Shifting Sands: A Reflection

By Philip Davies (PEF Chairman)

On that day I decided to visit an exhibition at the National Civil War Centre in Newark (UK): Shifting Sands: Lawrence of Arabia and the Great Arab Revolt, I awoke to news of another Islamist attack in London. It was hard not to keep pondering the possible connections between these two.

The main reason for my visit to Newark was the association between Lawrence and the PEF, which had lent some items for the exhibition, including a copy of the original edition of The Wilderness of Zin, from the title page of which Lawrence wished his name as co-author to be withheld, (his written instruction is documented in another exhibit).

It’s an exhibition I would strongly recommend to anyone, especially those not too familiar with the central place of the Arab and Muslim world in the Great War itself, about which so much has been said and written recently. As Peter Frankopan interprets it in his wonderful history of the world as seen from central Asia, The Silk Roads, this conflict, though triggered in Serbia, had roots in the struggle of the ‘Great Powers’ over Asia, with the encroachment of Russia on the borders of India and the ambitions of Germany to penetrate beyond the Middle East, not to mention protection of the Suez Canal. The covetousness of these Western powers (Russia, Britain, France, Germany) for the lands of the weakening Ottoman empire and the need to secure sources of oil to fuel their economies during the war and after, led to the configuration of the political geography of the Middle East that is now witnessing terrible upheavals (aided by further Western intervention). As the exhibition also reminds us, the mission of the PEF—including Lawrence himself—was used by the British War Office as an disguise for military intelligence-gathering in the years before the outbreak of the Great War.

The exhibition makes clear, too, the British government’s duplicitous—if, in the circumstances, minimally defensible—exploitation of both Jews and the Arabs for the purpose of gaining their benevolence and cooperation in the war. Promises were made on the one hand to support Jewish settlement in Palestine, while on the other the Emir Hussein was to be installed as ruler of an independent Arab kingdom in Syria, Palestine and Iraq. The first promise was kept; the other, on the basis of which Lawrence was able to secure the ‘Arab revolt’, was betrayed, and, as the exhibition explains, its breach left him deeply ashamed of both his government and of his own role in the deception.

Whether or not the contemporary British visitor also feels a sense of shame at such behaviour, the experience prompts an awareness that the jihad of which Lawrence was so proudly a part, and the Arab kingdom of which its participants dreamed, have both awoken again in grisly forms. Such terrorist attacks, and the creation of an ‘Islamic State’, are grisly perversions of what Lawrence and Hussein dreamed of. Arguably, the State of Israel is not what Balfour would have wished, either: it exists in the midst of hostility and enmity rather than in the peace and security for Jews that it was surely supposed to offer. The exhibition reproduces Balfour’s famous ‘letter’ in which he alludes to the ‘civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’, but also remarks that Zionism was of ‘far profounder import than the prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land’.

Current reflections on the Great War often remark that the reallocation of power within Europe after the fall of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian empires (and the dissolution of the British) is still not quite accomplished. This is even truer of the Middle East, where long-established tribal identities were sliced through by lines on the ground, separating territories carved out among European victors. The exhibition shows Lawrence’s own proposed map of a post-war Middle East, which, unlike what became the reality, attempted to take account of the identities that mattered to its inhabitants.

That Western intervention in the Middle East will end as the Crusades did is unlikely. But between the nationalist jihad once vital to Britain’s seizure of Ottoman spoils and the fundamentalist jihad now waged against the it and other Western nations (along with countless Muslims, it must be added) runs the same stream. I left this impressive exhibition realizing how great is the need for an impartial, scholarly but sympathetic dedication to the history and culture of a land which has for centuries been the focus of the West’s Christendom, yet which our governments, past and present, have treated with such disdain.

War in the Holy Lands

Guest post by Briar Barry

We’d hear a heavy smack and know a horse had been hit. Mostly they were hit through the stomach and would just shake themselves a little. The owner would take the saddle off immediately, for it was always a mortal wound. The horse would nose around among his mates, shake himself, and five minutes later roll on the sand. It was the beginning of the end.”

Captain Arthur Rhodes, New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade, World War 1

War in the Holy Lands, a new temporary exhibition about New Zealanders’ First World War experiences in the Middle East, is now playing as part of The Great War Exhibition in Wellington, New Zealand. The show is fourth in a series of six created by Story Inc and Dusk, and funded by the Lottery Grants Board, with the intention of telling some of the lesser-known New Zealand stories of the First World War. The exhibit uses six big projection screens and an immersive audio environment to create a powerful visitor experience out of still imagery and first-hand verbatim accounts of soldiers’ experiences.

A talented photographer, Arthur Rhodes captured his experiences during the Beersheba Campaign in Sinai and Palestine on film. The Palestine Exploration Fund of London kindly provided some of the photographs which feature in the show.

Guns drawn up for inspection, a photograph by Captain Arthur Rhodes which features in War in the Holy Lands. PEF/P/RHODES/29, Palestine Exploration Fund, London.

The story of New Zealand’s war in the Middle East is often overlooked. It doesn’t fit with the traditional image of World War 1 – the mud and trenches of the Western Front. Some soldiers at the time shared this view, feeling that they were missing out on the ‘real war.’ A few people back home agreed, seeing them as ‘tourists in uniform’ having an easy time of it in the sun-drenched Middle East. But while the casualty rate was certainly lower than on the Western Front, the Sinai and Palestine campaigns were hardly a holiday. The men faced fierce battles, hordes of flies, extreme temperatures, and rampant malaria. In total 17,723 New Zealanders served in the Middle East. Of them, 640 were killed in action and 1,146 wounded.

The ‘Mounteds’ gained a formidable reputation as fighters and became known by Ottoman troops as “devils on horses”. They would often ride through the night, taking the enemy by surprise at dawn. But it was not all glory. At the end of the war, one of the most shameful events in New Zealand’s military history occurred: a massacre of civilians, in which some New Zealand soldiers played a prominent part, in the Palestinian village of Surafend. Of course there are no photographs or images connected with the event. Instead, a ghostly series of animated “shadowplay” silhouettes hinting at the violence are projected into an otherwise completely black room.

Behind the scenes of the Story Inc and Dusk “shadowplay” shoot. Photo by Story Inc.

Other moments that pack an emotional punch in War in the Holy Lands come from the stories about the bonds between the men and their horses. The open spaces in the Middle East made this a mobile war. The connection between animal and rider was strong, and only made stronger on the battlefield where horses even acted as shields by lying down on the sand so the men could fire over the top of them. However, New Zealand’s strict quarantine policy and a shortage of transport meant that the horses who survived the war could not come home. In the Middle East they were either declared unfit and shot, sold locally, or kept by the occupying British Army. Many troopers, worried about how their horse would be treated if it was sold, made the heart-wrenching decision to shoot their own animal after having them declared unfit. Trooper Ted Andrews described the task,

It was the saddest day of the war…. Each man had to hold two horses, and it was the most sickening job I had… It seemed awfully sad that these poor old faithful creatures, after suffering from thirst, hunger and fatigue and carrying heavy loads for hundreds of miles, should have to end their days being shot down by the very people they had so faithfully served…”

A New Zealand soldier shoots a wounded horse. National Army Museum of New Zealand.

War in the Holy Lands is running from 13 December 2017 until 20 February 2018. Thank you once again to the Palestine Exploration Fund for access to, and permission to use images from their collection.

Visitors watch War in the Holy Lands. Photo by Story Inc.

Looking at the Face of History

By Felicity Cobbing (PEF)

Exhibition Review: ‘Creating an Ancestor: The Jericho Skull’

Currently showing at the British Museum’s Room 3 gallery until the 19th February is a small but fascinating exhibition concerning one of its most important exhibits – one of the Neolithic plastered skulls from Jericho in Palestine, excavated by Kathleen Kenyon and her team in the 1950s.

The Jericho skull on display in the British Museum. Photo: F. Cobbing, 2016.

Jericho on the Map. This relief map is based on the PEF’s Survey of Western Palestine 1871 – 1878, and digitally modified by F. Cobbing.

The exhibition was designed by Dr. Alexandra Fletcher in the BM’s Department of Middle East, and is based on the work of a research team that brought together colleagues from the BM’s Science department, Natural History Museum, University of Liverpool and Imperial College London.

Using the latest Micro-CT scanning and 3D printing technology, the team have revealed hitherto hidden physiological details to us, and on display alongside the skull itself is a 3D reconstruction of the face and head of the man whose skull it was. The exhibition is at once the story of the excavations and Kenyon’s exacting methodology, the thrilling moment of discovery, recounted Peter Parr who actually found the skull, and of the Neolithic culture at Jericho from which the skull originates.

The reconstructed 3D portrait of Jericho Man. Photo: F. Cobbing, 2016.

The purpose of the skulls in this culture is examined, as is the process of the turning the human remains into a cultural artefact. The extraordinary science and technology which has enabled this story to be told for the first time is the final element. Guiding us around is the figure of a rather cuddly, child friendly Kathleen Kenyon, presenting her side of the story at the bottom of each test panel in a feature especially designed for families and school groups. The PEF’s own humble contribution is a photo of Kenyon at Jerusalem by John Bartlett.

Dame Kathleen Kenyon in Jerusalem, photo by John Bartlett as seen in the exhibition. Photo: F. Cobbing, 2016.

This little exhibition is a great example of how one object can tell a myriad of stories, and how research into objects is continuously evolving. There is an undeniably special feeling at looking into such an ancient individual’s face, not seen for 10,000 years, but at the same time someone who is entirely recognisable as one of us.

‘Creating an Ancestor: The Jericho Skull’ is free, and runs until 19th February, with gallery talks and events throughout this period. Check the BM events website for more details, including an absolutely fascinating podcast about the excavation, the skull’s discovery, and the modern science behind the most recent research.

This 1933 photograph shows a figure gazing the site of ancient Jericho beyond, from John Garstang’s archive at the PEF.

Exhibition Review: The Missing

By Felicity Cobbing (PEF Executive Secretary & Curator)

The Missing: Rebuilding the Past 15th April -7th May 2016

4 Mandeville Place, Marylebone, London. www.jessicacarlisle.com

The PEF has a new neighbour in the form of an art gallery, run by Jessica Carlisle and Valerie Wallersteiner, located just round the corner from our offices. Their first exhibition, The Missing: Rebuilding the Past is curated by Erin Thompson, Professor of Art Crime at the City University of New York.

I visited the exhibition which has received quite a bit of publicity following the erection of the replica Palmyrene arch in Trafalgar Square.

The Missing is a response from artists to the recent destruction of ancient monuments and art by so-called Islamic State (ISIS or DAESH), and examines the nature of this loss, what it can mean for humanity, and how the artefacts themselves are transformed by this action.

There were several artist’s work on display, each offering a very different response to current events.

Fig 1: James Brooks, Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, 2016, 7-system based audio works and generic Google image search; dimensions variable; edition of 1. Photo by Tom Carter.

Fig 1: James Brooks, Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, 2016, 7-system based audio works and generic Google image search; dimensions variable; edition of 1. Photo by Tom Carter.

James Brooks Stoic Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is a multi-media work combining an image of Palmyra with a soundtrack, alongside quotes from the Roman philosopher-emperor’s Meditations. It is an introspective work, which acknowledges our feelings of loss when such monuments are destroyed, but also puts this loss in a wider historical perspective.

Fig 2: Dimitra Ermeidou, Demos - for a Hall of Portraits I-IV, 2013, Archival pigment print, 28 x 24 inches. Photo by Tom Carter.

Fig 2: Dimitra Ermeidou, Demos – for a Hall of Portraits I-IV, 2013, Archival pigment print, 28 x 24 inches. Photo by Tom Carter.

Dimitra Ermeidou’s evocative photographs of defaced Greek relief sculptures from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens forms Demos – for a Hall of Portraits. The images form a collection of rather ghostly figures, like memories of once living people whose features and unique characteristics are slowly fading from the collective consciousness. The sculptures were vandalised by persons unknown, at some time in the past. They are a timely reminder that iconoclasm is not confined to any one group of people or set of beliefs. It is a part of human nature to destroy as much as it is to create.

Also on display is a small 3D printed version of the replica Palmyrene arch currently erected in Trafalgar Square, and next to be displayed in Time Square New York. Created by the Oxford Institute of Digital Archaeology, using images taken on low-cost, easy to use 3D cameras distributed to activists in Syria, it provides an example of the possibilities that technology can bring to the process of reconstruction envisaged in the future. Through the Million Image database, an international project supported by UNESCO, similar activities are taking place in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt.

Fig 3: Piers Secunda, ISIS Bullet Hole Painting (Assyrian Head), 2015, Industrial floor paint and metal fixtures, 73 x 100 x 3.5 cm. Photo by Tom Carter.

Fig 3: Piers Secunda, ISIS Bullet Hole Painting (Assyrian Head), 2015, Industrial floor paint and metal fixtures, 73 x 100 x 3.5 cm. Photo by Tom Carter.

A stunning piece by Piers Secunda shows a replica of an Assyrian relief, and then the same relief punctured by bullet holes. The holes are casts of damage caused to ancient monuments in Iraqi Kurdistan by DAESH fighters seeking to destroy cultural heritage in the region. Bizarrely, the damaged piece is in some ways as beautiful as its pristine pristine: perhaps a commentary that imperfection and the marks of history have their own resonance and beauty. Maybe it is a question as to whether we should be quite so enthusiastic about instantly ‘restoring’ everything to its former glory – as if to wipe out the reality of DAESH’s barbarism? After all, we do preserve some icons of extreme pain, such as the remains of Auschwitz, to serve as a permanent reminder of what took place there, and what should never be allowed to happen again. Would a total ‘restoration’ in itself be a form of iconoclasm, wiping out as it would all traces of this horrendous moment in our history?

Our cultural heritage is not just threatened by destruction from bombs and guns and fanatics wielding hammers. Erin Thompson has been collecting images from social media of ancient artefacts for sale on the antiquities market – a trade which the whole world is complicit in, and one in which London is a major player. Artefacts which have been looted are made untraceable through cleaning and falsification of records, and sold for profit in an illegal trade which causes huge damage to our shared cultural heritage. Ironically, the images of looted artefacts posted by middle-men on social media to aid the sale of these antiquities, form an ‘image trail’ which Erin is tracking, in the hope that some artefacts may be identified. A selection of these images is displayed in the exhibition. The installation covers a whole wall, but forms a tiny fraction of the data that Erin has collected.

In amongst all the publicity surrounding the destruction of monuments in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and events such as the erection of a replica of the Palmyrene triumphal arch in Trafalgar Square, there has been some criticism that perhaps artefacts of the past mean more to some of us than living people – what about the inhabitants of Tadmor (the modern town next to the ancient site of Palmyra, for instance? Don’t they matter? Is their suffering ignored because of the focus on things?

These are relevant questions to ask, and they deserve thinking about. It is a terrible thing to learn that whilst a media circus surrounded a pile of stones, the suffering and circumstances of living people are actually being ignored.

The monuments of ancient Palmyra, Aleppo or Nineveh are the palpable remains of human civilisation. I think that by studying them and visiting them we learn to appreciate the achievements of our fellow human beings who just happen to have lived in the past. In my very humble opinion, they are inherently important as reminders of our shared humanity. Iconoclasts – whether they be those of the past or modern day – want to deny that shared humanity. Our desire to recreate (in some way) what has been destroyed of our cultural heritage is a natural reaction, and has a place alongside the efforts to restore some sort of normality to those whose lives have been shattered. It is not, and should not be, an ‘either / or’ situation. I think it is very true that the inhabitants and custodians of Palmyra – Tadmor, Aleppo, and those cities and towns in Iraq where monasteries and mosques have been destroyed, feel their loss with an intensity that we lucky souls elsewhere can only begin to imagine. Some of them have died trying to protect them. In wanting to help mend them, we are sharing a little of their pain.

Fig 4: Exhibition installation including The Umayyad Mosque, Tmam Alkhidaiwi Alnabilsi, 2015, found materials, 120 x 75 cm. Photo by Tom Carter.

Fig 4: Exhibition installation including The Umayyad Mosque, Tmam Alkhidaiwi Alnabilsi, 2015, found materials, 120 x 75 cm. Photo by Tom Carter.

This reality, that these monuments matter profoundly, and constitute a visible and lasting metaphor for human life and memory which are in themselves so transient and fragile, was made very apparent to me at the exhibition in the form of a model of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, made by Tmam Alkhidaiwi Alnabilsi, a 25 year old Syrian refugee currently living at Zaatari Camp just outside Jordan. The model was featured in an article in The Guardian by Charlie Dunmore entitled ‘How art is helping Syrian refugees keep their culture alive’. The Umayyad Mosque, a unique and beautiful example of very early Islamic architecture, has suffered extensive damage, caught in the cross-fire of Syria’s ongoing civil war – an accidental victim rather than the intended target. The building is the latest incarnation of religious structures on the site that go back to at least the second millennium BCE, if not earlier. This destruction is such a tragedy.

Fig 5: The Umayyad Mosque in 1999. Photo by Felicity Cobbing.

Fig 5: The Umayyad Mosque in 1999. Photo by Felicity Cobbing.

I remember visiting the mosque on several occasions in happier years. As a visitor to Syria, it was one of my favourite places. What was so lovely was not just the beauty of the building itself, or the exquisite green and gold mosaics which adorned it, but how this place was alive as the true heart of the city. All were welcome. Children played and scholars studied verses of the Koran. Grannies chatted, and new parents brought their precious new bundles of life to be blessed. The place was filled with the echoes of whispering clerics and quietly laughing children. It was a privilege to witness Syrian life at its very best, and to see the part this wonderful historic building played in it. Tmam’s model is a homage to all of this – to the life of the building as much to the building itself. It is a symbol for all that Syria has lost. Remarkable in its accuracy, it is made from bits of plywood, food crates, and kebab sticks: anything that came to hand in the camp. Tmam clearly knows this building intimately, and his model is an expression of his relationship with it. It is a deeply moving artefact.

There are plans to take this exhibition travelling after its London stint, and a fine thing that would be. The exhibition is a brave and eloquent expression of human creativity and destructive impulse – opposite sides of the same coin, perhaps, and a relationship which deserves exploring.