The Islamic State and other radical groups engaged in the conflict in Syria and Iraq over the last three years receive much of the blame for the destruction of cultural heritage in that region. These groups are unique because they purposely go out of their way to destroy not only ancient artifacts, statues, and historic buildings, but also to attack mosques, shrines, and cemeteries. However, these groups are not the only forces damaging the cultural heritage of the region. Below are three things you may not realize are contributing to the threat of cultural heritage.
War is inherently destructive, especially when it takes place in an urban setting. Weaponry and artillery can inflict massive amounts of damage to more than just “the enemy.” Photos of Syrian cities, Aleppo and Homs, show the indiscriminate damage to cities after years of fighting. A bomb or grenade intended to hit a military target may also take out the large apartment building or historical mosque next door. Historical structures, particularly in dense urban areas like Aleppo and Damascus, are especially vulnerable to collateral damage. Not only are the civilians who are trapped in this cities at risk, but so is the fragile cultural heritage of these ancient cities that have been continuously inhabited for centuries or even millennia.
Ancient sites are susceptible to militarization because they provide an advantage to troops. Tells, for example, are mounds of earth that have been built up over time over ancient settlements. These mounds are often the highest points in a plain. They were built in strategic locations thousands of years ago and continue to be strategic today. ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives (ASOR CHI) has documented multiple examples of militarized heritage sites. Various groups have taken over these places, leveled the tops, dug trenches, and built large embankments for defensive positions. All that earth displacement is causing damage to the structure of the Tell and disturbing the artifacts and structures that may be buried there.
Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are people forced to leave their homes because of active combat or hostile occupation. Many Syrians and Iraqis have been forced to leave their homes, but still remain in the country with nowhere else to go. In some cases, IDPs in Syria have been forced to live in the ruins of Roman cities. The ancient houses and tombs that have been around for centuries offer far better shelter than sleeping outdoors exposed to the elements.To learn more about what you can do to help with the humanitarian aspect of this conflict, please check out organizations like the International Rescue Committee and the UN High Commission for Human Rights.
Unfortunately, as long as this conflict in Syria and northern Iraq continues, cultural heritage will be under threat. It may feel like a hopeless situation, but there are organizations like ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives, ICOMOS, s h i r ī n, and others that are working hard to document cultural heritage damage and help Syrians and Iraqis to protect and preserve their heritage. The loss of these cultural sites is a symptom of the humanitarian crisis. This conflict is not only displacing and endangering populations but, through the loss of cultural heritage, it is taking away an important part of their identity from before the war as well as their connection with the generations that have long gone.
When this war ends, displaced Syrian and Iraqi people will want to be able to return to their homes. One way to reestablish normalcy is having something familiar. Part of that is cultural heritage. As these communities are rebuilt, cultural heritage will be a source of comfort and healing. Yes, Syria and Iraq will need to rebuild hospitals and houses and schools, but a connection to the past is an important part of the social infrastructure. One that is often overlooked when faced with other pressing humanitarian needs. In this way, cultural heritage can help local people find home again.
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