Mahmud Khaled / AFP / Getty Images
Mahmud Khaled / AFP / Getty Images

It’s time to stop destruction of Middle East heritage

The instability unleashed by the Arab Spring is endangering the region’s past as well as its future

May 5, 2014 12:00AM ET

An underreported conflict is ravaging the Middle East. From sub-Saharan Africa to the Levant, an unholy alliance of profiteers, modernizers and fundamentalists is taking advantage of political instability to pillage and wreck the splendid remnants of civilization — artworks and artifacts, but also monuments, sites and buildings. Pounds upon pounds of these precious antiquities pile up in the warehouses of Cairo, Beirut and Istanbul, ready for export to glitzy auction houses. These are the ill-gotten spoils of the wars tearing through the so-called cradle of civilization since at least 2011.

The Arab Spring presented an opportunity for looters. As the gloves came off on the political front around 2011, archaeological gangs specializing in illegally selling heritage took advantage of the vacuum and got to work in well-organized armed groups with the intention of flooding the West’s antiquities auctions with a smorgasbord of plundered art. Pharaonic scarabs, Hellenistic mosaics, Mamluk mosque lamps, Crusader castles, Ottoman palaces, Belle Époque apartment blocks: These all have succumbed to opportunism, conflict and war.

In Syria, the civil war laid waste to the medieval city of Aleppo, wiping out the Middle East’s best-preserved medieval markets and ending the city’s claim to being one of the last pockets of multicultural coexistence in the region. The country’s six UNESCO World Heritage Sites are pockmarked with the holes dug by looters. 

Never has the damage been as sustained, extensive and methodical as since the region tumbled into violence at the beginning of the Arab Spring.

In Egypt, raiders took advantage of the revolution, and the country’s subsequent instability, to ransack its museums. It got so bad that one archaeologist invented a Twitter-based system to sting lackadaisical authorities into action by keeping track of the proliferating raids and sending out real-time alerts of assaults on heritage.

In Libya, thousands of priceless antique gold and silver coins known as the Benghazi Treasure were stolen. Farther north, Ottoman shrines were dynamited and locals bulldozed parts of the Hellenistic city of Cyrenaica to make space for villa construction.

This kind of destruction is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it exclusively related to the Arab Spring. Historical sites in the Middle East have regularly been looted since at least the 19th century, when European interest in touring and excavating archaeological sites swelled, creating a ready cash market for antiquities. More recently, the U.S. invasion of Iraq resulted in a calamitous season of destruction. U.S. troops stood by as the Baghdad Museum was looted; they then built a military base on ancient Babylon, site of one of the seven wonders of the world, filling sandbags with precious archaeological fragments. Bad as things were before 2011, never has the damage been as sustained, extensive and methodical as since the region tumbled into violence at the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Religious motives

The destruction is not motivated by profit only. Islamist fundamentalists are deliberately targeting delicate mystical shrines, churches, synagogues and Ottoman graveyards for acts of vandalism they justify as a defense of Islamic monotheism. The collapse of the secularist, military-backed regimes that long kept them repressed has allowed a proliferation of radical groups unprecedented opportunities for political and cultural expansion across lawless territories in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. But heritage is also damaged unintentionally, as with a museum in the Yemeni province of Abyan that was cleaned out during the security vacuum created by clashes between the army and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Cairo’s Islamic Museum was also badly damaged in January by a car bomb targeting the police directorate opposite.

It is unsurprising, then, that Muslim historical places are treated with greater respect than the remnants of Hittite, Nabatean and Hellenistic cities, Byzantine churches or ancient synagogues. Rather than being approached as sources of education and insight into the past, they are viewed almost exclusively through the prism of tourism dollars: Development has been another little-noted but important source of destruction. In Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf countries, the misplaced but obstinate belief that modernity is attainable through high-rises, factories and large-scale development projects has resulted in ill-planned concrete developments, glass-and-steel malls and garish residential buildings that are often constructed directly over historical towns. From the Byzantine and Ottoman capital, Istanbul, to Hellenistic and Belle Époque Alexandria, new buildings and mass transit projects have often punctured through undiscovered treasures.

Sometimes the institutions whose claims to relevance hinge on historical authenticity are just as guilty of selling off or subcontracting land. In Turkey, new dams have flooded an ancient Roman spa town, and others like them threaten to do the same to the Ayyubid town of Hasankeyf. A web of new bridges, highways and airports is wreaking havoc on archaeological sites. In Mecca, the Wahhabi-influenced regime in charge has systematically removed any historical buildings and covered them with a layer of malls and glitzy hotels.

Again, this isn’t exactly new: Heritage has always been harmed, as the 19th century graffiti by Western and Arab tourists on temples across the region testifies. But in the past three years the damage has become so acute that it’s comparable to the scale of destruction inflicted during the 13th century Mongol conquests that resulted in the razing of cities such as Baghdad, Herat, Nishapour and Samarkand. Nevertheless, the Arab Spring’s great human cost has largely overshadowed media coverage of how much is being lost.

Erasing the future

Memory is a notoriously malleable tool, subject to revisionist narratives and manipulation. If our physical heritage is destroyed, we will rely on memory all the more. That’s not necessarily a good thing when the education received by the majority of schoolchildren in the region is skewed toward dominant religious and ethnic narratives.

If those of us who inhabit the region allow the last palpable, visible traces of a multiethnic and multireligious heritage to be eradicated, we will also prevent future generations from developing a rich, nuanced regional and cultural identity. Erasing or selling off the past will make it even harder to reconstitute these deeply traumatized societies once the fighting ends.

The great Arab author Abdelrahman Mounif died in 2004 after witnessing Washington’s demonstration of “shock and awe” over Baghdad. His “Cities of Salt” quintet gloomily chronicled the process by which a culture is deracinated, surrenders to modernity and fades. Unsurprisingly, it was banned in the Gulf Arab states, which in the 40 years since the oil boom have become disturbing examples of populations dislocated from their past and living in an alienated hypermodern present, whether in Dubai, Doha, Riyadh or Kuwait City.

Speaking about the cities that took the place of the pastoral Bedouin lifestyle he had just managed to catch sight of, Mounif described them as cities of salt, because they “offer no sustainable existence. When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust.”

The hollowing out that these cities have witnessed over the past few years leaves us vulnerable to a similar fate.

Iason Athanasiadis is a writer and filmmaker based in Istanbul, Cairo and Tripoli, Libya.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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