By George Richards
10 Jul 2015
The meeting last week of the world heritage
committee of UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural body, in the steely corridors
of the Bonn world conference centre in Germany, was less celebratory than
usual, overshadowed by the mass destruction of cultural heritage across the
Middle East, and in particular the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's (ISIL)
campaign of destruction and desolation in Iraq and Syria.
Palmyra's economy is reliant on tourism, writes Richards [Getty]
Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO,
opened the Bonn session with an address about the importance of protecting
Iraq's intangible cultural heritage. UNESCO has even published a special Iraq
issue of its publication entitled World Heritage to coincide with the Bonn
conference. But the most sombre moments of this conference were the additions
of new sites to UNESCO's ominous list of world heritage in danger.
UNESCO has now added Hatra, an ancient
desert-city of the Parthians, to their list which already included two other
Iraqi sites - Samarra, famous for its spiral tower, and Ashur, ancient capital
of the Assyrians.
Hatra was attacked by ISIL earlier this
year, at around the same time the organisation demolished the giant winged
sphinxes and other ancient monuments at Nimrud, and filmed the destruction of
antiquities housed in the Mosul museum.
High-Profile Acts of Destruction
But inscribing Hatra and other sites in the
region, onto the list of world heritage in danger will do little, if anything,
to stop ISIL's plundering of ancient sites. In fact, emphasising the cultural
significance of Hatra - which was previously little-known outside of academic
circles - might even sharpen ISIL's focus on the propaganda benefits of further
high-profile acts of destruction.
And since there is little that can be
achieved militarily to stop ISIL attacking ancient sites under its control - at
best, airstrikes have been carried out against bulldozers used by ISIL to
flatten some sites and to facilitate systematic looting - UNESCO and other
cultural heritage protection institutions must look to new methods to staunch
One important strategy is the engagement of
local communities in the protection of cultural heritage. The proposition is
straightforward - by giving local communities a share of the profits from
tourism and by demonstrating to them the long-term economic benefits of
building a sustainable tourism industry on the foundations of cultural heritage
sites, communities will be incentivised to protect heritage sites from looting,
uncontrolled commercial development, and destruction on ideological grounds.
UNESCO has been leading the way, with the
importance of community engagement emphasised in events at the Bonn session,
and releasing a policy paper on the issue in November 2014.
At the national level, the efforts of the
Department of Antiquities of Jordan, and of archaeologists from the Egyptian
Heritage Task Force, among other institutions in the region, have increasingly
focused on involving local communities in the protection of ancient sites and
the development of sustainable tourism.
Stirring up Resentment
As a necessarily speculative case-study,
ISIL's stated policy not to destroy Palmyra - the spectacularly preserved Roman
oasis-town in eastern Syria that it captured in May - may be driven by a
reluctance to alienate the local population in one of the most strategically
important Syrian cities under ISIL control.
Palmyra's economy is reliant on tourism
and, for those inhabitants still hoping to welcome tourists back to Palmyra one
day, destroying the ancient site would at once deprive them of their
livelihoods and stir up resentment against ISIL.
Even so, Palmyra's future looks bleak. ISIL
has apparently mined the area around the ancient site, blown up two nearby
shrines, and smashed plaster copies of antiquities in the Palmyra museum - the
originals had been evacuated by officials retreating ahead of the city's fall
Nor should we rely too heavily on the
assumption that ISIL is reluctant to alienate the inhabitants of Palmyra -
immediately after capturing the town, ISIL was reported to have killed hundreds
of people, including executing a number of Syrian soldiers in the ancient site
The Future of Ancient Sites
Most recently, on July 2, ISIL destroyed a
number of antiquities that had been left in Palmyra, including the priceless
Lion of al-Lat, a 2,000-year-old stone statue of a pre-Islamic Arabian
While we cannot say for certain whether the
relationship between the local community in Palmyra and the tourism industry
has played a part in sparing that city's ancient ruins so far, with so many
other strategies exhausted and discarded, community engagement needs to be
deployed in the cultural war against ISIL.
In contemplating the future of ancient
sites in the Middle East, the officials attending the UNESCO world heritage
committee meeting in Bonn will have been well aware of the disturbing
developments in Palmyra, and in particular of the destruction of the Lion of
al-Lat, which ISIL announced as the committee was in session.
They will not have need a reminder, but if
they did, they needed only to look up at the flag of the city of Bonn, flying
over the conference centre, and to the golden lion staring back at them.
George Richards is a senior fellow at Iraq Heritage specialising in the
protection of intangible cultural heritage, and has led a number of
ethnographic field expeditions in the Middle East, including in Iraq and Syria,
to protect and preserve the intangible cultural heritage.