Destruction Of Cultural Heritage Is Not Only A War Crime, But An Attack On Humankind’s Shared Memory

A joint report by the Gerda Herkel Foundation and the Syrian Society for the Protection of Antiquities has revealed severe damage to Syria’s heritage sites and antiquities. The report, compiled by the Syrian archaeologist and academic Cheikhmous Ali, monitored 55 Syrian institutions since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. These institutions included forty-nine museums and five places of worship devoted to the safeguarding and exhibition of archaeological, historical, and commemorative artefacts.

The report documented that since 2011, 29 of these establishments have been damaged by aerial and ground bombardments, and at least 40,635 artefacts have been looted from the monitored museums, repositories, and places of worship. Some of the damaged establishments include the Ma’arat al-No’man Museum, the Museum of Palmyra, and the Archaeological Museum in Der’a. These figures do not include the tens of thousands of items looted from the archaeological sites such as Apamea, Ebla, and Palmyra through clandestine excavations.

The report urged for the Syrian General Department of Antiquities and Museums to make a report on the status of the museums and their contents, and to build a digital database with a detailed inventory list. It also urged for a detailed research to reveal the exact number of looted artefacts, as such information will be crucial for Interpol and other international organizations to document stolen items in case they end up in the black market or in private art and antiquity collections.

Lastly, the report called for an investigation into the transfer of 405 boxes of antiquities to Dubai by former Minister of Defence, Colonel General Mustafa Tlass, when he left Syria in 2011. The report said these boxes contained thousands of looted artefacts that had been smuggled from Syria.


Some Background on the Case of Syria

Syria, one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world, was first habituated by modern humans around 100,000 years ago, and was already home to an agrarian civilization by 10,000 BCE. Ebla, an ancient Syrian city thought to have existed around 3,000 BCE, is one of the oldest settlements excavated. Throughout ancient times, Syria has been occupied by Egyptians, Hittites, Sumerians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. It was later a part of the Byzantine Empire, soon after conquered by the Ottomans, and under French mandate briefly before its establishment as the Republic of Syria in 1945.

Due to its location as part of the historical region of Mesopotamia, it is often referred to as the “cradle of civilization” alongside the regions of modern day Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. It goes without saying that the region of modern day Syria has been home to many diverse cultures and religions throughout history, inevitably accumulating precious historic artefacts and stories within its land, which can serve as clues into the origins of humankind and civilization.

Since the beginning of the civil war in March 2011, the two major threats these rich historic sites and antiquities of Syria have been facing are looting and destruction. Illegal excavations and looting have increased exponentially since the civil war. The stolen artefacts are smuggled out of the Middle East onto the underground antique markets of Europe and North America to finance the operations of the Islamic State.

Numerous heritage sites such as the ancient cities of Aleppo and Palmyra (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites), important Syrian cultural monuments, and museums have been systematically targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In 2015, following the capture of Palmyra, ISIL blew up and demolished the Temple of Baalshamin, the Temple of Bel, and the famous Lion of Allat statute – all of which were built around 2,000 years ago and survived a number of invasions and occupations, but only took ISIL seconds to destroy.


A Brief History of Heritage Destruction as a War Crime

Karima Bennoune, the UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, stated in a 2016 press statement that the destruction of cultural heritage is a violation of human rights, saying “Clearly, we must now understand that when cultural heritage is under attack, it is also the people and their fundamental human rights that are under attack.”

Cultural property protection has a long history in military law, and can be stumbled upon on a wide range of resources, such as The Art of War by Sun Tzu, written in 6th century BC China, the 1385 Durham Ordinances written for an English army invading Scotland, and the 1863 Lieber Code written for Federal forces during the American Civil War.

Most notably, the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict became the first international treaty to focus exclusively on the protection of cultural property and to prohibit the intentional targeting of cultural and religious sites under international humanitarian law. The Second Protocol to the Hague Convention to expand on the protection of cultural property was adopted in 1999.

More extensively, the international commitment to protect cultural heritage was demonstrated in the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, the 1998 Rome Statute, and most recently the UN Security Council Resolution 2347 of 2017, which condemned “the unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, including the destruction of religious sites and artefacts, and the looting and smuggling of cultural property from archaeological sites, museums, libraries, archives, and other sites, notably by terrorist groups,” and urged “Member States to develop broad law enforcement and judicial cooperation in preventing and countering trafficking in cultural property.” Deliberate destruction of cultural property became increasingly regarded as a war crime, and its protection as “customary international law.”

The practicality of this international law was demonstrated in March 2016, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) sentenced Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who is linked to al-Qaeda, to nine years of prison for the deliberate destruction of holy and historic sites in Timbuktu, Mali.


An Attack on Collective Memory and Identity

‘‘The deliberate destruction of our common cultural heritage constitutes a war crime and represents an attack on humanity as a whole,’’ said the spokesman for then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2015. 

The attacks by ISIL brought upon a colossal amount of human cost, being the second deadliest war of the 21st century. There is no denying that. But it must also be remembered that there is a reason why heritage sites are targeted during war. Cultural heritage gives people a sense of place and identity, it forms their relations to themselves, their neighbours, and their culture. The destruction of heritage is a form of cultural cleansing in an attempt to erase and reset the region’s memory and identity.

But Syria’s heritage is not only of local value, it is of universal value. As the “cradle of civilization,” it symbolizes the sum of all mankind’s experience and achievements, too precious to be erased and forgotten. It serves as the ultimate common denominator beyond politics, power, and economics. A notable example to demonstrate the misery and the sense of loss the destruction of a heritage site could bring upon is the burning of Notre Dame in April 2019.

Amr Al Azm, a professor of history and anthropology in Shawnee State University, told Al Jazeera in a 2016 interview, “People without their history without their culture are lost people. And a culture without their people is meaningless,” emphasizing the interrelation of people and culture. He continued, “One day when the conflict ends, they’re going to need to find common denominators, ways in which they can reach out and connect again.” 

Saving Syria’s past is a matter of saving Syria’s future, and a loss of memory is potentially a loss of opportunity for future reconciliation. Beyond its function as a gate into the past and the collective memory of humankind, in a more pragmatic and tangible sense, cultural heritage serves as a tool for reconciliation and peace building once the war is over.


Potential Solutions

For this reason, preserving historic sites and fragile historic archaeological sites is not solely a local concern, but a global shared responsibility. In order to support this effort, increasing international collaboration needs to take place on law enforcement and judicial levels. For instance the ongoing efforts of UNESCO, INTERPOL, and the International Council on Monuments and Sits (ICOMOS) have led to the closure of loopholes allowing looted artefacts to enter the legal antiquity market. 

The perpetrators linked to ISIL must be brought to justice just as Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was, to serve as a deterrent and increase awareness. The efforts of local people and organisations on the ground safeguarding heritage sites and museums, such as The Day After – Heritage Protection Initiative (HPI), must be supported and funded to build capacity. As Cheikhmous Ali called for, in his report, technology must be used to digitize and document the inventory lists of antiquities, and can be further harnessed to protect and play a role in the rebuilding process.

Lastly, as Ms. Bennoune urged in the 2016 press statement, broader and more holistic strategies promoting human rights and peace building must be adopted; such as tackling extremist ideologies and discriminatory attitudes, while maintaining a humanist education with the promotion of tolerance and pluralism.



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