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.

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.

Want to read more?

Become a BBC History Magazine subscriber today to unlock all premium articles in The Library

Unlock now