict

In April 2018, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutierres declared the war in Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Since the beginning of hostilities in 2015 between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s government, three million people have been displaced, and up to 22 million could be at risk of famine. Conservatively more than 10,000 have been killed. Yemen’s rich cultural heritage, too, has been devastated by the conflict.

A new exhibit at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. provides an opportunity for the public to learn more about Yemen’s heritage, now under threat by the ravages of war. Shelling in Taa’iz set fire to the town’s museum in 2016, destroying the building and its renowned collection of Islamic copper vases and golden clocks, which has been repeatedly looted throughout the last several years. All three of Yemen’s cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Historic Town of Zabid, the Old Walled City of Shibam, and the Old City of Sana’a, have been inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, the latter two in 2015 due to airstrikes and shelling. In a 2015 statement, then-UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova condemned the destruction. “In addition to causing terrible human suffering,” she said, “these attacks are destroying Yemen’s unique cultural heritage, which is the repository of people’s identity, history and memory and an exceptional testimony to the achievements of the Islamic civilization.”

The loss of Yemen’s cultural heritage features prominently in the news, yet many Americans may be unfamiliar with the art at risk. While the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome fascinate the public imagination, Yemeni antiquities have remained the purview of archaeologists and scholars. This knowledge gap can impede efforts to save them. The Freer’s recently opened exhibit, “A Glimpse of Ancient Yemen” (on view until August 18, 2019) aims to fill the information vacuum. It celebrates Yemen’s rich heritage and reminds visitors of the war’s devastating effects on culture.

Yemen at a Glimpse

Lion with rider, 75 BCE–50 CE, bronze

The Freer’s exhibit is truly a glimpse, as it consists of only five antiquities from the museum’s permanent collection: a sculpted head of a woman, a cast bronze statue of a lion and rider, and three funerary statues. Despite its limited scale, the exhibit provides a highly informative look at an under-studied subject. “A Glimpse of Ancient Yemen” does not overwhelm or confuse viewers. Its intimacy allows for museum guests to interact more closely with the objects, which have been carefully chosen to represent the artistic styles and ways of life of the ancient kingdom of Qataban, in modern-day Yemen, around the last century BCE and first century CE. All were excavated by the archaeologist Wendell Phillips and his associates during expeditions in 1950 and 1951.

An informational wall panel provides key contextual information on Yemen’s ancient history, describing the confluence of trade routes in Timna, capital of the Qataban kingdom. Caravans laden with frankincense, myrrh, and other valuable goods enriched this dynamic region, earning it the Roman name Arabia Felix (Arabia, the Prosperous). The Freer highlights two vibrant cultural traditions from this period: alabaster carving and bronze casting.

“South Arabian Mona Lisa”

An alabaster and plaster head of a woman, found in the Timna cemetery by Phillips and dubbed the “South Arabian Mona Lisa” by Freer curators, is one of the most stunning antiquities included in the exhibit. Its polished stone surface glows in the twilight of the gallery, reveals the truth. The unknown Yemeni artist has elongated human proportions to grant the subject an aura of elegance impossible for a human face to attain in reality. Veins running vertically through the creamy stone reinforce the gracefulness of the swan-like neck.

The undulating pleats of a trapezoidal plaster hairstyle — having survived nearly intact since Antiquity — frame the woman’s gentle face. The diagonal sides of this coiffure direct the viewer’s gaze up, past the stately neck, along the transversal of the nose, showcasing the delicately sculpted features. An ambiguous smile, reminiscent of that belonging to Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, graces her finely molded face. The soft bulge of her cheekbones and the shallow concavity of her dimples suggest warm flesh and a personable spirit within. She raises one incised eyebrow as if registering the momentary laughter of an ancient joke, now frozen in time.

A Portrait of Plunder

This sculpture features prominently on the cover of the International Council of Museums’ “Red List” to combat looting in Yemen. ICOM regularly publishes these informational booklets for areas in crisis to help government officials, military personnel, and individuals learn how to identify art objects at risk of theft or illegal exportation. Looting has plagued Yemen for years. In 2012, the Museum of Zinjibar was plundered. Then, in a high-profile discovery, a cache of likely stolen Yemeni artifacts was found in the Geneva freeport in 2013. In a recent report, Yemeni cultural authorities identified 21 antiquities of illicit origin for sale in online marketplaces. Since the latest round of fighting broke out, looting has worsened, as thieves use political chaos as a cover to rob museums and archaeological sites.

The Aden National Museum, home to one of the premier collections of Aksumite and Roman coins in the world, is missing over 1,000 coins. In 2017, authorities seized a shipment of unprovenanced ancient Yemeni copper antiquities in Oman. In 2018, Yemeni port officials discovered a stash of smuggled ancient Islamic glassware, jewelry, and woodwork. In a region rife with terrorism, the sale of artifacts on the black market may be an enticing funding opportunity for extremist groups. In fact, the culture minister of Yemen, Marwan Dammaj, has accused Houthi rebels of looting museums, archaeological excavations, and cultural heritage sites and selling their finds abroad. The handsome antiquities on display in the Freer can only hint at the vast numbers of treasures under threat in Yemen today.

The Freer’s “South Arabian Mona Lisa” is the standout star of the exhibition, but this does not mean that the other Yemeni antiquities are insignificant. These objects, impressive in their own right, recount for viewers the history of the ancient Qataban kingdom. A large cast-bronze statue of a boy riding a lion attests to the diverse, multicultural society produced by the intermingling of Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Persians along trade routes. The naturalism of the figures’ modeling attests to the Greek influence in Arabia, as does the iconography. The lion with young boy rider is a common motif of the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and a popular deity in this region. Bronze casting, like alabaster carving, was a notable Qataban tradition, making this artifact a striking visual testament to cultural exchange in ancient Yemen.

This sculpture rewards close looking, as one can witness an interesting contrast between the doughy physique of the toddler and the taut musculature of his steed. In a twist of irony, the two mirror each other, each lifting up a paw (for the lion) or arm (for the boy). While awkward, crouching below the sculpture and looking upwards allows the visitor to obtain a new perspective on the artwork. This angle better reveals the faces, which appear downcast from a head-on view. From below, on the other hand, the lion and boy appear to be grinning; the lion even seems to stick out its tongue at a jaunty angle. Perhaps they, too, are amused by the same joke that brought a smile to the face of the museum’s Yemeni “Mona Lisa.”

Profound Traditions

A glass case with three funerary statues, two carved from alabaster and one from travertine, reveal more about the ancient Yemenis’ cultural practices. Fashioned in a similar style as the sculpted woman’s head and unearthed in the same cemetery, they suggest a profound tradition of remembrance of the dead. The statues stare forward with gaping eyes, hands clasped as if in prayer or outstretched as if to present a votive offering. While their features are stylized, inscriptions on bases of two of the statues provide a hint of detail about the deceased they honor: one is identified as “Gabi of the family of Hani’mat,” the other as Wahab’il dhu-Dhamar’il. Today, they seem to mourn the ongoing loss of Yemen’s cultural heritage, the destruction of the artworks linking the Yemeni people with the proud history of their ancestors.

The turmoil in Yemen, makes the Freer’s exhibit all the more imperative. “A Glimpse of Ancient Yemen” provides additional context to the war and its victims, which encompass not only human lives, but also cultural heritage.

Andrew Lokay is an intern at the Antiquities Coalition. Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, he is now a student at Stanford University, where he studies International Relations and French. If you are interested in interning at the Antiquities Coalition please send a resume and cover letter to