On the edge of the Syrian border near the banks of the Euphrates River sits a pile of ruins, all that remains of the ancient city of Dura Europos. The city was on the border of many other powers in its heyday—the Parthian, Hellenistic, and Roman Empires—and was a multicultural, multireligious stop on trade routes that crisscrossed the region. In its later years, the city would become a military base for Roman forces defending the borders of the empire. Dura Europos was a place where Jews, Christians, and followers of the ancient Mithraic religion lived and worshipped under one government. It was a meeting place for traders and travelers from all parts of the ancient world.Today, the city lies unoccupied, its ancient buildings decimated by the looting and destruction as ISIS lays waste to the region.
Across Syria and Iraq, museums and ancient sites like Dura Europos have been damaged or completely destroyed—some by civil war and others by ISIS, which aims to wipe out any cultural motifs that do not align with its authoritarian theology. There has been extensive coverage of Syrian historians and archaeologists risking their lives to save artifacts and historic sites from the destruction of continuous war and terrorism.
But when ISIS arrived, the vast majority of artifacts that were once in Dura Europos were gone. Excavations carried out by a joint team of archaeologists from Yale University and Syria in the 1920s and 30s resulted in the removal of buildings, walls, and pieces of art for study at institutions around the world. The majority of the artifacts were concentrated at Yale (which kept the remains of the house church and the Mithraic temple) and in Damascus, (where the Syrian team took the synagogue). A permanent exhibit featuring reconstructions of the house church and the Mithraic temple sits in New Haven, tucked modestly into a corner behind the regal Sculpture Hall that is the Yale University Art Gallery’s crowning jewel.
The excavations done by the Yale team in the early part of the twentieth century likely saved these priceless pieces of religious and cultural history from the merciless destruction of the Islamic State. But they did so at a price—removing these pieces from their homeland and rehoming them in the basement of a Western university. Stuck in storage for decades, the paintings lost their intense color and the artwork deteriorated. The paintings from the church and temple walls “lost so much detail and so much vibrancy of the color that they… are almost non-exhibitable,” said associate curator Lisa Brody in a 2010 interview with the magazine Archaeology. When Yale finally pulled them out to put them on exhibit—first, a traveling exhibit and later a permanent home in the Art Gallery—the museum had to painstakingly retouch them so that the art was discernible.Though they had been saved from the malicious forces that destroyed Dura Europos, the artifacts were not safe from less vilified—though potentially equally destructive—dangers.
The saga of Dura Europos is yet another chapter in a decades-long debate within the world of art over where historical artifacts from modern regions of conflict should be housed. As the academic world begins to more openly contend with the history and present-day reality of colonialism, interventionism, and plundering, a debate has been revived over whether some of the artifacts that currently sit in Western institutions should be returned to the countries from which they originated. Should colonial and interventionist powers who have benefited from plundering and looting be forced to return their ill-gotten gains? Though the artifacts from Dura Europos were removed with the consent of Syria, they proved much more historically and culturally significant than was originally thought. The artifacts that currently sit at the corner of York and Chapel in New Haven contain the first known image of the Virgin Mary and one of the earliest house churches in existence—priceless pieces of the region’s history that may never be seen by a Syrian audience. What right, if any, should Syria have over these pieces? The art world is divided, and has been for years.
In the 1970s, a consensus was reached among United Nations member nations that artifacts taken from their country of origin under questionable circumstances should be repatriated back to those countries. The United States Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) maintains a committee for this explicit purpose. But as conflicts escalated in many of the regions to which artwork would have been returned, the tide has shifted. Many experts and historians now wonder if the best place for these artifacts in an era of conflict may not be in their homelands.
In an interview with NPR, James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, said that taking artifacts out of their home country and distributing them to institutions around the world “distributes the risk to…their survival over many places. I like to say that it is the case that calamity can happen anywhere, but it won’t happen everywhere simultaneously. But when things are preserved and kept in one place, it puts them at greater risk.”
Cuno is an outspoken advocate for what he terms “refugee artifacts.” This concept, as he describes it, would involve relocating historically and culturally significant artifacts out of regions of conflict until it is safe to return them. But who gets to decide what “safe” conditions are? The British Museum, for instance, excused its continued possession of the Elgin Marbles, which had been looted from the Parthenon in the early 19th century, for decades by claiming that Greece didn’t have the facilities or expertise to keep the the marbles safe. There is a worry that countries deemed “safe” may be, more often than not, the same countries that have historically been the main source of plundering and looting. Allowing them to retain possession of artifacts in times of danger could mean that these artifacts are never returned to their cultural homes.
For the time being, UNESCO continues to advocate for the repatriation of ill-gotten artifacts even as historical sites are routinely destroyed in the regions that claim them. Academics and archaeologists in Syria and Iraq have risked their lives to protect many of the cultural treasures that are housed in museums in the two countries, but countless pieces have been destroyed despite their courageous efforts. At this point, the region is likely too dangerous for a large-scale evacuation of the artifacts that remain. But the world of art must decide which rulebook it wants to play by, and which philosophy it wants to endorse—rectifying a stained legacy of colonialism and imperialism or protecting artifacts for an out-of-reach ideal of the global good.