Destruction of Middle East’s heritage is ‘cultural genocide’
“My hotel has been closed since the middle of 2010. I lost it because of terrorist attacks. That building was part of my soul.”
Kais Ahmed Alkalisi owns the Sana’a Nights Hotel, housed in a beguiling old rammed earth and burnt brick palace laced in white, in the Yemeni capital.
“The first reaction of tourists about Old Sana’a was that it was an open museum; they feel that this city has some of the magic of the 1,001 nights,” he said.
Sana’a in pre-war days: the city is over 2,500 years old Photo: AP
But this month Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, declared the Old City of Sana’a officially a world heritage site “in danger”. The heart of the Yemeni capital was one of three places added to the list of 48 sites under threat around the world, at the annual Unesco Committee conference in Germany. The others were the Old Walled City of Shibam in western Yemen, and Hatra in Iraq: all victims of the Middle East’s manifold conflicts.
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11th-century buildings of Sana’a’s Old City, a Unesco World Heritage Site Photo: Mohammed Huweis/AFP/Getty
Unesco reported that the current violence in Yemen – between Houthi rebels and forces loyal to President Hadi – has caused “serious damage” to the Old City of Sana’a, which has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years: “The majority of the colourful, decorated doors and window panes characteristic of the city’s domestic architecture have been shattered or damaged.”
The 16th-century Old Walled City of Shibam – one of Yemen’s four Unesco World Heritage Sites – has not yet sustained damage, but officials fear it is “under potential threat from the armed conflict, which compounds safeguarding and management problems already observed at the site.”
Ahmed Baider, a guide with Aden Tours Agency, said that the “Manhattan of the Desert” – so named for its multi-storied towers – used to be a firm favourite with foreign visitors: “Tourists loved old Shibam very much. You could see the beauty of the buildings and how intelligently they were built.”
Shibam’s old buildings have led it to become known as the “Manhattan of the desert” Photo: AP Shibam’s old buildings have led it to become known as the “Manhattan of the desert” (Photo: AP)
Sadly, the problems are not confined to Yemen. For decades, now, the Fertile Crescent – the area of land in which ancient civilisations grew up around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – has lain wounded as the result of war. But the rise of Isil seen deliberate destruction of ancient sites. In Iraq, Hatra, believed to have grown from a small Assyrian settlement, fell to the Islamist group last summer, who then went on to attack its statues and columns with sledgehammers and assault rifles. Unesco believes that placing it on its heritage under threat list is “a way to rally the support of the international community for [Iraq’s] heritage.”
“We know that much damage has taken place but the problem is that we don’t have concrete evidence because we are unable to go to the sites ourselves.”
Axel Plathe, director of Unesco’s Iraq office
Two of the country’s four other Unesco sites, Samarra Archaeological City and Ashur, remnants of a city on the banks of the Tigris, are already on the endangered list.
But it is not only ancient settlements bearing the Unesco World Heritage Site stamp that are suffering. Nimrud, from the 13th century BC, was partially destroyed by Isil in April. UN analysis of satellite imagery said that there is “extensive damage” inside the citadel, and that “several previously visible structures are completely destroyed.”
A satellite image of Nimrud, Iraq, from March 2014 shows the site intact. Photo: CNES (2014) Distribution Airbus DS – Pleiades Satellite Imagery Analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT.
A satellite image of Nimrud in Iraq from April 2015 shows extensive destruction of the site Photo: CNES (2014) Distribution Airbus DS – Pleiades Satellite Imagery Analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT
The destruction of Christian places of worship in Iraq has attracted less attention than Isil’s bull-dozering of ancient cities, but is also widespread. The St George monastery north of Mosul and the Church of St Ahoadamah in Tikrit have both sustained severe damage, while the 4th-century Mar Benham monastery has been destroyed.
Axel Plathe, director of Unesco’s Iraq office, told Telegraph Travel of the difficulty of determining the extent of the damage on the ground. “We know that much damage has taken place but the problem is that we don’t have concrete evidence because we are unable to go to the sites ourselves.”
“We are using satellite imagery to assess the damage, but we cannot see what has happened in terms of removing or damaging smaller items.”
He said that Unesco had been concerned about encouraging Isil by speaking out against their levelling of sites across Iraq, but that ultimately, “creating anti-propaganda about these sites is more important.”
In Syria, Isil controls tracts of land that now appear an almost dystopian world. Pictures emerged this month of militants destroying funerary busts from the Greco-Roman site of Palmyra, while further reports showed executions in the once-great city’s amphitheatre.
The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology (Apsa), an independent group documenting damage to the country’s sites, released a report, “Palmyra Adrift”, documenting the extensive damage at Palmyra, much of which is believed to have happened before Isil took the site from regime forces in May this year. It claims that the Syrian army dug trenches and removed tombs to install military vehicles and artillery. Photos show shell and shrapnel damage to the Temple of Baal, which dates to 32 AD, columns on the brink of collapse, and holes apparently made by looters.
A satellite image from October 2009 shows the Northern Necropolis at Palmyra intact Photo: S Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, NextView License (DigitalGlobe) Satalite Imagery Analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT.
An satellite image of Palmyra from October 2014 – while the site was held by regime forces and before it was taken by Isil – shows levees and roads dug across the same site Photo: S Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, NextView License (DigitalGlobe) Satalite Imagery Analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT.
It also said that between 2012 and May 2015, at least 125 items stolen from Palmyra have been seized, although the total number of looted items is unknown.
Isil is also believed to be using the ancient sites it currently controls to buoy its finances. A purported excavation permit for the ancient Mesopotamian city of Mari in Syria, supposedly issued by Isil and seen by Telegraph Travel, was obtained by the Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, an opposition news organisation. Editor George Alshami explained how the Islamist group allows looters to dig, but only with Isil-sanctioned permits, and that, “they must pay taxes to do so.”
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Charles Tripp, Professor of Politics with reference to the Middle East at SOAS, University of London, recently wrote in the London Middle East Institute magazine that “smuggling routes and networks have facilitated the export of artefacts, creating a constant and reliable income stream for ISIS leadership.”
Isil’s exploitation of ancient sites also distracts from the damage done to Syrian heritage by forces loyal to the Assad regime.
George Alshami said: “In Palmyra, the officers of the regime stole every piece they could steal and they left the city to Isis without a fight.”
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An Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology image shows damage to Palmyra’s columns Photo: Apsa2011.com
Cheikhmous Ali, an Apsa member and archaeologist based in France, also believes that, “10 times more has been stolen by soldiers from the Syrian Army than by Daesh [the Arabic term for Isil] from Palmyra.”
Last month, the archaeological museum of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, in north-western Syria, was hit by two barrel bombs that multiple sources said were dropped by regime helicopters. Apsa said that the explosions caused parts of the building to collapse completely, while several mosaic panels fell and shattered.
The Mosaic Museum at Ma?arrat al-Nu?man in Syria was hit by barrel bombs last month Photo: Apsa2011.com
For George Alshami, the Assad regime cares little for Syria’s people or its heritage. He thinks that investment for the rebuilding of Aleppo will go to government allies, but that the regime has never cared about Syria’s history. “Bosra is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. But is there anything to show that the government cared about this place? There was rubbish everywhere. They don’t care. They didn’t ever care.”
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The shattered mosaics at Ma’arrat al-Nu’man are a microcosm of Syria as a whole, a country that is endlessly broken. Cheikhmous Ali has little hope, as Apsa’s work is made increasingly difficult by money, food and electricity shortages in Syria. “We don’t have any hope. This is a cultural genocide. International bodies condemn such-and-such destruction, but it is only words, so it is not real support. Four years, and it goes on.”
Aleppo in November 2010, before the conflict in Syria began, shows the Citadel and Great Mosque intact Photo: US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, NextView License (DigitalGlobe) Satalite Imagery Analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT.
Satellite imagery from 2014 shows the destruction of the Great Mosque of Aleppo’s minaret Photo: US Department of State, Humanitarian Information Unit, NextView License (DigitalGlobe) Satalite Imagery Analysis by UNITAR-UNOSAT.
Analysis by the UN estimates that 290 sites of cultural significance have been affected across Syria, 24 of which have been destroyed, 104 severely damaged. Damage to the second city of Aleppo, with its Unesco World Heritage site Old City, is extensive: this month the citadel walls were partially destroyed, the Carlton hotel, a 150-year-old luxury property opposite the citadel was flattened in 2014 , while the Great Mosque of Aleppo has lost its minaret. The centuries-old souk has been ravaged by fire. An estimate from the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (Unitar) estimates that all but 100 of the 1,600 shops in the souk have been lost.
Footage shows damage to the citadel ramparts of Aleppo, in July 2015
Non-Unesco-listed sites in Syria have also been damaged, including the Bronze Age city of Ebla and the 2,500-year-old city of Apamea, which according to Unitar analysis has suffered “significant structural damage”, with “a military garrison is now located around the former café” and looting holes evident across the site.
In Iraq, Axel Plathe says that Unesco puts hope in education, so that young Iraqis will not swallow Isil’s messages: “There is a great potential for mobilising the young people of Iraq – they are engaged in protecting their heritage.”
“Tourists loved old Shibam very much. You could see the beauty of the buildings and how intelligently they were built.”
Ahmed Baider, Yemeni tour guide
As for Yemen? Abubakr al-Shamahi, a British-Yemeni journalist and political commentator, is ambivalent about what the addition of Yemen’s sites to Unesco’s endangered list will really mean. “I think that unfortunately the best we can hope for is that the move by Unesco will pressure all sides in the conflict to avoid the targeting of these precious sites – there is a propaganda war, and both sides are sensitive to anything that will paint them in a negative light.”
Ahmed Baider does not see much hope: “Old Sana’a and Shibam – these wonderful cities are in danger now, because war doesn’t know beauty or love.”