Unrest chips away at region’s heritage

Conflict and the race to develop resources and infrastructure are placing the Middle East and North Africa region’s cultural sites at risk. Published in MEED, 16 February 2015

Aleppo in Syria is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. For millennia, it has acted as a crossroads and a melting pot of people, trade, cultures, ideas and faiths. Its mosques and palaces, the 13th-century citadel that overlooks the centre of the city, and the nearby souq, which is one of the most evocative in the Middle East, all bear testament to the importance of the city through the centuries.

These days, however, much of it has been destroyed and a lot of what still stands is at risk. Along with five other Syrian sites included on the World Heritage list maintained by Unesco, the UN’s cultural arm, the ancient city centre of Aleppo was listed as being ‘in danger’ in 2013.

Tales of looting

Since then, the destruction of life and livelihoods has continued unabated and the country’s cultural heritage continues to be part of the collateral damage of the civil war. It is not simply a case of the destruction wrought by bombs and shelling; there have also been many sorry tales of looting at important sites.

“Syria is in a really bad situation. Historic sites have been a major target and there has also been illicit trafficking of archaeological objects,” says Zaki Aslan, director of Athar, a heritage centre in Sharjah set up by the Rome-based International Centre for the Study of the Preservation & Restoration of Cultural Property and the UAE emirate’s government.

The risk is not just to the famous places included on the World Heritage list. Scores of archaeological sites across the country have been damaged, from Apamea in the west to Dura-Europos in the east. “There is more international attention [paid] to the sites on the ‘in danger’ list, but we as professionals working in heritage don’t necessarily differentiate between those sites that are on the list and those that are not,” says Aslan. “I have heard of incidents at sites such as Crac des Chevalliers, at Bosra, at Palmyra, at Deir el-Zour, and in other areas too.”

Unesco has condemned the theft and trafficking of ancient objects, as well as the stationing of troops at heritage sites, including the Roman ruins at Palmyra, the crusader castle of Crac des Chevaliers and Aleppo Citadel. In cooperation with the International Council of Museums, it has drawn up an ‘emergency red list’ of Syrian antiquities thought to be at greatest risk of being illegally traded and it has also set up an observatory in Beirut to monitor what is happening across the border.

But the unfortunate reality is there is little Unesco or any other organisation can do to stop the vandalism and destruction. “In some areas, we are reaching the point of no return where Syria’s cultural heritage is concerned,” said Irina Bokova, director-general of Unesco, when announcing the establishment of the observatory in May last year.

Aslan’s organisation is among those trying to prevent the situation from getting any worse. It works with people on the ground in Syria and in other countries around the region where heritage is at risk, offering guidance on how best to cooperate with police, civil defence organisations, customs officials and others to prevent sites being damaged and to clamp down on the trafficking of stolen objects.

Other measures that can be taken include putting protective sandbags around large sculptures and other objects that cannot be easily moved, and burying floor mosaics under protective coverings, according to the Paris-based International Council on Monuments & Sites (Icomos).

Dangerous task

But confronting some of those guilty of carrying out attacks is a difficult and dangerous task, better suited to armies rather than archaeologists. “There is purposeful destruction of heritage that is not linked to the war itself but to ideology,” says Samir Abdulac, a member of the Icomos working group on safeguarding cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq.

“There are people who have an extremist view of Islam and who attack even Muslim heritage sites such as shrines and some mosques. In Syria and Iraq, some of these groups may also attack churches and communities such as the Yazidis. They may attack ancient heritage [artefacts] such as Assyrian sculptures. Isis [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] is very extreme, but it is not the only one. Jabhat al-Nusra has also been destroying shrines.”

While Syria is eliciting the most concern among heritage professionals these days, it is far from the only place where there are problems. The Arab region has more cultural World Heritage sites on the ‘in danger’ list than any other part of the world. Currently, 13 sites are listed as being in danger, out of a total of 94 sites across the region, from Abu Mena in northern Egypt to Zabid in western Yemen.

As in the case of Syria, civil strife is often what endangers them. Sites can be left unprotected and open to looters or shelling by warring groups. It is understandable if people choose to overlook the importance of protecting a heritage site when their own lives are at risk.

Lost heritage

Fighting is not the only risk factor, however. A lot of other issues can also lead to heritage being irreplaceably lost, from a lack of funding or skills to incompetent management or the competing desire for development.

Sometimes governments see another prize that they value more greatly. This led to Oman losing the World Heritage status for its Arabian Oryx sanctuary in 2007. The World Heritage Committee deleted the property from its list after Muscat decided to reduce the size of the protected area by 90 per cent so that it could move ahead with oil exploration in the area. The committee decided this move would destroy the value and integrity of the site.

That was the first time Unesco had ever delisted a site from its World Heritage list. Since then, only one other has followed its ignoble lead: the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany, which was delisted in 2009.

The race to development means other sites of archaeological or cultural interest have been lost around the region in the past, not least in the Gulf, which has been experiencing perhaps the most rapid rush of construction.

“There is more awareness now in the Gulf,” says Aslan. “There were some major urban development issues that resulted in losses, especially of the historic urban fabric. Although there is more awareness to keep what is there, there is still a risk of losing some of the archaeological sites by means of opening new highways and roads.”

Sometimes measures can be taken to prevent problems happening. The Giza pyramids in Egypt were threatened in 1995 by a highway project near Cairo, which would have seriously damaged the site. Negotiations with the government resulted in several changes to the disputed project, which saved the area.

Aslan suggests there should be more coordination and cooperation between those involved in development and those working in the heritage sectors to avoid similar problems arising in the future.

For that to happen, the value of the region’s cultural heritage will have to be emphasised to developers, but there are potential long-term benefits for everyone, not least if the tourism industry grows as a result of a country’s heritage being preserved and well maintained. That potential is now widely recognised and there are plenty of recent examples of countries trying to get more sites added to the World Heritage list in a bid to boost their tourism credentials, particularly in the Gulf.

Of the 30 sites around the Middle East that have been added in the past 10 years, Iran has accounted for 11 of them, Saudi Arabia three, Bahrain and Iraq two each and Oman, Qatar, the UAE and Yemen one apiece.

Not all succeed. The UAE authorities failed to convince Unesco of the merits of adding Dubai Creek to its list in 2014, for example. But that is unlikely to stop it and its neighbours trying again in the future.

In November, Saudi Arabia set out a plan to have 10 more sites included on the World Heritage list, including the Neolithic rock paintings at Bir Hima in the Najran Province and the route of the Hejaz railway line. The credentials of the first of the new sites – Al-Ahsa oasis in the Eastern Province – are due to be handed over to Unesco before the end of this year.

But there is little sense in having a site listed if it is not properly looked after. In times of war, heritage will inevitably fall down the list of priorities, but there are some useful things those in charge of a site can do in peacetime.

“The archives and recordings of museums and libraries should be thorough,” says Abdulac. “Architecturally, one should make sure monumental sites have plans. Those plans are precious because, if anything happens to the sites later on, then you have to refer to those plans in order to undertake restoration.”

It may be too late to do that for parts of Homs, Aleppo or other Syrian cities. And much may already be lost forever, including the more intangible items of Syria’s heritage. With an estimated 9.5 million Syrians having fled their homes, whole communities have atomised and dispersed. They may never return, and their crafts, know-how and local knowledge will have gone with them. If that is the case, it will merely add to the tragedy that the country is suffering, and the wider world will be poorer for it too.

“We will be losing evidence of the knowledge that has informed humanity and contributed to human knowledge in general,” says Aslan. “The region was historically called the cradle of civilisation. It has made huge contributions to the knowledge we have today. The evidence of that knowledge might be lost.”