Founder and Director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology Roger Michael discusses with Rebecca Anne Proctor why preserving monuments in the world’s conflict burdened areas is crucial to humanity
Rebecca Anne Proctor: How did you begin working with endangered monuments in conflict areas?
Roger Michael: We began working in conflict zones, Syria at the time, in 2015. We had been contacted by Maamoun Abdul Karim in the aftermath of the murder of Khaled al-Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist and the head of antiquities at the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that was beheaded by ISIS at the age of 82. Mr Asaad, as you may well recall, was murdered by ISIS for refusing to disclose the location of Palmyra’s archaeological treasures that he had hidden to protect. “They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra,” said UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova in a statement. “His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history.” At the time, ISIS had already demolished several ancient sites in Iraq, and there was a strong belief that they would destroy Palmyra, too. Maamoun, who has since become a dear friend, wanted us to do something to help provide local optimism, but also to help galvanise world opinion behind the cause of preserving Syrian culture and its most precious artifacts. After secret discussions, it was proposed that we reconstruct the Triumphal Arch of Palmyra.
RAP: How did you then go about reconstructing the Triumphal Arch which you then recreated in London in 2016?
RM: We then approached UNESCO and The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) about assisting. We had a series of meetings—this was all before the Zoom revolution, of course, so we had to fly back forth to Paris—that culminated in a joint meeting with UNESCO and ICOMOS in Irina Bokova’s office. At the time, UNESCO was opposed to reconstructions on philosophical grounds. I think they had some reasonable concerns about “Disneyfication” of sites. But I also think they were concerned a little about how this would affect their own relationship to ancient sites (a year and a half later they would speak jointly with us at the G7 in Florence in favor of reconstruction—what a difference a year makes!). During that meeting, something very important happened—we got the best advice (even if it was inadvertent) that we would ever receive. Mechtild Rössler, Dr Bokova’s number two for cultural heritage matters, told us that UNESCO could never be involved unless we had the consent and participation of local stakeholders. At some level, I thought she was just throwing up what she thought was going to be an impossible roadblock for us to surmount—she was probably never thought in a million years that we would be able to make contact with key Syrian stakeholders—let alone secure their cooperation. She did not know that we had already been having private conversations with Dr Abdul Karim for many weeks. I wish I could have seen her face when, 20 hours later, she received a letter from Dr Abdul Karim—on his official DGAM letterhead—requesting that we carry out the Palmyra Arch reconstruction on behalf of the people of Palmyra!
RAP: How wonderful! How did you make it all happen and what was the public’s reaction to the arch?
RM: It was full speed ahead at that point. We then secured the generous, gracious and courageous assistance of my old Oxford classmate, Boris Johnson. We had a dear mutual friend in the great Dr Jasper Griffin. Boris insisted—despite all of his security and political advisors telling him it was a bad idea—that the arch would rise on Trafalgar square in April. Just months after the plan was hatched with Dr Abdul Karim. Despite huge anxiety—especially in the wake of the Belgian airport bombing—it went forward. Of course, it was a huge triumph for everyone—most of all the Syrian people. It vindicated our own hopes and Boris’s—but also those of Dr Abdul Karim and all of the hundreds of ordinary Syrians that made it happen. The world media turned out in unprecedented fashion. The arch was in every major newspaper in the world, on the BBC, CNN and all the major global networks. It was even on the cover of Newsweek.
RAP: Did the arch have any political and/social impact?
RM: In anticipation of this huge international news event, the Russians decided to liberate Palmyra from ISIS just days before the Trafalgar Square unveiling. Sure, it might be viewed as a cynical act designed to capitalise on a truly extraordinary media moment, but we didn’t care. When CNN asked on the day what I thought of the Russians’ move, I told them that I thought it was “a miracle”—which it was. ISIS was out and Palmyra was under very capable Russian control. You have to take opportunities where you find them in this business.
RAP: How do you deal with the challenges from foreign governments in the conflict areas you work in?
RM: Dealing with foreign governments—sometimes governments whose own motivations are vague—is always a big part of heritage preservation work in conflict zones. The Russians next cropped up in 2018 in connection with another Syrian project we undertook in collaboration with the United Nations. As part of our “Old Cities, New Eyes” exhibition at the UN headquarters in New York City (featuring VR experiences of heritage assets), we displayed a set of antique photographs of Palmyra—the oldest known photos of the site—together with brand new photos (taken the very week the exhibition opened, in fact) of the same scenes. These were kindly provided by very brave volunteers who were assisting our efforts at that time. A description of the show went up on the UN intra-net and, almost immediately, the UK Mission got a call from the Russian Mission “complimenting” them on the exhibition (the wonderful UK Mission was our host) and asked where we had gotten the recent photos. In my opinion, the Russians were quite naturally curious about who our sources were in an area under their nominal control. It was decided that “no comment” was the best response. The Russians appeared at the event, quite courteous as always, and asked a few more questions. It served as a good reminder of the sensitivity around even relatively modest projects—and the grave risks that people take to facilitate efforts to preserve and share precious cultural heritage objects.
RAP: You also installed the Palmyra Arch in Washington DC. What was the reaction there?
RM: About two months later, we were invited by the US Congress (House Foreign Affairs Committee) to install the Palmyra Arch in front of the US Capitol, right in the center of the National Mall, with the Washington Monument on the other side. It was a great bipartisan event at which the Republican Chair, Ed Royce, and Democratic Ranking Member, Eliot Engel, both spoke movingly about the importance of heritage preservation—and about the tragedy of the Syrian situation. Among the many guests was a young Russian woman, a cultural attaché, to the Russian Embassy. She was exceedingly charming and friendly and managed to buttonhole me for a long conversation about our work in Syria. Needless to say, I was polite, but not at all forthcoming. She did manage to extract an invitation to our gala that night at the National Press Club. Somehow, she ended up sitting next to me. We had a very interesting conversation—which I have no particular reason for thinking was not sincere at some level—about the high importance Russia places on cultural heritage. She then suggested various types of collaborations that might be possible. Again, needless to say, I was polite, but indicated that any such proposals were far above my pay grade and would have to be discussed through proper diplomatic channels. Again, it was a good reminder of how much scrutiny even modest heritage preservations get. Although, to be fair, at that point, the arch had become one of the best-known heritage objects in the world. Our reconstruction had been seen by many millions of people in person, and probably hundreds of millions more through the media it generated. Our principal collaborators were national governments and the major NGOs. So, I suppose the Russian interest was not so surprising. The fact that our DC installation was scheduled for UN General Assembly week was, I think, no accident either. As our work in conflict zones has expanded, so has the complexity of these relationships.