The religious scholars of Cairo’s al-Azhar, one of the Islamic world’s oldest and most influential institutions, are to be lauded for their May 24th pronouncement calling for the world to unite against the danger posed by Islamic State (ISIS) fanatics to Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra. They described the protection of the region’s archaeological sites as “the battle of all humanity”. Al-Azhar’s statement was echoed by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who called Palmyra “an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world”.
The calls came after ISIS planted its flag on the citadel overlooking the 2,000-year-old World Heritage site.
In an interview with The Arab Weekly, Syria’s director-general for antiquities warned that “Palmyra is in big danger… It is now a hostage in the hands of the so-called Islamic State and the issue at stake is how to liberate that hostage.”
“From the first to the second century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilisations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences,” noted UNESCO.
It is that cosmopolitan makeup of Palmyra’s heritage and other archaeological sites in the Middle East and North Africa that run against the narrow and intolerant vision of history motivating ISIS.
Earlier this year, ISIS militants destroyed thousands of books in Mosul’s central library. They brought destruction to the ancient Assyrian cities Nineveh and Nimrud and smashed statues at the Mosul Museum.
UNESCO and the Arab League are mobilising but in the face of the barbaric onslaught official announcements and legal texts are not enough. The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict already prohibits the type of actions perpetrated by ISIS. UN Security Council resolutions make it illegal to trade in antiquities smuggled from Syria and Iraq.
The international community should crack down on the trafficking of artefacts from Syria and Iraq. A portion of the proceeds from that type of illicit activity goes to finance ISIS activities.
There should be greater mobilisation by civil society, educational and cultural institutions. Some argue that action to preserve the Middle East’s heritage pale in importance to the tragedy of civilians being killed and displaced but attacks on the region’s populations and the destruction of archaeological sites go hand in hand.
The cultural cleansing undertaken by ISIS is part of the same totalitarian vision of religious, ethnic and social cleansing. The bigoted murderers of ISIS have targeted non-Muslim minorities, Shias and even mainstream Sunnis. Homosexuals, smokers and non-practising Muslims are not spared.
The senseless acts of destruction have nothing to do with the Islam that, from Andalusia to Baghdad and al-Qayrawan has been a source of tolerance and intercultural coexistence. Their crimes belong to the legacy of the barbaric predators who periodically plague human history.
World heritage is a reminder of our common humanity. Civilisational riches should be a source of inspiration for the whole region as it tries to transcend the current bloody times.