The Islamic State’s Murder of a Modern Day Monuments Man
Khaled al-Asaad, 83-year-old retired Syrian archaeologist known admiringly as “Mr. Palmyra” for his extraordinary knowledge of that revered 2,000 year-old Roman era city, has been killed.
Jihadists of the Islamic State publicly beheaded al-Asaad, and then hung his body by his wrists from a traffic light positioning his head on the ground below. Attached to his waist was a sign listing his alleged crimes: attending “infidel conferences,” and acting as “the director of idolatry” for his lifelong passion in documenting and sharing with the public the artistic and cultural history of Palmyra, his birthplace. Syria’s Director of Antiquities provided a more rational explanation: despite repeated questioning, al-Asaad refused to divulge the location of statues and other works of art that had been removed from the city for safekeeping prior to the arrival of Islamic State militants.
The death of Khaled al-Asaad is not the first in the service to the arts during times of war. In March 1945, British Monuments Man Major Ronald Balfour, was killed by shrapnel relocating treasures from Christ the King Church in Cleve, Germany. The following month, machine-gun fire claimed the life of American Monuments Man Captain Walter Huchthausen while checking on a report of stolen art. Although scholar-soldiers, Balfour and Huchthausen wore military uniforms; al-Asaad was a civilian more than twice their age, armed with little more than his extensive knowledge of Palmyra’s once great civilization.
Khaled al-Asaad’s determination to protect Palmyra and its treasures parallels the service of the great French heroine, Rose Valland. From 1940-1944, this unassuming woman worked as a custodian of small Paris museum that the Nazis had commandeered for their looting operation, all the while spying on their activities. Twice accused and threatened with summary execution, Valland persisted, and fortuitously so. Her secret notes recording the arrival of stolen art and its subsequent shipment to Germany proved instrumental to the Monuments Men’s discovery of more than twenty thousand works of art. Valland would later join the Monuments Men and continue the search for missing works of art until her death in 1980.
The horrific death of Khaled al-Asaad, like those of Balfour and Huchthausen, underscores the high cost of protecting works of art and other cultural treasures during war. Balfour and Huchthausen knew this before volunteering; still, they wanted to serve. According to his son, Walid al-Asaad, al-Asaad knew it too, choosing to remain in his hometown despite ample opportunity to flee prior to ISIL’s encirclement of Palmyra.
Is art worth a life? It is a question that goes to the very soul of the work of the Monuments Men during World War II, and that of hundreds of volunteers, then and now, who have risked their lives to save our shared cultural heritage. Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower believed that the answer must be “no,” stating clearly that a human life counts “infinitely” more. Monuments Man Captain Deane Keller, a 42 year-old professor of art at Yale University and an artist himself, agreed. Keller, whose three-year long military service in Italy included a year and a half in or near combat, once wrote, “no work of art is worth the life of a single American boy.”
But Keller made a critical distinction between risking one’s life to save a work of art versus risking one’s life fighting for a cause. Like his fellow Monuments Men, Keller considered it a privilege to represent his country to preserve the freedom of creative expression by artists just as he did preserving the greatest examples of what artists before him had created. General Eisenhower spoke of this during a 1946 speech stating, “That, for democracy at least, there always stands beyond the materialism and destructiveness of war the ideals for which it is fought.”
In making his case for cultural preservation to President Roosevelt in 1943, Monuments Man Lt. Commander George Stout said it clearly and dispassionately:
“To safeguard these things will show respect for the beliefs and customs of all men and will bear witness that these things belong not only to a particular people but also to the heritage of mankind. To safeguard these things is part of the responsibility that lies on the governments of the United Nations.”
Roosevelt agreed. Balfour, Huchthausen and now Khalid al-Asaad, honored those lofty ideals; the United Nations has not.
In a speech his death precluded delivering, Monuments Man Ronald Balfour made an eloquent and enduring case for the preservation of cultural treasures. Its timeless warning would have resonated with Khalid al-Asaad, who knew that few places in our world offer a richer window to the past than Palmyra.
“No age lives entirely alone; every civilization is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be the poorer for it.”
We ignore Balfour’s wisdom at our own peril.