History under attack: the destruction of antiquities in the Middle East

Recent conflicts in the Middle East have seen the destruction of some of the region's most important antiquities. Professor Peter Stone offers his opinion on how we can prevent similar losses of historical treasures in the future...

The Mar Elian Catholic monastery burnt by Islamic State militants in 2016. (Photo by Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images)

The beginning was not auspicious. The exchange –  “Isn’t there some archaeology that we should be avoiding?” “Yes, I know a bloke, I’ll ask him at the weekend” –  had taken place in the Ministry of Defence on 29 January 2003, just two months before the USA/UK-led coalition invaded Iraq to enforce ‘regime change’. I was that bloke: the wrong person – I knew little of the detailed archaeology of the region – at the wrong time. Most coalition troops were already ‘in theatre’, objectives set, their maps in hand (with no museums, libraries, archives or archaeological sites marked), and with little appetite for additional tasks, let alone training.

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With help from colleagues in the UK and Iraq – we couldn’t mention the latter, as their lives would have been under threat – we produced a list of 36 sites, from the Palaeolithic to Islamic, that were perhaps the most important not to damage. We stressed the vulnerability of these sites in any interregnum, and we emphasised the international humanitarian law (IHL) within which the coalition was obliged to work. Unfortunately, neither the US nor the UK had ratified the primary relevant IHL – the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and its two protocols of 1954 and 1999.

The USA eventually ratified the convention in 2009. But the UK has still failed to ratify either the convention or protocols, citing lack of parliamentary time as the reason on an annual basis since 2004.

Sadly, the looting of museums, libraries, archives and archaeological sites that followed the invasion is a well-known story. Despite our warnings, all museums and many other cultural institutions were plundered.

The only reasons the impact was less catastrophic than it might have been was the decision by most of the Iraqi army not to mount a credible defence, coupled with the courage of the staff of these institutions who, in some instances going against the direct orders of Saddam Hussein, removed and concealed as much as possible. The archaeological sites fared far worse. The breakdown of law and order heralded, in some parts of the country, almost endemic looting.

I believe the coalition must accept some of the blame for this. It could have protected museums and other institutions, as it did other vulnerable buildings, such as the central bank and various government ministries. While it would have been impossible to deploy troops to protect all archaeological sites, the coalition could have taken practical measures to reduce the looting – by, for example, buying crops that would have given local people greater financial stability. It could have also continued to pay tribal site guards to deter looters.

What we have lost

But what happened in Iraq cannot be blamed entirely on the military. Equally critical was the failure of political planners to understand the importance of cultural property and heritage, especially in the context of a western-led coalition invading a Middle Eastern country. A far more uncomfortable failure must be attributed to the heritage sector, which allowed the close relationship it had developed with the military during the 20th century to wither. We may never know how much we have lost; we will never know how much we could have learnt.

It appears to be an accepted fact that cultural property will be damaged and destroyed during armed conflict. However, military theorists, from Sun Tzu in sixth-century BC China to von Clausewitz in 19th-century Europe, have argued that allowing the cultural property of your enemy to be destroyed – or worse, destroying it on purpose – is bad military practice. This is because it immediately makes a population less easy to govern and provides the first reason for the next conflict.

Protection of cultural property during war was first enshrined in law in the 1863 Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, which stated: “Classical works of art, libraries, scientific collections… must be secured against all avoidable injury…”

Fast-forward half a century, and the First World War saw positive action. Capturing Jerusalem in 1917, the British general Edmund Allenby instructed that “every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site… of the three religions will be maintained and protected”. Showing an understanding of cultural sensitivities, Allenby ensured that Muslim troops from the Indian army were deployed to protect important Islamic sites.

Despite Allenby’s efforts, the First World War wrought enormous damage on European heritage and, as a result, the international community was still debating how to better protect cultural property during conflict on the eve of the Second World War.

From 1939–45, the protection of cultural property was widely regarded as the responsibility of combatants – and the Allies, (as well as some elements of Axis forces) took this responsibility seriously. The Allies’ Monuments Men (officially the ‘Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives’ unit) made enormous efforts to protect cultural property in all theatres of the war. The unit had the full backing of Dwight D Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, who wrote before the Normandy landings reminding troops that: “Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centres which symbolise to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols wherever possible… ” Many cultural sites, buildings and collections were destroyed, but the Allies did try to limit the destruction.

Unfortunately, little was done after the war to continue the work of these conscript-soldiers and, despite the 1954 Hague Convention, by 2003 few military forces retained anything other than a superficial expertise, or commitment to, the protection of cultural property. Events in Iraq would, tragically, bear this out.

Cultural property is damaged and destroyed specifically during conflict for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes protection is not regarded as important enough to include in pre-conflict planning. At other times it is regarded as a legitimate ‘spoil of war’, or it becomes collateral damage. Throw in a lack of military awareness, looting, ‘enforced neglect’  and specific targeting, and you have a potent combination of threats.

While perhaps little can be done about the last two of these, at least under the 1999 2nd Protocol of the 1954 Convention and the 1998 Statute of the International Criminal Court, intentional damage and destruction can now be treated as a war crime. As for the first five threats, they can, and should, be mitigated through a closer relationship between cultural heritage professionals and those groups most involved in conflict – politicians, the military and other emergency agencies. All parties must have a clearer understanding of the multifaceted values of cultural property.

More monuments men

For all that, positive steps have been taken – led by Unesco and the Blue Shield, a voluntary organisation frequently referred to as the “cultural equivalent of the Red Cross/Crescent”. For example, Nato is considering developing a cultural property doctrine; the UK and US are actively considering re-establishing units similar to the Monuments Men; European militaries have met annually over the last six years at ‘Coping with Culture’ conferences; the British have had their own ‘Culture in Conflict’ symposium for eight years; a key Nato-affiliated training centre has just published Cultural Property Protection Makes Sense; and armed forces from Mali to Cambodia to New Zealand, and across Europe are beginning to integrate cultural property protection into their training.

In another encouraging development, lists of cultural treasures have been produced for Iraq, Libya, Mali, Syria and Yemen – with clear evidence that such information protected sites in Libya. Meanwhile, two Serbian officers were imprisoned for the 1991 shelling (not justified by military necessity) of the World Heritage site of Dubrovnik. And Ahmad Al Mahdi, an alleged member of the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine, is currently on trial at the International Criminal Court for the destruction of cultural property in Timbuktu in 2012.

Of course, heritage is still being targeted specifically as exemplified by the appalling destruction of parts of the World Heritage site of Palmyra by the so-called Islamic State.

In 2015, the UK government, acknowledging the gravity of the situation across the Middle East for cultural property of national and international significance, announced the creation of a Cultural Protection Fund. We need to make sure that this funding is spent in a strategic, coherent way, and I hope the government will deliver on its commitment to ratify the Hague Convention. While cultural heritage experts are never going to stop war, we can perhaps help to better protect our common human heritage.

Professor Peter Stone OBE is Unesco chair in cultural property protection and peace at Newcastle University.

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This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine