New year ushers in continued dangers for Arab cultural heritage
Beirut - International efforts to safeguard the Middle East’s cultural heritage elicited guarded optimism from experts who warn that significant obstacles, mainly persisting violence and chaos, hinder attempts to protect the region’s legacy.
The political turmoil and military conflicts that engulfed the Middle East in 2016 caused staggering losses to the region’s cultural property. In Libya, UNESCO placed five sites on its list of endangered world heritage. At least 400 confirmed incidents of damage to cultural heritage sites were recorded in Syria and northern Iraq in 2016, estimates Amr al-Azm, an antiquities expert and associate professor of history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio.
The ancient Syrian city of Palmyra was recaptured by the Islamic State (ISIS) in December, likely leading to further destruction of the World Heritage site. The old quarters of Aleppo were damaged in the latest regime offensive to reclaim the city and the recently liberated ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq has been reduced to rubble, with archaeologists claiming that 60% of the damage is beyond repair.
Overall, the Arab world is the region with the highest number of world heritage sites at risk, UNESCO said, with Syria the country with the largest number of endangered heritage places. The scale of devastation in Syria has evoked comparisons to the second world war and the Bosnian wars.
Faced with large-scale looting and ideologically motivated destruction of heritage sites and cultural property, representatives of 40 countries, meeting in December in Abu Dhabi, approved plans to establish a $100 million fund to protect heritage sites in war zones and build a network of safe havens for endangered cultural property.
The outcome of the conference, organised by France and the United Arab Emirates in partnership with UNESCO, promises to serve as “positive first step”, said Kamal Bitar, a cultural heritage expert at the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage (ARCWH).
“We have to start somewhere. We have to lay the first brick before the others will follow,” he said in a Skype interview.
Bitar stressed that $100 million was not enough to deal with all the destruction, considering that the reconstruction of the Old City of Aleppo alone would likely cost tens of billions of dollars.
Azm, who previously served as Syria’s director of scientific and conservation laboratories at the General Department of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), was more critical, calling the Abu Dhabi conference “a vanity event” and “an exercise in showing off”.
He said plans to establish a network of safe havens for endangered cultural property were “controversial” and “complex beyond belief”.
He said previous examples from the region are telling. For instance, countries that created internal safe havens have often made the mistake of transferring materials to surroundings that do not meet minimum preservation standards.
During Lebanon’s civil war, the collection of the National Library of Lebanon deteriorated for 15 years while kept in poor climate conditions in a Beirut suburb. The Ottoman archives in Iraq, which were put in 156 metal boxes and placed in cold storage, became mouldy because temperatures fluctuated between 0-8 degrees Celsius due to electricity cuts.
Safe havens established abroad often invited controversy. The evacuation of the Iraqi Jewish archive to the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in 2003 incited accusations that US forces had, with the help of the Israelis, kidnapped the archive and shipped it off to Israel. In 2005, opponents of the Iraqi transitional government used those claims to pressure the government to ask for its return.
Another major obstacle in safeguarding cultural heritage, Bitar and Azm said, is the structure of international organisations, such as UNESCO. They are tailored towards dealing solely with recognised states and state institutions, they said.
In Libya, where conditions endanger a varied range of cultural heritage sites dating from prehistoric, Greco-Roman and Islamic periods, no controlling government is in place. As a result, safeguarding Libya’s cultural heritage has often been neglected.
Several areas in Syria and Iraq fall outside state control, meaning that institutions, such as the departments of antiquities and museums, lack access to cultural property in those areas. Non-state actors and groups have tried to fill the gap and secure cultural property in rebel- or militant-held territory.
“If the conflict slows down, we will see an improvement. If the conflict is heading towards more escalation, then we will see more damage. The two go hand in hand,” Azm said.