By Stephen Stenning

21 August 2015 - 10:14

'The structures that stood there for 1,700 years have been forever destroyed.' Photo (c) DVIDSHUB, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the orignal
'The structures that stood there for 1,700 years have been forever destroyed.' Photo  ©

DVIDSHUB, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the orignal.

Only a few weeks ago, the UK government vouched to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Meanwhile, the British Council's Stephen Stenning provides some answers about why we should care about preserving the world's cultural heritage.

What is cultural heritage?

The word ‘culture’ is sometimes used to refer to the highest intellectual endeavours and the pursuit of perfection and beauty. As the poet and critic Matthew Arnold put it, culture is 'the best that has been thought and known in the world'. We now more commonly think of culture as being about beliefs, customs, language and arts of a particular society, group, place, or time and the symbols and expression of shared values, traditions and customs.

Cultural heritage is typically understood to be built heritage, monuments related to culture such as museums, religious buildings, ancient structures and sites. However, we should also include the slightly less material things, i.e., stories, poems, plays, recipes, customs, fashions, designs, music, songs and ceremonies of a place, as cultural heritage. These are vital expressions of a culture and just as important.

Why should we protect cultural heritage?

Societies have long sought to protect and preserve their cultural heritage, for reasons ranging from education to historical research to the desire to reinforce a sense of identity. In times of war and conflict, cultural identity and cultural heritage become all the more important. Buildings, monuments and symbols of culture that speak of shared roots acquire an increased significance. Accordingly, they can become targets of violent and oppressive action that seeks to destroy the symbols valued by enemies or the iconography associated with alternative faiths and traditions.

What are the main recent examples of this type of destruction?

Two examples immediately spring to mind. The first is Palmyra, the world heritage site and ancient city in the Syrian desert, which has this year fallen into the hands of ‘Daesh’/ ‘Islamic State’ (henceforth: ISIL). The other is the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001.

To date, ISIL seem to be using the site of Palmyra as a shield, knowing that others will not want to risk damaging it, but they have blown up a number of tombs on or near the site.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan were the world’s two largest Buddhas, standing well over 150 feet high. The Taliban used tank and anti-aircraft fire to destroy the 1,700-year-old sandstone structures. Additionally, and in response to an edict from the then Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, holes were drilled into the torsos and dynamite inserted in order to complete the destruction. His foreign minister, Mullah Wakil, was quoted as saying: 'We do admit the relics were the cultural heritage of Afghanistan, but the part that contradicts our beliefs we would not like to have them anymore [sic].'

In the last few months, we've seen footage of ISIL fighters taking sledgehammers to 3,000-year-old statues in Mosul museum and using explosives to destroy the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq. Beyond that, and the damage done as a result of conflict to other heritage sites such as the Ziggurat of Ur (also in Iraq), the threat to cultural heritage continues.

Palmyra, the world heritage site and ancient city in the Syrian desert
Palmyra, the world heritage site and ancient city in the Syrian desert, fell into the hands of ISIL this year. Photo ©

Zeledi, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 and adapted from the original.

Pillaging as a result of the conflict has prompted the World Monuments Fund to list Iraq itself as an ‘endangered site’. It is the first time it has ever listed a whole country. Of 15,000 artefacts looted from the National Museum in Iraq, only around 3,500 have been recovered, resulting in a growing trade of stolen treasures. As with Iraq and Syria, Libya has a wealth of archaeological and heritage sites suffering accidental and deliberate damage, and similarly, looting has meant that the trade in stolen artefacts is just as serious a problem in North Africa.

Which historic sites have been destroyed for good? Have any been rebuilt or are they lost forever?

One starting point might be the seven wonders of the ancient world and how many remain. I live close to the only one that remains reasonably intact, the Great Pyramid of Giza. I don’t have technical expertise in preservation, but I know that rebuilding is not a straightforward issue. For example, experts have created scale models of what the Mausoleum at Helicarnassus might have looked like on completion around 350 BC. However, no-one is suggesting we rebuild from the ruins that are a heritage site in Turkey today. To do so would be regarded as a desecration. When there is minor damage to an ancient structure, there are attempts to sensitively restore it, but in the case of destruction, all you can really do is create a replica and, either actually or virtually, offer a sense of what has come before. For example, it is possible that, in the future, new giant Buddhas may be built again on the site in Bamiyan, but the structures that stood there for 1,700 years observed by passing generations and civilisations have been destroyed.

What could we put at a country's disposal now to protect cultural sites or even secure them?

There is a great deal of expertise in the UK when it comes to preserving both tangible and intangible heritage. The British Council is able to share that expertise because it's physically present in several countries, understands the local context, and is able to identify and work with the local infrastructure.

We work regularly with the national museums, but also broker direct partnerships between them and institutions in cities across the UK. The British Museum, for example, has been very active in Iraq over the last ten years, helping to preserve Iraqi cultural heritage, regularly sending survey teams to report and monitor sites and collections and, in 2009, carrying out a full inspection of Babylon on behalf of UNESCO.

There is, in the Middle East and in North Africa, a very clear need for better and more thorough recording and archiving of all aspects of cultural heritage. We are regularly asked to support programmes that seek to create archives of films, literature, music and performance, as well as for antiquities and artefacts. To date, we have been able to support one-off projects, whereas there is a need for sustained and co-ordinated action. Digitisation of records is also very important for the protection and preservation of collections, and again, we are in a position to bring in and share expertise from other UK institutions.

The potential of new media goes beyond better and more accessible archives. Scottish Ten, for example, is a project that set out, in 2009, to digitally document Scotland’s five world heritage sites along with five international sites to better conserve and manage them. The project has already scanned monuments in Japan, India and a world heritage site in China. Such technology and expertise could be used in vulnerable locations to digitally document and then produce virtual recreations.

Training staff in managing museums and sites is also a vital part of cultural protection, as is developing their skills and preservation techniques, and constructing sophisticated systems in response to threat.

A further area of enormous importance to heritage protection is the connection between heritage venues and sites on the one hand and the general public on the other. If collections and the institutions that house them are valued and seen as social, cultural and economic assets, it is easier to garner support for their protection.

What are the effects of cultural destruction?

It is a difficult thing to describe, so I will use a couple of bizarrely different examples to try and provide a short answer.

Hollywood movies that seek to terrify their audiences with apocalyptic scenarios tend to use the destruction of iconic buildings and structures as their climactic image. In one example, the audience knows that New York has turned into a wasteland, not because it sees a wasteland, but because only the torch held aloft by the statue of liberty is visibly poking through the sands that now submerge the city; the Golden Gate Bridge is torn apart by a tidal wave; the statue of Admiral Nelson lies in pieces at the foot of a crumbling column, and so on. Why can those images be so much more effective and horrifying than images of human beings dying? It is because they speak of the destruction of an entire city, a society, a nation, a civilisation, and a way of life. The destruction represents not just the destruction of those immediately living alongside these monuments, but of entire generations.

At the Syria: Third Space exhibition earlier this year, you could see Zaher Omareen's disturbing footage, including from news reels, of death and destruction in and around Syria. He had created beautiful and sometimes harrowing films by putting poems, stories and music behind them. One piece showed the destruction of a mosque to an operatic score. I was told about the effect it had had on a Syrian who knew the building well. She was a Christian and had never been inside the mosque, but it was the symbol of the area she grew up in. It was devastating to her for much the same reason as the movie example. It wasn't about the building alone, but its destruction was representative of all that was gone forever.

What motivates extremists to destroy cultural sites?

There is a form of extremism that sees the very existence of sites that are celebrating other people’s faiths or cultures as a challenge, as the above quotation by Mullah Wakil about the Buddhas of Bamiyan indicates.

People in Europe sometimes think they are very far removed from those attitudes, but they wouldn't have to look too hard to find equivalents close to home, and not too long ago. As a child, I was regularly taken to churches and cathedrals in France and noticed that most of the statues adorning them were headless. Revolutionaries were perhaps not destroying them as a religious statement as much as a political one, but it was wanton destruction. In the UK, you don’t have to go back to the reformation to find examples of churches, monasteries and symbols of faith being destroyed for sectarian reasons.

There are also many other relatively recent examples of the deliberate destruction of another’s culture. In 1942, Nazi Germany had ordered the Baedeker Blitz, air raids on cultural sites in the UK in response to the destruction of Lübeck's old town in the same year.

There is probably a number of similarities between the attitudes of the Third Reich and ISIL when it comes to cultural diversity. I am not sure that I recognise the notion that ISIL make themselves look even 'more ridiculous' by these actions, as is sometimes said. They inspire horror and fear, and I guess that is part of the point. It is ruthless in its mission to present its way as an uncomplicated, non-compromised and pure form of Islam. Its adherents wish to remove not only symbols of other faiths, but also anything valued by those who follow Islam in a different way. References to pre-Islamic history that could distract the faithful are therefore anathema.

What's the international response to this? What more could be done?

When it comes to the immediate fears for the amazing world heritage sites in the Middle East that are already caught up in the battles, it is difficult to see what can be done until the military action ends. There is an online campaign to ‘Save Palmyra’ that boasts an astonishing alliance of peoples from different countries, faiths and political allegiances. It includes supporters of most of the factions currently fighting in Iraq and Syria. There is a need for a united and co-ordinated international response to support and strengthen local initiatives.

Signing up to the Hague Convention and committing to more robust action on cultural protection, as the UK government is now set to do, is important as a way of strengthening the international coalition and even opening the possibility of rapid response to impending threats.

With sites at risk, there is much more that can be done, for example through the virtual mapping of sites, so that they are preserved digitally, as well as working on the relationship between populations and their cultural heritage.

We need to give equal weight to preserving the intangible heritage. This is not least because there is often much more that can be done in that area, even while the conflict is raging. We have a partnership to that effect with Action For Hope, an organisation that works with Syrian refugees in Jordan. Initially a project that provided comfort to refugee families by helping them cook familiar, evocative and culturally important dishes, it has now expanded and become an important part of building resilience among them. Archives of photos, film footage, stories, poems and oral histories help those who normally see themselves as victims maintain their cultural identity and pride.

We are looking for UK partners to deliver four specialist courses for emerging museum and gallery leaders from around the world at our International Museum Academy in the UK in August 2016. The deadline to apply is 14 September 2015.

Editor's note: This article was updated on 24 August 2015, following the destruction of Palmyra's Baalshamin temple.

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