NY Times: Documenting the heritage that has been lost in Iraq and Syria

There was a very thorough and thoroughly crushing article in The New York Times on Friday, about efforts to determine how much Iraqi and Syrian heritage has been destroyed either directly by groups like ISIS or as a side-effect of Syria’s civil war. The destruction has been almost incalculable:

The lost or damaged artifacts range from early-20th-century minarets to millenniums-old treasures. For many experts, the biggest catastrophe is in Aleppo, an ancient trading terminus and Syria’s largest city. Fire gutted most of the central souk, a vast and vibrant labyrinth of 17th-century shops, storehouses and ornate courtyards. It was the city’s commercial heart, important for understanding how people have lived since medieval times.

Fighting between Syrian government and anti-government forces damaged the Great Mosque in Aleppo, one of Syria’s oldest, burning its library containing thousands of rare religious manuscripts. Its famous minaret, which had stood for a thousand years, was toppled. Aleppo’s iconic citadel, one of the world’s oldest castles and an excavation site, built on a massive outcropping of rock, was also a target. It has been used by government forces as a base and was hit by rockets. Western experts are uncertain what has happened to a recently uncovered Bronze Age Neo-Hittite temple there.

But for all the looting damage, nothing scares scholars more than the Islamic State militants. “The speed with which they are moving into Iraq is really like the Mongols,” Ms. Canby of the Metropolitan Museum said. “It is brutal.”

The Islamic State and other extremists are motivated by the idea of punishing “shirk,” or idolatry. As a result, they have smashed Shia and Sufi sites, statues of poets, Mesopotamian relics from Assyria and Babylonia, and Sunni shrines that are outside the bounds of their narrow beliefs.

The destruction is also useful propaganda, proving their power, advertising their ideology and attracting international attention.

Scholars and those who work in heritage preservation are divided on the question of whether or not to reveal sites that may be in grave danger, whether it’s worth alerting people to what needs to be protected given that doing so could also make those sites a target for ISIS. There’s also the open question of how far the governments fighting ISIS would be willing to go to protect sites; would the US pass up an airstrike over the risk of hitting some irreplaceable historical monument? Would it, or its partners, commit assets specifically to protect such a site from ISIS? It’s not clear how those scenarios would play out.

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.