Back in May 2014, I wrote a column that ran in this newspaper with the headline As Syria's war rages, the cradle of civilisation is plundered. I referred to reports from the country's Hasakeh region, where important archaeological sites were being destroyed by looters and by fanatics of ISIL, who, I noted, "care nothing for culture, history or heritage, or even for the basic principles of humanity to be found in all of the world's religions".
Since then, of course, much more of Syria’s heritage, and that of Iraq, has been destroyed. The glorious Temple of Bel in Syria’s Palmyra, the huge winged bull of Iraq’s Nimrud – these and much more have been lost. In recent years, systematic destruction and looting of historic sites and monuments has spread far beyond the Middle East. The great Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan are no more. In Mali, the fabled city of Timbuktu, capital of one of the great medieval Muslim empires, has seen its ancient architecture blown up, its priceless libraries destroyed or dispersed.
Archaeologists have bewailed the destruction; historians have wrung their hands in despair at the loss of knowledge and organisations such as Unesco have condemned and lamented the irreparable loss of aspects of the cultural heritage of mankind. Yet the destruction has continued, driven by fanaticism and greed – for looting is a highly profitable “business” – and, let us not forget, sometimes by governments whose desire to maintain their authority has meant that they care little for their people’s welfare, and even less for the heritage of the country they purport to govern. How I wish I had seen the magnificence of Aleppo before it was reduced to rubble.
This weekend, however, Abu Dhabi hosts an event that indicates that, at a global level, there is a determination to turn the tide. The Unesco-backed international conference on safeguarding endangered cultural heritage, taking place at the Emirates Palace, is organised in recognition of the urgent need to safeguard some of the world’s most important cultural resources. With the support of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and France’s president, Francois Hollande, the event will bring together heads of state and representatives of governments, international organisations and major non-profit organisations as well as experts in a wide variety of fields, from museums to archaeologists, from religious figures to Interpol officials, to discuss how to protect cultural heritage in areas of conflict.
The Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority is co-organising the event along with the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. The ADTCA chairman, Mohammed Al Mubarak, said that “the continuing devastation of these treasures in combat zones deprives us, and future generations, of a resource that is of enormous historical value”.
There are good reasons why the UAE, together with France, has chosen to take the lead in this initiative. Cultural exchanges between this country and the rest of the region, countries in the Levant such as Syria and Iraq, and those beyond the region, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, date back thousands of years. Their heritage is intimately linked to ours; their loss is ours too. Moreover, the protection of heritage was always a topic dear to the heart of the nation’s founder, the late Sheikh Zayed, who stressed the need to learn from the past as a way of preparing for the future.
The conference itself will be a complex series of events, including round tables and workshops, culminating with the adoption of an Abu Dhabi Declaration. It will seek to define mechanisms for policies and processes to safeguard both movable and immovable cultural heritage before and during armed conflicts, to tackle illegal trafficking of antiquities, plan for restoration of damaged artefacts and build capacity for professionals in the field.
Among the anticipated outcomes are the creation of an international non-profit foundation to support preventive, emergency and restoration operations, a framework for greater coordination between the projects already under way and the setting up of a network of safe havens, where movable cultural property can be protected during conflict.
That’s a tall order and no one is under any illusion that it’s going to be easy. The task is, though, one of fundamental importance, not just to the countries whose heritage is being obliterated, but for the rest of the world. The world’s cultural heritage, Mr Al Mubarak noted, “defined our civilisation and united mankind through shared history”. When it is destroyed, all of us lose.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture