Five threats to cultural and historic heritage in 2013

Full confession: I kind of hate these year-end recap stories that crop up this time every year. I guess I object to the idea that the end of a year is some real event rather than a superficial cultural marker, and I feel like we’d all be better served to keep pushing on rather than acting as though something is “ending.” That said, I do understand how important it is to stop and take stock of what’s happened every once in a while, and if the end of a year inspires people to do that, so be it. In the spirit of the season, here are five stories reflecting the threats and challenges the world’s cultural and historic heritage has faced in 2013:

5. Looting and black market antiquities dealing

Presumably looting could make a list like this one any year, but the turmoil in places like Egypt and Syria (keep reading) made this an especially difficult year for curtailing the illegal trade in antiquities. Apart from those two places, which we will deal with separately, looting was also rampant in places like Macedonia, Libya, Gaza, and Somalia. Billions of dollars are being made illegally each year via the antiquities trade. Even in the United States, the issue of art looted by the Nazis and brought to American museums after the war is still relevant.

4. Egypt’s instability puts artifacts, sites at risk

It was a year of incredible change and turmoil in Egypt, with the elected but increasingly undemocratic government of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood being forced from power by the Egyptian armed forces in July. Dueling protests, both for and against Morsi and then, after the coup, for and against the new military government caused chaos in the streets of major cities like Cairo and Alexandria, and threatened Egypt’s priceless stores of antiquities. In August the Malawi Museum in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya was ransacked and looted. The museum has recovered some of its collection, but the search for the rest of its pieces is ongoing. Despite the chaos, and the promise of further chaos if Egypt is unable to transition from its current repressive military government to a stable democratic system, the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power was probably a good thing for Egypt’s antiquities. The Brotherhood is another offshoot of the same kind of ultra-conservative Islam that produces those Salafi groups that have damaged or destroyed precious historical sites throughout the Islamic World, and Morsi’s government showed little interest in protecting Egypt’s cultural heritage from looters and developers, prompting UNESCO to threaten to remove several Egyptian sites from its World Heritage list. Perhaps the biggest loss, and risk of further loss, has been in regards to Egypt’s Coptic churches, which have been targeted by angry pro-Brotherhood protesters on religious grounds.

3. The pressures of development

All over the world we saw sites threatened and destroyed by unchecked commercial and industrial development. A 2300-year old Mayan pyramid in Belize was obliterated to make gravel. A 4000 year old pyramid at El Paraiso, Peru, was destroyed by developers. The threat of unchecked mineral mining has put ancient sites across Afghanistan at grave risk. Ancient burial mounds, some more than 4000 years old, are being destroyed by development in Bahrain. Prehistoric sites are being demolished by developers in the Bujang Valley in Malaysia. Developers plowed up a 2000 year old necropolis in Cyrene, Libya.  Sites from the earliest days of Islam continue to be destroyed in Saudi Arabia. America is not immune to this trend, as American Indian sites are being wiped out for things as frivolous as new Walmart warehouses.

2. Natural disasters destroy sites in the Philippines

In October, 7.2-magnitude earthquake devastated heritage sites in the Philippine province of Bohol, in particular reducing several centuries-old churches to rubble. Two of these churches, the 17th century Loboc Church and the 18th century Baclayon Church, had been considered for UNESCO World Heritage status before they were destroyed. The devastation caused by Super Typhoon Haiyan, only a month later, compounded the challenge of recovering these sites and also damaged several other heritage churches all over the country.

1. Syria

If the civil war in Syria ended tomorrow the loss of Syria’s rich cultural heritage would still be incalculable, but the war continues and continues to destroy sites and artifacts that had survived for centuries despite doomed efforts to stave off the destruction. Entire sites have been heavily damaged if not destroyed in the fighting. The city of Aleppo and its millenia of cultural heritage is all but destroyed, and the Syrian government continues to batter it. The direct impacts of the conflict aside, the chaos created by the war has led to rampant illicit excavation and looting. The loss of Syria’s heritage is not just tragic from the standpoint of lost history and culture, but it is deeply harmful to the chances of Syrian society recovering from the devastation of the war, whenever it does end:

The preservation of Syria’s cultural heritage is critical to its reconstruction, reconciliation, and re-building of civil society, Richard argued at the Met event. Historical sites and objects “are a part of Syrian life — a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future,” she said. Losing its cultural history would rob Syria of the economic opportunities linked to tourism and cultural preservation; in 2010, tourism accounted for 12 percent of the country’s GDP and employed 11 percent of its workers.

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What this site is about

I decided to start World Heritage Alert first as a Twitter feed, which is primarily what it will continue to be. With whatever time I am able to devote to this small avocation I want to aggregate and highlight stories from around the world that deal with the preservation of our (meaning “humanity’s”) cultural and historical heritage, and the seemingly constant threats to that heritage. I have come to realize that I care deeply about the degradation of historical sites and the loss of those unique places and things that tie all of us to the past and help us to understand where we’ve been. I was always the annoying person who went on vacation and wore everybody else out with my need to see as many “old buildings” as possible instead of spending time on the beach or by the pool. I studied history through several graduate degrees, primarily with a Middle Eastern focus but with interests far beyond that. But it wasn’t until very recently, with the attacks on Sufi shrines and irreplaceable manuscripts in Mali and elsewhere, and the terrible risk to vital archaeological sites brought on by the ongoing Syrian Civil War, that I really woke up to the challenges we face if we want to preserve our heritage.

These threats are not all violent. We, or at least I, tend to get caught up in the large-scale risks, like the violence in Mali and Syria, the loss of Iraqi heritage brought about by the Iraq War, and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. But so many other kinds of threats loom. In Egypt, for example, the chaos brought on by its recent revolution has led to increased looting and unchecked development that threatens to encroach on important historical sites. Peru’s Incan sites, including the spectacular Machu Picchu, are under intense environmental stress due to high levels of tourist activity. Poor management is to blame for parts of Pompeii decaying. Natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, storms) are an ongoing threat.

I’m sure plenty of people would wonder why any of this matters. The past is the past, and putting precious resources into protecting what’s left of it may strike some as frivolous. On some level I suppose it’s hard to argue with that. When living people all around the world struggle to find clean water to drink or enough food to eat, or to get proper medical care when they need it, it’s hard to see why preserving even the Great Pyramids is all that important. But if we don’t protect what we have left of the past then in my view we lose something fundamental about humanity. Remembering, studying, cherishing our history is one of the truly unique aspects of humankind. The artifacts and sites that illuminate the past for us help to bind us to those who came before and teach us about who we were, and therefore who we are. Moreover, many of these sites–churches, shrines, monuments–are still treasured parts of people’s daily lives in many places. But that’s all high-minded. Practically speaking, there is much to be gained by making good, sound, sustainable use of our heritage to improve lives globally. Mali has one of the lowest human development rankings in the world, but there is a wealth of history there that can be tapped not just for scholarship, but (if it’s well-managed) for tourism and economic benefit. When Salafis destroy Mali’s centuries-old shrines, irreplaceable sites, they not only profoundly damage the spiritual and cultural richness of the Malian people, they also prevent those resources from ever being used to make the lives of Malians better. When looters take treasures out of archaeological sites and funnel them into the illegal antiquities trade, they do lasting harm to the people whose heritage is being robbed while transferring that wealth to those who frankly would still be just fine without it. Finally, and maybe this isn’t as practical, but it seems to me that we can learn a great deal about a government or a movement from how it treats the national heritage with which it’s been entrusted. Before 9/11, the senseless demolition of the almost 1500-year old Bamiyan Buddhas should have told us that the Taliban government in Afghanistan was up to no good; their intolerance of their own nation’s history, their willingness to overwrite and erase that history, ought to have been a sign of a government that was corrupt, repressive, and poisonous, just as the use of history as propaganda in the Soviet Union was a sign, I believe, of the internal weakness and corruption of its Communist government. The new Egyptian government’s inability or unwillingness to protect Egypt’s heritage ought to be of great concern in terms of its ability and/or willingness to govern Egypt in an effective and beneficial manner. That’s not to say that we can simply condemn those groups or governments that can’t or won’t protect their national heritage, or that go out of their way to destroy it. Understanding why these threats exist and what motivates them is crucial to putting an end to them.

So that’s sort of where I’m coming from. I don’t know how much I can put into this effort, but I will do what I can. Most of what I do will happen on Twitter, @heritage_alert, where I collect and tweet stories of threats to our heritage as well as efforts to preserve it. Those who see or know of stories that deserve whatever small amount of coverage I can provide can comment here at the blog, email me at worldheritagealert at gmail dot com, or tweet them to me using #HeritageAlert. I will write here less frequently, when something moves me to write at length, and maybe to share some of my own experiences enjoying sites, museums, and artifacts, with photos of course. I thank you for reading and following me.