UNESCO Director General Bokova on Protecting Cultural Heritage during conflict

Damage in Aleppo, Syria

In an op-ed for the IHT UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova discusses the damage done to cultural sites in northern Mali, Syria and elsewhere. She argues that “Culture stands on the frontline of conflicts, deliberately targeted to fuel hatred and block reconciliation.” That’s exactly right I think. The challenge will be what the rest of the world can do to prevent and repair this destruction.

She outlines the concrete steps UNESCO is taking: crafting an international legal framework, building stronger culture coalitions, and use culture to prevent conflicts:

Unesco works across the globe to harness the power of culture to bring people together and foster reconciliation. I saw this personally when Unesco helped restore the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, destroyed during the war in the 1990s. We saw the same power during the restoration of the Koguryio Tombs complex in North Korea, undertaken with the financial support of South Korea. This might sound high-minded compared to the terrible news we hear every day from conflict zones. And it is true that culture alone is not enough to build peace. But without culture, peace cannot be lasting. The world thought big when the convention was adopted in 1972. We need to think big once again, to protect culture under attack. We often hear that protecting culture is a luxury better left for another day, that people must come first. The fact is, protecting culture is protecting people — it is about protecting their way of life and providing them with essential resources to rebuild when war ends. This is why, for culture also, there is a responsibility to protect.

  1. Irina Bokova, Culture in the Cross Hairs, The New York Times, December 2, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/03/opinion/03iht-edbokova03.html (last visited Dec 3, 2012).
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More Reports of Damaged Heritage in Syria

Aleppo’s Souk in Better Days
The Souk on fire Saturday

There are more and more reports emerging from Syria which tell of destruction, looted museums, and smuggling salable objects. On Saturday Aleppo’s souk was caught in the middle of fighting between rebels and government forces and the souk burned. The old city of Aleppo, where the souk is located is a UNESCO world heritage site. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova criticized the destruction over the weekend:

The human suffering caused by this situation is already extreme. That the fighting is now destroying cultural heritage that bears witness to the country’s millenary history – valued and admired the world over – makes it even more tragic. The Aleppo souks have been a thriving part of Syria’s economic and social life since the city’s beginnings. They stand as testimony to Aleppo’s importance as a cultural crossroads since the second millennium B.C.

The souk is situated underneath Aleppo’s 13th century citadel. There are reports that government forces have taken up positions in the ancient building. Rodrigo Martin, an expert on Syrian sites said the Souk “was a unique example of medieval commercial architecture” because it offered a progression of hundreds of years of architectural periods, and had been well-preserved.

There have also been reports that items from the National Museum of Aleppo have been moved into the central bank in Damascus for safekeeping. But there have also been reports in Time that museums elsewhere in the country are being looted and arms are being traded for antiquities at the Syria/Lebanon border. In Cairo there will be an emergency meeting to discuss possible efforts the international community can take in response to the damage and looting according to a report in ahram.

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Destruction and Looting in Syria

AP Photo of destruction in Homs

There are increasing reports of destruction in Syria. Sites like Krak des Chavaliers, Palmyra, Elba, and historic buildings in Homs are all at risk. Government forces in some cases are shelling civilian areas—the Citadel of Al Madeeq has been shelled, with a tragic result for the site and for the inhabitants.

The AP describes the damage: “shells thudded into the walls of the 12th century al-Madeeq Citadel, raising flames and columns of smoke as regime forces battled with rebels in March. The bombardment punched holes in the walls, according to online footage of the fighting.”

There are reports of looting, including some by government forces and others. Rodrigo Martin, an archaeologist who has worked in Syria describes some of the destruction:

We have facts showing that the government is acting directly against the country’s historical heritage,. . . What we know . . . Syrian heritage has already provided a huge quantity of information, but we can safely say that the part that has not yet been studied is even bigger,. . . [the destruction] is like burning a page in the book of history of mankind.

This kind of damage, which approaches intentional destruction similar to the destruction of the Buddhas at Bamiyan will be difficult to prevent. With respect to the looting and damage being done, sadly there are not a whole lot of good options the heritage community can call for, apart from a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and renewed vigilance in the marketplace to watch out for the kinds of objects which looters may be taking from Syria.

  1. Syria’s Cultural Treasures Latest Uprising Victim, NPR.org,   May 1, 2012, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=151783292 (last visited May 3, 2012).
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Iraqi Museum Objects Seized in Syria

The AP is reporting (via Syria’s official news agency) that Syrian customs officials have seized 40 objects stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad.

The report quotes the chief of the customs department, Nabil al-Sayyouri, as saying the pieces were seized at al-Tanaf crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border. They were hidden in a bag in an Iraqi crossing into Syria. The artifacts include different-sized glassware and clay tools.

Al-Sayyouri said the seized pieces were “rare and would be handed back to Iraq.”

This is the third smuggling attempt aborted in less than two months by Syrian customs officials. Last month, the Syrian Cultural Ministry handed Iraq back some 700 pieces of looted priceless antiquities seized inside Syria.

Syria really seems to be taking the lead on policing its borders, with a number of important seizures in recent months.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com