You may wish to pay your respects at the Museum of Fine Arts this fall to a man named Khaled al-Asaad. Born in the ancient city of Palmyra in the early 1930s, he was a Syrian archeologist, curator, and museum director, who was beheaded Aug. 18 when he refused to reveal to ISIS militants the location of hidden antiquities.
To honor a brave colleague (“brave” does not really cover it, but what word could?), the MFA is today putting on display this relief bust — fittingly, a funerary sculpture — made in Palmyra during the Roman Imperial period. Palmyra was a vital center of trade between the Roman Empire, Persia, India, and China. This is not the only Palmyran sculpture on display in this part of the world. Other first-rate examples can be seen both at the MFA and in museums such as the recently renovated Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. But with its fine carving articulating the woman’s “wet drapery” garment and exquisitely pleated headwear, her perfectly parted wavy hair, and her Hellenistic features, it’s both beautiful and characteristic, and it hasn’t been on display in a generation.
Al-Asaad was internationally admired even before the refusal to speak that triggered his outrageous murder. Between 1963 and 2003, he was Palmyra’s director of antiquities and the director of the Palmyra Museum. For four long decades, he studied, protected, and treasured his native city’s artistic and architectural inheritance. He was described by at least one colleague, Amr al-Azm, as “Mr. Palmyra.”
“If you needed to do anything in Palmyra with regards to the archeology or the monuments, you had to go through Khaled al-Asaad,” he told the BBC. It seems even ISIS knew this.
Born into a prominent local family, al-Asaad was self-taught in archeology, but his contribution to Palmyran studies was enormous. He published widely and played a key role in preserving the Palmyra’s UNESCO World Heritage site.
He retired in 2003, but his son Walid, who was also detained with his father, took over his work. His other son, Mohammed, and a son-in-law, Khalil, participated in the rescue of around 400 antiquities ahead of approaching ISIS militants in May.
Beside this 2,000-year old bust, the MFA has placed two books, one representing al-Asaad’s professional collaborations over many decades; the other blank. Visitors are invited to write their thoughts in it.
It’s a chance, perhaps, for all of us to think about what archeologists, curators, and museum professionals everywhere stand for, and how much they are sometimes called on to sacrifice on its behalf.
PORTRAIT BUST OF A WOMAN
Roman (Palmyra, Syria), circa 150-200.
At Museum of Fine Arts. 617-267-9600, www.mfa.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.