Abu Dhabi Culture Summit: Heritage at heart of economic revival for conflict-hit nations

Abu Dhabi Culture Summit told the restoration of Iraq's Al Nuri Mosque was a symbol of hope for an embattled community

A view of the destroyed al-Nuri mosque in the old city of Mosul is seen on April 23, 2018.
The United Arab Emirates and Iraq launched a joint effort to reconstruct Mosul's Great Mosque of al-Nuri and its iconic leaning minaret, ravaged last year during battles to retake the city from jihadists. During the ceremony at Baghdad's National Museum, UAE Culture Minister Noura al-Kaabi said her country would put forward $50.4 million (41.2 million euros) for the task. 
 / AFP PHOTO / Zaid al-Obeidi
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Vital national heritage must not be caught in the crossfire of global conflict, a major culture conference in Abu Dhabi has heard.

Protecting cultural landmarks can be not only a symbol of hope for nations rising from the ruins of war but can help spark economic recovery, a senior Unesco official said at the Culture Summit, being held on Saadiyat Island.

During a panel discussion at the event, Paolo Fontani, the director of Unesco's Baghdad office who is overseeing the reconstruction of the Al Nuri Mosque in the historic Iraqi city, said culture and heritage are at the 'heart of economic development".

It is a message that is already being acted upon by the UAE government, which announced last April that it would finance a $50 million (Dh183.7m) Unesco project to rebuild the mosque, famous for its eighth-century leaning ­minaret.

Large parts of the city – ­including the mosque – were destroyed by ISIS in June 2017.

Residents are still battling to rebuild their lives nearly two years later.

Fontani, who has previously worked in Afghanistan, underlined the fact that heritage preservation is now understood as an economic driver.

“There has been a shift at Unesco,” he said. “Culture and heritage are now seen as at the heart of economic development.”

“The mosque in Mosul is an important symbol. We listened to the local community.”

The panel discussion held on the second day of the summit, which concludes on Thursday, was moderated by Dr Shadia Touqan, director of the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage, and also featured Ali Ould Sidi, of the Malian Ministry of Culture, and Anne-Marie Afeiche, director of the National Museum of Beirut.

The panel told of success stories of invaluable heritage preserved amid the trail of destruction brought by war.

As well as the restoration of Al Nuri Mosque, the summit heard how the precious collection of the National Museum of Beirut was saved when the director at the start of the civil war in Lebanon moved contents into the basement of the museum in concrete blocks and used cement to keep the doors shut.

Mr Ould Sidi, who was instrumental in the Unesco-led reconstruction of mausoleums destroyed by jihadists in Timbuktu in 2012, said communities are the true guardians of national heritage.

“The local communities have been looking after these monuments since before modern nations,” he said of the mausoleums, the first of which was built in the 14th century.

He said that the strategy for the reconstruction process had now changed.

“The first mistake we made was to nominate sites [for heritage protection] without consulting the local community.”

Now, nominations cannot be made without first being locally ratified.

October 2016 - photo of The National Museum of Beirut 's basement level which was reopened earlier this month after more than 40 years of closure

The basement is dedicated to a display of funerary art

Courtesy Anne-Marie Afeiche *** Local Caption ***  The basement is dedicated to a display of funerary art.jpg

Ms Afeiche said Beirut Museum now uses relics from war to help deliver a powerful reminder from history to future generations.

She told a story of a 5th century mosaic which takes pride of place on the walls of the museum. A sniper had bored a hole into a corner of the artwork in order to gain a better position for shooting across the green line that existed in front of the museum. The institution has left it as is, as a small symbol of the damaging impact of conflict.