Introducing a new British Council publication – In Harm’s Way: aspects of cultural heritage protection – Martin Rose explains why cultural protection is so important for humanity.  

April 26th 2017 is the 80th anniversary of the destruction of Guernica by German and Italian bombing. We have recently seen the final destruction of Aleppo, it is impossible not to feel the percussive echoes of Wolfram von Richthofen’s Condor Legion in the bombers pounding the city.  In both cities large numbers of civilians were killed. Both were allegedly ‘strategic targets’. But both were also deeply symbolic and were, or became, cultural centres of momentous significance. The parallels between the two conflicts are striking: brutal, multi-sided civil wars, in which moderates and democratic voices became increasingly marginalised, undermining the possibility of liberal intervention from outside, and other outside powers got involved on both sides with devastating consequences. Now is a moment to reflect not just on the human damage, but also on the vast cultural loss in Syria – and the powerful vocabulary that Picasso’s Guernica painting continues to give to the barbaric destruction of war.

Guernica has never lost its ability to shock, and its iconic reproach to ideological state violence has never softened. In 2003 the tapestry version of the painting, which hung in the UN’s New York headquarters, was hastily covered by a large, blue curtain before a press conference by Colin Powell and John Negroponte advocating the invasion of Iraq. It is a cry of shame that echoes down the years. The incident it records resulted in the deaths of perhaps 3,000 people – women and children for the most part, as their men were away fighting with the Republican army. Guernica itself was obliterated over three hours by large amounts of high explosive and some 3,000 aluminium incendiary bombs, deliberately deployed to create ‘complete annihilation’ of the city. 

Guernica has never lost its ability to shock, and its iconic reproach... has never softened. In 2003 the tapestry version which hung in the UN’s headquarters was hastily covered by a large curtain before a press conference by Colin Powell and advocating the invasion of Iraq

The bombardment in Aleppo has caused the destruction of the Great Umayyad Mosque, the old souk (the largest of its kind in the world), and the Grand Serail, among many other world-class structures. [Meanwhile, in Mosul in Northern Iraq, huge devastation has apparently been done to castle, shrines, and buildings in the old town.] Elsewhere in Syria, Daesh has deliberately targeted Syrian heritage in ancient Palmyra. An odd but ultimately tragic cultural front developed there, as Russian forces temporarily recaptured the town and held a pointed classical music concert in the ancient theatre, only for Daesh to regain control and blow up even more of the site, where they had previously publically beheaded many of its victims.

The destruction of people has understandably attracted much attention and in some circumstances punishment. The destruction of culture often goes largely unmarked: mourned but subsumed into the greater crime because, obviously, ‘people are more important than things.’ There’s something seductive but also reductive in the ‘why-worry-about-buildings-when-people-are-dying’ argument. Of course, on the one hand, it’s true. People are more important than things, and faced with one of those artificial philosophical choices of the ‘Shall-I-shoot-this-child-or–smash-this-statue’ sort, few would save the statue.

Ruins of the city of Aleppo
‘Just ash, floating’ ©

Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Flickr) [OGL, via Wikimedia Commons].

But the crudeness comes from the false binary, the assumption that the world can indeed be divided neatly into ‘people’ and ‘things.’ Good enough for children, it won’t do for grown-ups, who understand, sometimes with pain and reluctance, that the two categories are overlapping; that things draw their meaning from people, and people place some of their deepest collective feelings in things. Think of the intense emotional investment in the Ark of the Covenant or the Kaaba; the relics of saints; regimental colours or eagles; royal regalia; the Union Jack; or the tombs of ancestors. In all of these, people, blood, ideas and sometimes religion or spirituality are blended to make what we call material culture. It is this intense blending, this kneading of emotion, identity and history into the dough of creation, that makes things with special power. 

To my mind, the clearest symbolic answer is given by the death in 2015 of Palmyra’s 82-year old Director of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad, who spent a lifetime working on, and writing about, the ruins of Palmyra and, having hidden from Daesh as many of the city’s treasures as he could, was beheaded rather than reveal their whereabouts, his body hanged by barbarians from a pillar in the forum of his ancient city. Here was a man who needed no convincing of the centrality of symbolic cultural artifacts in the humane biosphere. The very fact that such people are willing to die for material objects suggests that things are more complicated than the false dichotomy acknowledges.

There’s an Egyptian film called The Night of the Counting of Years, regarded as one of the single greatest achievements of Egyptian cinema. It’s about the discovery in 1881 of a tomb at Luxor in which dozens of royal mummies had been hidden. When the mummies are taken away down the Nile to Cairo on a paddle steamer, the peasants who have lived in the valley for thousands of years stream down from the fields to the river bank and stand keening for their dead kings. The centrality of material culture to people’s understanding of themselves and their place in the world is beautifully illustrated. The film makes clear that cultural protection is a necessary, universal and fundamental human instinct, not a modern luxury.  

So there is a universal duty to imperilled cultures, both to their people and their ‘things,’ because they are inextricably entwined.  As Robert Bevan has underlined, this is why Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish Lemburger who drafted the first Genocide Convention, wrapped the destruction of a people up so urgently in the destruction of their culture – and why he was so disappointed when this part of his work was rejected. Quite why this entwining is so devastatingly important is illustrated at its clearest in the fate of aboriginal peoples around the world. Why is it that when their oral or material culture is destroyed they seem to suffer such utter implosion, despite any number of efforts (real and cynical) to support them? Why – to take only one example – does Nunavut, the north-eastern corner of Canada, populated by Inuit, have a suicide rate 14 times the national average and a foetal alcohol syndrome rate of over 50% of all births? 

The best clue I have come across to this mystery is a book by the Chicago philosopher Jonathan Lear, called Radical Hope, in which he explores the implosion of the Crow Indian people. The treaty that confined the Crow to their reservation in the 1880s was the end of something much bigger than the people. Their chief, Plenty Coups, commented, looking back on the treaty, that “After this, nothing happened”. This is a remark about the essential quality of meaning, not about doing – Plenty Coups had a pretty successful and eventful life, externally, in the White Man’s world.  Lear imagines Plenty Coups seeing himself as a sentient chessman, and reflecting that “humans get bored with playing this game, and the whole game of chess goes out of existence. My problem is not simply that my way of life has come to an end. I no longer have concepts with which to understand myself or the world … concepts which have gone out of existence.” And that way lies perdition. 

 If Daesh understand the power of cultural heritage then we must understand it too

This destruction of significance is what cultural obliteration is all about. When Daesh set about destroying the Yazidi temples and people of Sinjar, its black myrmidons knew what they were doing: they aimed to obliterate a people in the way that it was done in ancient Mesopotamia (including, ironically, by the Assyrians, the remains of whose great capitals at Nimrud and Nineveh they have just obliterated), by destroying every physical trace, killing its menfolk and enslaving its women. If Daesh understand the power of cultural heritage then we must understand it too.  And of course, from Byzantine iconoclasm to Reformation ‘statue-storm’, and from Nazi book-burning to Communist cultural revolution, deliberate cultural destruction has also been a feature of Christian and Western history.  

Culture is the Ark in which concepts are preserved: destroy the culture, and the people are emptied of meaning. George Clooney, in Monuments Men, put it beautifully: “You can wipe out a generation of people, you can burn their homes to the ground, but somehow they still come back. But if you destroy their achievements, their history, it’s like they never existed, just ash, floating.” And this is why the ICC’s first prosecution for the destruction of cultural heritage in 2016 was so important – the conviction of a Malian jihadist know by his kunya, as Abou Tourab, for bulldozing shrines and religious monuments at Timbuktu. It is to be hoped that more such prosecutions will follow. Cultural protection must be about discouraging or preventing destruction in the first place as well as trying to recreate what has been destroyed.

This brings us back to Guernica and Aleppo. They are symbols for the twentieth century and the twenty-first of the will to destroy a people by destroying their material (and hence their intangible) culture. In neither case has it worked. Guernica’s memory was immortalised by Picasso’s painting, made in haste for the Spanish Republican pavilion at the Paris exhibition of 1937. Meant as an ephemeral statement, it has become one of the single most famous images in the world today, a rallying cry for artists and human beings to fall in behind the cause of humanity – and against inhumanity, violence and wilful, purposeful destruction of life and culture. Indeed, as an image it outlasted the initially victorious Fascist regime in Spain, and, in that unusual conflict where most of the lasting art and literature was produced by the losers, was part of the cultural conflict that ended with the final victory there of democracy and tolerance. That final victory is worth reflecting on when it comes to considering the cultural response to the current destruction of Syria, both in terms of efforts at cultural protection and reconstruction and in terms of the creation and dissemination of new artistic reactions.

Guernica prompted contemporary reflections on the responsibility of artists and men. Picasso wrote: “Artists who live and work spiritual values cannot and should not remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilisation are at stake.” And the extraordinary manifesto We Ask Your Attention, designed by Henry Moore and printed in 1938, went further. It attacked the stand-offish, anti-interventionism of European intellectuals. “Memories of the last war and the obviously growing dangers of another, have produced widespread pacifism.” To this the manifesto opposes a statement that is utterly reminiscent of our own day in Syria, just as anti-interventionism, and the supple plasticity of much-bruited ‘red lines,’ is essentially contemporary too: “intervene as poets, artists and intellectuals, by violent and subtle subversion and by stimulating desire.” Not a bad rally cry for Syria today. 

When politics and culture meet on the front line – in the cradle of civilisation and elsewhere – culture must at all costs be protected. That way it can survive and fight back against those who seek to destroy it. It is to be hoped that in Syria, as in Spain, the best of culture and humanity will win in the end.

In Harm’s Way: aspects of cultural heritage protection is a brief introduction to current thinking within the field of cultural protection, by expert authors commissioned by the British Council. 

The British Council in partnership with DCMS has recently launched a new £30 million Cultural Protection Fund.