Cultural Treasures Are Also Victims of War

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Cultural Treasures Are Also Victims of War

The Old City of Sana’a, Yemen, World Heritage site. (Photo: UNESCO/Francesco Bandarin)

The recent damage in Yemen to three out of four UN World Heritage Sites is one more of the unfortunate consequences of a war that has already caused more than two thousand lives and displaced more than one million people. The damage to the sites, listed as cultural heritage of humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), is a sad reminder of the brutality of war.

The heritage sites in Yemen have been hit by the unrelenting bombing of Saudi Arabia and its coalition forces with United States support, thus showing that not only Islamic fundamentalists from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) are responsible for these grievous actions.

In Yemen, the old city of Shibam, which dates to the XVI century, is one of the affected sites. The city, one of the best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction, is known as the “Manhattan of the desert,” and is characterized by sun-dried mud brick tower houses which rise out of the cliff edge of Wadi Hadramaut.

Also affected is the city of Zabid, which was the capital of Yemen from the 13th to the 15th century, and home for centuries to one of the most renowned Islamic universities. It played a critical role in the spreading of Islam. The city is of outstanding archaeological and historical interest for its domestic and military architecture.

Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, is the third city affected by Saudi Arabia’s bombings. Located at an altitude of 7,500 ft. and with a population of over two million, Sana’a is one of the oldest cities in the world. It has distinctive architectural features, notably expressed by its multi-storey buildings decorated with geometric patterns. The city was an important crossroads of merchants straddling the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Last May, the Regional Museum of Dhamar, a city located 62 miles south of Sana’a, was hit by a bomb. It destroyed 12,000 samples, some 8,000 years old, thus canceling 30 years of effort, stated Lamya Khalidi, a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), who has extensive experience in Yemen. “This museum has just been obliterated from the air. In a matter of minutes, the irreplaceable work of ancient artisans, craftsmen and scribes — not to mention the efforts of Yemeni and foreign researchers who have dedicated years of their lives to studying and preserving this legacy — were pulverized,” she stated.

Ms. Khalidi lays the blame on Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia is thus responsible not only for devastating a country of impoverished people, who are now suffering from famine, deteriorating sanitary conditions and a lack of medical supplies, but also for a strategy of demolishing world heritage sites. This Saudi cultural vandalism is hard to distinguish from the Islamic State’s,” she wrote.

The amount of destruction of cultural monuments and artifacts in recent times is widespread. In 2001, the Taliban blew up two 1,700-year-old statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan valley. Both were the tallest statues of Buddha in the world.

In 2012, Islamists destroyed at least half of roughly 600-year-old shrines in the city of Timbuktu, in Mali, a UN World Heritage Site, before an international force pushed the militants out. ISIS is also responsible for the destruction of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, in Northern Iraq. As they did in other cities it destroyed, ISIS profits from the sale of antiquities.

In 2015, ISIS destroyed the city of Hatra, an Iraqi city-state from the Roman era, also a UN World Heritage site. “The destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing underway in Iraq, said Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General.

Although Islamic fundamentalists are to a large extent responsible for the destruction of important monuments and sale of many artifacts, one shouldn’t forget the role that the US-led war in Iraq had in the destruction and looting of important ancient cultural pieces of art. Iraq’s occupying forces allowed Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad to be looted without any effort to protect those valuable artifacts.

According to Ihsan Fethi, an Iraqi architect who was Chairman of the School of Architecture in Baghdad (1986-1991) and member of the Supreme Committee of Cultural Heritage of Iraq, some of former president Bush’s advisors resigned because the US and other invading countries didn’t do anything to protect Iraq’s historical sites. Fethi estimates in 35,000 the number of small and large items missing from the National Museum of Iraq. Only a small amount of those artifacts have been returned to Iraq.

Although those mentioned are just a few examples, they show the tremendous damage to culture by hatred and intolerance. Of the 1,007 known World Heritage sites, 48 are now in danger of being destroyed. Unless all countries agree on a policy of respect for ancient sites and cultural artifacts, wars not only will devastate and destroy people’s lives, but they will also destroy the culture that is part of its past and allows people to develop and flourish.

César Chelala

Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a
winner of several journalism awards.

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