The ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Palmyra, Syria
The ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Palmyra, Syria © Fernando Arias/Getty Images/Flickr RF

It is the worst cultural heritage emergency since world war two,” says Michael Danti, academic director of the Syrian Heritage Initiative at the American Schools of Oriental Research. He is lamenting the continuing destruction by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis) of some of mankind’s most important ancient monuments in what is widely regarded to be the “cradle of civilisation”, Mesopotamia, a region that includes modern-day Iraq. The Syrian Heritage Initiative monitors historic sites at risk, offering the US Department of State some clarity in the fog of war.

The heritage of the Middle East has been heavily hit. In the past week Isis has seized control of the Greco-Roman city of Palmyra, which lies on a strategic east-west route in war-torn Syria.

Natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes join the litany of human aggression, theft and errors of judgment to bring about destruction, collapse and loss. The recent fire at Clandon Park in Surrey is just the latest of the UK’s man-made calamities, erasing its exquisite Italianate interiors. It reminded many of Uppark, in West Sussex, which burnt down in 1989, and of Windsor Castle, which suffered a similar fate in 1992. It is clear we cannot save everything we’d like to, for all time. Preservation is too great a burden for many developed countries. The UK government has given its national property portfolio of more than 400 sites to English Heritage; it is now a charity case and someone else’s problem. Meanwhile, warmongers target prominent monuments and the weather grows more extreme.

So what can, and should, preservation groups, academics and authorities do against overwhelming odds? If we are resigned to the vulnerability of historic buildings to the forces of nature, it is tempting to think we might mitigate the effects of war through protection. But first, the motives for destruction by human hand need to be understood.

A carving at Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian city in Iraq
A carving at Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian city in Iraq, parts of which have been destroyed by Isis © Mary Prophit

Much of the current damage in Iraq and Syria has been choreographed by Isis; what we witness is their footage. A video posted on April 11, 2015 shows the fate of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud, a city in ancient Assyria 3,000 years ago, lying 25 miles south of Mosul, the city Isis has occupied for the past year. An exceptional and irreplaceable cultural achievement was defaced and blown up.

Eckart Frahm, professor of Assyriology at Yale University, sees a pattern in the targeting of religious shrines before the more blatantly political attacks on ancient monuments. “Isis is strongly opposed to the idea of nation states built upon . . . [pre-Islamic] traditions, and therefore seeks to destroy the material remains of those traditions,” he says.

Danti explains a further complexity: the way in which jihadi ideology promotes the notion that its members are engaged in tasfiya, the cleansing of Islam of foreign or corrupting elements. “The majority of their deliberate attacks target Islamic heritage deemed as bidaa (innovative/heretical) and shirk (idolatrous/polytheistic). Their attacks on pre-Islamic heritage stem from their belief that they must destroy anything deemed shirk. They are fond of citing passages of the Koran that describe Abraham’s destruction of idols to legitimise their actions.”

An account of the destruction of Nimrud featured in Dabiq, Isis’s propaganda publication, quotes terminology used by some western preservation organisations. “They entered the ruins of the ancient Assyrians in Wilayat Ninawa and demolished their statues, sculptures, and engravings of idols and kings. This caused an outcry from the enemies of the Islamic State, who were furious at losing a ‘treasured heritage’. The mujahidin, however, were not the least bit concerned about the feelings and sentiments of the kuffar [non-believers].”

Danti also sees a financial benefit in the pillaging of antiquities. “An alarming amount of damage is intentional: looting of antiquities from archaeological sites, deliberate targeting of heritage places in combat [ . . . ] Isis has a deliberate and systematised policy of attacking heritage, looting cultural property, and destroying cultural infrastructure.”

The motives of ideology, antipathy, erasure and profit are yet to elicit an armed response in defence of cultural property. In a Unesco press statement on Iraq in February, Irina Bokova, the director-general, reiterated her previous statements on the matter. “The systematic destruction of iconic components of Iraq’s rich and diverse heritage that we have been witnessing over the past months is intolerable and it must stop immediately.”

Kinkaku-ji temple, Japan
Kinkaku-ji temple, Japan © Alamy

Unfortunately, the impression of reiteration is impotence. Danti goes further: “I am afraid public resolutions condemning Isis attacks on cultural heritage sites are not really helpful and perhaps even counterproductive [ . . . ] official statements condemning their barbaric acts will only prompt supporters of the group to intensify their destructive activities.”

So if we cannot change things, can we change the way we think about this issue? Emma Cunliffe, a specialist in Syrian cultural heritage at Oxford university’s Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa programme, says that “in some extreme, and particularly devastating, cases, the records may be the only thing left of a culture, in which case we owe it to them to preserve something, anything.” More philosophically, she suggests that equating authenticity with provenance is a western concept. This may sound odd, as many people hold that crafted manifestations of imagination and effort are irreplaceable by facsimiles. But some cultures routinely rebuild ancient monuments. In Japan, ancient pagodas are celebrated that have been rebuilt perhaps 10 times, but which inherit their original ethos and form, which represent the soul of the object above its materiality.

In western countries, it is rare to encounter an ancient building that has not been restored or repaired. We pretend that the march of time can be harnessed. Should we get over our own delusions and accept that the patrimony can be replicated? The painstaking rebuilding of Warsaw after the second world war suggests we could.

Military protection aside, three strategic approaches to “new preservation” are generally favoured. The first of these is the use of archaeological technology in still-accessible areas to record monuments in high resolution. Leicester and Oxford Universities have been backed by the Arcadia charity fund to deliver a £1.2m, two-year aerial reconnaissance programme, led by Dr Robert Bewley, who estimates that there are between 3m and 5m archaeological sites in the Middle East and north Africa.

The fire at Clandon Park House in Surrey, UK, in April
The fire at Clandon Park House in Surrey, UK, in April © Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Meanwhile, a California non-profit called CyArk is attempting precise, on-the-ground 3D laser surveying of 500 assorted global monuments, including the British Museum’s Assyrian panels. Combining these visual technologies for sites in volatile zones could enable appreciation and study, and inform future reconstructions.

Second, we might recognise that modern construction methods have replaced many of the traditional skills that constantly replenish our cultural inheritance. The Prince’s Foundation is one notable attempt to develop an international ethos of craft and design skills and to reinstate those traditions.

The third possibility is to stall the economic benefits of looting by better policing of the international antiquities market. The International Council of Museums (Icom) has published an online guide to the types of artefacts that emerge from pillaged sites, including sculptures and architectural elements. Twitter feeds, for example that of the archaeologist Sam Hardy (@conflictantiq), offer information and updates on destruction and looting. Governments are starting to crack down: in April, Lebanon declared its intention to police illicit antiquities better, while Unesco has developed the #Unite4Heritage campaign to engage younger people in the care of sites.

“Finally,” says Eckart Frahm, “we should do everything we can to support our colleagues from the countries affected by the violence — the Iraqi and Syrian archaeologists and historians. They will be the ones whose work will matter most once Isis is gone.”

Photographs: Fernando Arias/Getty Images/Flickr RF; Alamy; Mary Prophit; Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article