Arab states helplessly watch heritage being wiped out
Beirut - Days after Arab officials met in Cairo to devise ways to protect cultural heritage in the war-ravaged Arab region, another ancient treasure came under risk of destruction by jihadi fighters who have ransacked some of the world’s most precious archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria.
The fall of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, triggered international anguish for the latest world cultural heritage site to be endangered by the Islamic State (ISIS).
Can the world succeed in saving stones where it had failed to save human lives?
“No, we are not able to protect the archaeological sites,” commented Lebanese Minister of Culture Raymond Areiji.
“But we are trying to combat trafficking to prevent, as much as possible, the smuggling of artefacts from those sites…Today the UN Security Council is not able to protect the people in Syria, let alone stone monuments,” Areiji said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
The harsh reality is that world heritage sites in Iraq and Syria are being razed and nothing can be done about it. International agreements, including the 1954 Hague Convention on the protection of cultural properties in times of conflict, are worthless when non-state parties are involved in the fighting. “These militias do not recognise any rules or abide by any conventions and eventually we cannot do anything as states,” Areiji said.
The convention calls on signatories to clearly mark cultural properties and share information about their location to help belligerents avoid targeting them or making military use of them. In Syria, at least three of the country’s six world heritage sites have been used for military purposes since the crisis started in 2011, according to reports by the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
As an alternative to problems protecting the sites, Arab states are combating smuggling and clandestine commerce of antiquities, Areiji said. “We are also targeting countries in Europe and Asia and the United States where the looted items could be sold, urging them not to buy pieces which are suspected to have been stolen from the sites,” he added.
He said international auction houses, private collectors and museums were sensitised to the need to identify the origin of antiquities they intend to buy and to make sure the items have not been illegally excavated or smuggled.
“Combating the illicit trade is also a matter of security because these items are being sold at exorbitant prices to finance terrorism,” Areiji said. “We are basically inducing the public not to contribute to the robbery of foreign cultures and indirectly help the funding of terror.”
Ten Arab countries, including Lebanon, met for a two-day conference in Egypt in May to discuss means to preserve endangered archaeological property and to clamp down on the siphoning of priceless artefacts out of their countries of origin. The participants, in collaboration with UNESCO, launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #Unite4Heritage to mobilise Arab youths and encourage them to help preserve their culture and the region’s rich history.
Participating countries also joined efforts to prevent the smuggling of looted archaeological objects, which end up on the black market and in private collections. Among Syria’s neighbouring countries that are used as trafficking routes, Lebanon has been most praised for intercepting and returning many stolen objects.
“Until today, we can say that we have aborted the smuggling of around 1,000 pieces and repatriated many to Syria and Iraq in 2013 and 2014,” said Anne-Marie Afeiche, from the Lebanese Directorate of Antiquities.
“When it is obvious that the intercepted items originated from Syria or Iraq, we contact the directorate of antiquities in the respective countries and ask them to come here to authenticate the objects before they are repatriated,” Afeiche explained in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
She said objects whose origin could not be established are stored by the directorate until countries send queries about them through Interpol.
Big items were often intercepted at land borders, whereas many small objects were seized by customs at Beirut’s airport, Afeiche said. “In one instance up to 70 column heads that were smuggled in a truck were seized at the main border crossing with Syria,” she said.
In addition to archaeological objects, Lebanon returned to Syria cultural items, including icons, old crucifixes and ancient bibles and religious manuscripts that had been looted from churches and convents in the old Christian town of Maaloula, the culture minister said.
“We have been intercepting all types of objects, even arcades, windows and doors stolen from old mansions,” Areiji noted.
The looting and smuggling of antiquities in the Levant existed even in times of peace but the large-scale pillaging and destruction of ancient sites in war-torn Syria and Iraq is unprecedented. ISIS jihadists are notorious for demolishing archaeological treasures, including ancient artefacts and monuments in the Iraqi town of Nimrud, since declaring a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova decried the risk of destruction hanging over Palmyra after it had fell in the hands of ISIS, warning that damaging the site would amount to a crime against humanity.
“We are speaking about the birth of human civilisation. We are speaking about something that belongs to the whole of humanity,” Bokova said recently after urging the international community, including the UN Security Council and religious leaders, to appeal for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of military forces.
Would an appeal to save stones work better than failed appeals to save the people?