The Arab World And Its Lost Heritage

The last 3 years of the so-called Islamic State’s barbarous militancy in the Arab world has caused destruction spanning the entire region. The recent liberation of Mosul and the eradication of IS’s last major stronghold demonstrates their decline in the region. However, their legacy of destruction and despair will linger long after in the Middle East and North Africa, and not solely from a humanitarian standpoint. The destruction of heritage sites and significant historical artefacts became a major symptom of IS’s militant agenda. Through the reckless violence shown towards these monuments, the organisation has orchestrated the eradication of a large portion of the region’s sites of cultural significance. According to UN reports, at least half of the old city of Mosul was destroyed during IS’s occupation, and a third of Aleppo’s equivalent in Syria. Minarets, monasteries and similar cultural monuments have been reduced to rubble. A particularly shocking example was the highly publicised destruction of the ancient remains of Roman Palmyra. The site was heavily vandalised by IS, with significant features such as the 2000-year-old Arch of Triumph destroyed. A part of the famous Roman theatre and a tetrapylon were also reduced to rubble. It is also notable that often violence towards these sites continues after conflicts have been resolved. “Poverty, despair and a collapse of civic pride” results in further vandalism towards heritage sites, with valuable artefacts often removed by smugglers and profit driven groups, according to The Economist.

Significant sites across the region are in danger of sharing the same fate as places like Palmyra. In fact, according to UNESCO, 22 of the world’s 38 cultural-heritage sites which are listed as endangered are located in the Middle East. Michael Danti of the American Schools of Oriental Research at the University of Pennsylvania, which charts the destruction of heritage sites, has branded what is occurring in the Arab world as the “worst cultural heritage crisis since World War 2” , per National Geographic. Members of IS boast at their destruction of these monuments, citing the need to eradicate symbols which fail to directly support their ideology. Responsibility for this spread of destruction towards heritage sites thus primarily lies with the terrorist group. Major General Joseph Martin, the commander of the coalition forces in Mosul stated that “responsibility for this devastation is laid firmly at the door step of ISIS.” However, responsibility should also be shouldered by foreign powers active in the region. Both American and Russian forces have had as much of a role in the destruction of precious sites as the Jihadist group. According to The Economist, the American led coalition which liberated Mosul damaged 47 historically significant religious sites, with IS only responsible for the destruction of 15. Russian air strikes also resulted in damage to a 5th Century monastery dedicated to Saint Simeon in Syria.

Like humanitarian casualties, the destruction of sites of special historical interest is another damaging consequence of violent conflict. International action is needed to ensure this is minimized. Some action has been taken; in March, the UN reaffirmed the fact that violence towards cultural sites counts as a war crime. This is something that is actively and rightfully checked upon. For example, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was found guilty at the International Criminal Court (ICC) of ordering attacks on historic Muslim sites in Timbuktu.

Another productive action being utilized that should be furthered is the provision during conflicts of coordinates and exact locations of heritage sites to involved parties. In 2011, the International Council of Museums provided details of heritages sites in Libya to NATO, which the alliance subsequently avoided in its bombing campaign. However, this has been less successful in regions of the Yemen, where the informed “Saudi-led coalition has been less scrupulous with the list it received,” according to The Economist. IS would inevitably be even less likely to coordinate, given the deliberate violence they use against these sites. While a likely consequence of violent conflict, attempts should be made at all costs to limit the damage inflicted on heritage sites. The international community shoulders a large part of this responsibility. Through stricter enforcement of punishments for related crimes, and through raising awareness of the location of these sites, damage to these culturally significant monuments can be minimized.