IF YOU know anything about the laws of conflict, you probably know that destroying or stealing the cultural and spiritual heritage of an enemy or an occupied land can be a war crime, especially if it’s done in a systematic way. That principle is laid out with ever-growing clarity in every modern document that aspires to set limits to the way people fight. You can find it in Abraham Lincoln’s code of conduct for the American civil war, in the Geneva Conventions, and in the statutes of modern war-crimes tribunals.
Still, that can seem like an awkward point to raise in situations where many other unspeakable things are happening. When the Pakistani Taliban is massacring children, should we also worry about the fact that it has physically eliminatedmany traces of the Buddhist heritage of its home region? During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, some locals were exasperated by media coverage of the shelling of old Dubrovnik by Yugoslav forces. Bad as it was, didn’t this cultural loss pale compared with the human suffering that was unfolding in the region? More recently, the built heritage of Mali and Syria has suffered terrible damage, but surely that is less significant than the killing and uprooting of human civilians?
In reality, the two kinds of atrocity can’t be separated. That point was made vividly in London this week at a House of Lords event organised by Elizabeth Berridge, a lawyer and peeress who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom, and Walk of Truth (WOT) a Hague-based NGO which campaigns to protect spiritual and cultural treasures from crime and war. (Full disclosure: I gave some informal advice when WOT was set up in 2011.) Persecuting people and harming or grabbing the things they call holy are two misdeeds that have gone hand in hand throughout history. If anything the interconnection is getting closer.
Islamic State (IS), the ultra-zealous force which under various names has run amok in Iraq and Syria, makes no secret of its intent to wreck or appropriate places of worship, monuments and sites that belong to belief systems other than its own narrow reading of Islam. That contrasts with early Islamic history, in which there were some famous acts of self-restraint: Caliph Omar held back from offering Muslim prayers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, thus ensuring that it would remain a Christian place of worship. But no such spirit of self-limitation inhibits IS, for whom destroying the enemies’ holy things serves a double purpose. On one hand, it consolidates the group’s monopoly on power, by demoralising rival groups, and ensuring that they flee forever. On the other, cultural vandalism has a more immediate aim, that of raising money to fund further violence.
IS and similar groups either trade in antiquities themselves or license others to do so. Amr al-Azm, a scholar at America’s Shawnee State University, reported after visiting the area that IS was creaming off 20-50% of the proceeds of criminal looting. You can’t always distinguish between cultural vandalism in the name of religious zeal, and the more opportunistic kind. The result is the same: objects and images which are holy to some people are wrenched from the places where they were created and offered to auction houses and galleries in prosperous Western cities.
Can the worst patrimonial disaster since World War II be stopped?
No matter how badly this observer periodically assesses the threat to our cultural heritage as he travels across Syria, the reality always turns out to be worse.
As we enter 2015, much of Syria has been reduced to apocalyptic landscapes. During the 45 months of the Syrian crisis, war destruction inflicted from all sides has created massive damage to our shared global cultural heritage that has been in the custody of the Syrian people for more than ten millennia.
Few would dispute the fact that the level of destruction of Syria’s archaeological sites has become catastrophic. Unauthorized excavations, plunder, and trafficking in stolen cultural artifacts in Syria is a serious and escalating problem and threatens the cultural heritage of us all. Due to illicit excavations, many objects have already been lost to science and society.
Today, the single greatest threat to our cultural heritage in Syria is looting. It is rampant and being done from many sources. One virulent source is Da’ish (IS) and like-minded jihadists who desecrate and destroy irreplaceable artifacts and lay siege to and loot more than 2000 archeological sites under its control in Syria and double that number in Iraq.
Jihadists in Syria are estimated to have reaped more than $20 million from looted artifacts during 2014, and they rationalize their frenzy of wonton obliteration by sighting religious obligations. Also increasingly active in looting Syria’s cultural heritage are local residents who, with no jobs, income, or tangible economic prospects, are increasingly turning to age-old plunder taking advantage of a growing cash market to feed their families.
The trade in looted Syrian cultural artifacts has become the third largest market in illegal goods worldwide. Current laws at the national and international level are woefully inadequate to prevent the illicit traffic in looted antiquities and even less, to effectuate the return of stolen antiquities to their countries of origin. In the 1960s, according to experts, it was a buyers’ market as there were few national collectors interested in Islamic art or other antiquities in Syria. But that that has now dramatically changed since the Gulf countries Qatar and Abu Dhabi started collecting, and it is also now a seller’s market.
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a crossroads for trade and culture for countless centuries, has been particularly hard hit. Its vast labyrinthine souk was gutted by fire in 2012. The Citadel, a castle that dates back to 3000 BC, has also been damaged, while the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque was toppled by fighting in 2013. But hundreds of other sites have also been looted and shops selling Syrian antiquities dot the Turkey side of the border just 40 miles north of Aleppo. . . .
“Leang Seckon ~ Hell on Earth “
Who: Rossi Rossi ~ London Gallery
When: June 27, 2014 – July 25, 2014 (Mon-Sat. 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.)
63 NEW CAVENDISH STREET
LONDON W1G 7LP
How Much: Reservations recommended with information on their website.
More Information: Here
“Rossi & Rossi is pleased to announce Hell on Earth, contemporary Cambodian artist Leang Seckon’s second solo show with the gallery. The exhibition, held at Asia House, London, features a body of recent paintings, collages and video works by the artist.
Seckon grew up during the devastating period of Khmer Rouge rule, witnessing firsthand the government-enforced policies that led to famine and disease, as well as state executions. He describes this period as “hell on earth”, when the haunting prophecies found in a set of popular nineteenth-century Buddhist texts, the Buddh Damnay, were realized: “war will break out on all sides…blood will flow up to the bellies of elephants; there will be houses with no people in them, roads upon which no-one travels; there will be rice but nothing to eat”. The prophecies provided Cambodians with an explanation for the violence and destruction of the Khmer Rouge, placing the period within the cyclical pattern of Buddhist history.
The artist’s collages and paintings are intimate narratives of his memories from the period and the civil war that followed. The process of creating artworks simultaneously allows him to experience and express the freedom that was denied to him as a youth. However, Seckon’s work also acts as a warning: like the Buddh Damnay, it cautions against corruption and the destruction of the environment, drawing parallels between Cambodia’s present and its past.
A fully illustrated catalogue with an essay by renowned curator Jens Hoffmann accompanies the exhibition.
On 28 June, Leang Seckon will be joined by Dr. Peter Sharrock (SOAS) to discuss the artist’s approaches to his work and the impact of Cambodia’s turbulent and complex history on his practice. The talk is free to attend, however seat reservations are recommended. To reserve a seat please visit: leangseckon.eventbrite.co.uk.”
“Arwa Othman, head of the Traditional Heritage House in Sana’a, spent two years collecting traditional artifacts to fill the museum. She was devastated when it was robbed earlier last month. The padlocks were broken and glass windows were smashed. Important collectibles were found scattered around the house and precious silver items were missing, along with rare traditional clothes.
Established in 2004, Othman says the museum is one of a kind and contained important pieces of Yemen’s rich heritage. Museums in Hadramout, Seyoun, and Al-Dhale have also been robbed in the past, Othman said.
“On May 16, I was surprised to find the house robbed by unknown individuals. Some other collectibles were tampered with. So far, we have not identified who did it,” said Othman. The problem of robberies is particularly acute at the moment, given that the government’s hands are full in dealing with multiple crises and it cannot pay much attention to matters of heritage. What happened to the Traditional Heritage House is a case in point.
Othman said the house is a cultural entity that was formed to help safeguard the spiritual and material heritage of Yemen. She said she aims to preserve it and make it accessible to researchers.
Othman has been interested in Yemen’s history since she was a teenager. She used to save her allowance and buy traditional collectibles. “Every time my family gave me YR50 ($0.23), I headed to the market in Taiz where I was living. I used to buy many old items,” Othman recalled. . . . .”