No ‘Monuments Men’ for Heritage Under Siege in Syria


File photo of  the ancient Syrian city of Bosra. Credit: Ergo (  via Wikimedia Commons

File photo of the ancient Syrian city of Bosra. Credit: Erg ( via Wikimedia Commons

The conflict in Syria has given both analysts and practitioners of war much to ponder over. But the fact that such ferocious violence is raging against the backdrop of two millennia of history draws attention to another aspect of the fighting: the grave risks to which the civilisational heritage of the region is being subjected.

UNESCO attributes the damage we have already seen to historical sites to shelling, gunfire and deliberate assault, as well as more passive causes like collateral damage and plain neglect. Another major threat is posed by looting – both its casual variant and in a more organised form as a source of finance for parties engaged in the conflict.

Destruction and looting of heritage sites is amply evident in the history of armed conflict, indeed it has been, on occasion, the prime motivation for invading alien lands. At any rate, the destruction of heritage has been a part of war from pre-history to the present. Gabriel Moshenska notes how  “American strategists (…) failed to plan for the proper identification and protection of the cultural heritage in Iraq before the invasion; no ground forces were allocated responsibility to protect museums and sites post-invasion; when pressed, no American troops appeared to even know where the Iraq Museum was in Baghdad as it seems not to have been marked on their maps”. Moshenska draws parallels with similarly bungled attempts to belatedly protect heritage sites during the First and Second World Wars, highlighting the gap between political rhetoric on the level of efforts made and actual outcomes on the ground.

In recent decades, civil wars and insurgencies have taken a heavy toll. Museums seen as owned by the incumbent government are at risk from rebel groups. In many cases, anti-government combatants might target them as symbolic of the overthrow of an established way of life or socio-cultural legacy.  Economic hardship faced by the local population exposes museums and heritage sites to further danger as a quick-and-dirty way to ensure survival.

During the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s, for instance, of those Ekpu figurines that survived the shelling of the Oron museum, only some made it to safety having survived theft and mishandling on the way.

An Oron ancestral figure, or ekpu, that survived the Biafran war and was in the Oron museum as of 1970. It later surfaced in the west. and was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, In 2014, the MFA returned this priceless piece to Nigeria.

An Oron ancestral figure, or ekpu, that survived the Biafran war and was in the Oron museum as of 1970. It later surfaced in the west. and was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, In 2014, the MFA returned this priceless piece to Nigeria.

Reports from Syria suggest that initial pulverisation of sculptures and artefacts by ISIS-affiliated terrorists increased their value on the international market, perhaps temporarily slowing down outright destruction. To complicate matters, the Assad regime has also been accused by some of removing antiquities from areas likely to fall into the hands of rebel groups in the foreseeable future.

Syrian treasure seekers today have the possibility of getting the value of objects found assessed by experts based in Turkey via the web. The porous border allows individuals to personally deliver archaeological finds into the neighbouring state, sometimes at the cost of a bribe. There exists a long chain of middleman-traffickers between this ‘finder’ and the buyer-collector who will eventually acquire the artefact. Thus the finder is guaranteed a mere fraction of the final value of the transaction on the international market. For this reason, both the global demand side as well as the supply chain deserve attention when contemplating corrective measures, as does the very pressing need for cross-border and transnational cooperation on the issue.

Possible answers

An important ethical principle of the Just War Tradition makes it incumbent on combatants to inflict as little damage on civilians as possible. One element of this forbids the targeting of infrastructure that would adversely affect civilian life or impede reconstruction efforts. However, as Paul Schulte observes, “national legal interpretations vary over which human beings and physical objects constitute legitimate targets”, and there is certainly no consensus that heritage sites deserve the same protection as “infrastructure”.

The link between the preservation of heritage and the regeneration of post-conflict civilian life needs to be clearly accepted. The city of Aleppo that has suffered severe damage in the Syrian war, exemplifies the confluence of historic and economic significance, having served as a trading hub and a meeting place for cultures from the second century BC until the onset of the conflict.

The rescue of artefacts for protection, naturally raises questions about repatriation, which unfortunately has a chequered history. The Museum-in-Exile located in Bubendorf, Switzerland, and home to over 1,400 artefacts rescued from Afghanistan since 1999-2000, is a shining recent example of successful repatriation, with these objects shipped back to Kabul in 2007. However, in most instances, this has remained a thorny issue beset with difficulties to establish rightful ownership.

Colin Woodard has surveyed the demands  for repatriation of “stolen” art and heritage among European nations, in an attempt to explore the international law and ethics of this enterprise. He focuses primarily on the Silver Bible – in Sweden’s possession since the Thirty Years war and claimed by the Czechs to this day – but also mentions comparable claims of the Germans on the Russians and the Poles on the Germans dating back to World War II.  He concludes that “… more often than not, the plunder has remained with the plunderer, despite near universal condemnation of the practice by some current belligerents” and in the few instances where repatriation has been accomplished, it appears that moral campaigns with a healthy dose of public relations deserve credit.

Some experts have considered the buying back of smuggled objects by the international community as a possible solution. But the hollowed-out cavities where the Bamiyan Buddhas once stood remind us that despite attempted reconstruction efforts, international consensus on an effective strategy remains elusive. It must be stressed that repatriation and reconstruction are an integral part of rooting out underlying tensions in post-conflict scenarios and paving the way for peace. This also means that the best of intentions are alone inadequate to dispel the politics surrounding such efforts. The writing of history is as much about what is forgotten or obliterated by design as it is about preserved memory. A re-articulation of the ethics of protecting our links to the past must necessarily uphold the notion that lasting inter-civilisational harmony hinges crucially on the mnemonic value attached to these symbols.

Kalyani Unkule teaches at the Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, India

Categories: Culture, World

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