Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Collateral damage to cultural heritage of the past

Though it is not often the subject of front-page news on the Middle East, a largely unreported tragedy of literally monumental proportions is taking place there. While the world's attention has been quite naturally focused on the catastrophic human toll of the conflict in Syria and surrounding areas and the lives that have been destroyed by political instability in Egypt, economic privation, unrelenting civil war, and irresponsible governments have driven an unprecedented destruction of cultural heritage in those countries. Looted Dahshur, Abusir, Tarknan and the Malawi Museum in Egypt and devastated Aleppo, Apamea and Krak des Chevaliers in Syria provide bleak testimony to this calamity.

In a recent issue of the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies, six front-line heritage preservation activists come together for the first time to express theirs views and provide an update on what is happening today to Middle Eastern archaeological sites. These six articles are starkly illustrated by photographs -- a number of them taken by the authors and their informants on cell phones at risk of life and limb.

Joris Kila, a heritage specialist and reserve officer in the Royal Netherlands Army undertook cultural rescue missions to Iraq, Macedonia, Egypt, and Libya. Writing unsparingly about the irresponsibility of governments, the callous acts of individuals, and the inexplicable neglect of international organizations, he lements that, despite the number of conflict related heritage disasters that have occurred in the last few decades, "no lessons have been learned about prevention and practical solutions." Emma Cunliffe, who in 2012 brought the cultural costs of the Syrian uprising to the world's attention, cautions academics who steer clear of these issues that "an anti-war/pro-peace stance does not preclude acceptance of the fact that conflict still happens and must be dealt with."

Syrian archaeologists Salam Al Quntar and Ali Cheilmous describe the very human dimensions of damage to heritage. "Not only impressive ancient buildings have values for Syrians," Al Quntar writes, "but the entire setting of the ancient urban landscape, historical and religious buildings, suqs or bazaars, cafes and restaurants, and even the narrow warm streets." Cheikmous concludes, "No political solution to the Syrian conflict can be imagined at the moment…As a result, the nation's heritage is hostage to both sides of the conflict."

Salima Ikram and Monica Hanna, Egyptian archaeologists, discuss the stepped up looting activity and illegal land appropriation that has accompanied Egypt's volatile political situation. Hanna decries the fact that "There is not a single site in Egypt that has not suffered the attack of the land mafia and looters." Ikram, similarly, sees these events, concluding with the dire prediction that "Now, until the rule of law has been re-established, Egypt's heritage will continue to be lost. This is tragic for the whole world, but most of all for Egyptians."

Science Daily. 2014. “Collateral damage to cultural heritage of the past”. Science Daily. Posted: August 7, 2014. Available online:

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