Targeting Cultural Heritage in Times of Conflict

2nd September 2016



Globally, untold numbers on professionals engage in a continuous effort to conserve innumerable physical and mental cultural heritage products. At best current processes only serve to slow or temporarily prevent the destructive natural, inevitable processes of decay and deterioration. Similarly natural disasters such as floods, fires, and earthquakes result in often large scale doss and damage to cultural heritage and property. Of all forms though it is perhaps the devastation that results from manmade or orchestrated events that is the most detrimental to the collective human memory and recollection of the past. Human centric factors including theft, war, civil discord, terrorism, neglect and vandalism are responsible, globally, for the accidental or wilful destruction of cultural heritage (Teijgeler, 2001: Chapter 6). Of these the various forms of armed conflict continues to be perhaps the most destructive and irreversible. This paper will attempt to discuss the notion of the deliberate destruction of heritage items and places during times of conflict through the introduction and legal precedents set. It will further consider case studies from the Middle East – Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria – and the effect that this has had in terms of international and domestic impact.




From time immemorial, the act of war has been synonymous with widespread destruction and the so called “right” of the victor to pillage and plunder. While writers such as Carl von Clausewitz (1832:18) argue that “War must never be seen as having any purpose in itself, but should be seen as an instrument of Politik”, others such as Toman (1996) state that war is not only the enemy of man, it is also the enemy of the best that man has produced: the whole cultural and historic heritage  A simplistic, and perhaps antiquated, approach to considering the purpose of war would be to remark that, it was to enable the collection of “booty”, and as such the inherent destruction of cultural heritage and property that transpired was considered an inevitable and acceptable consequence. Teygeler (2006) remarks that under such circumstances, “Statues are blown up because they are considered an insult to the ‘only and right religion’, archaeological sites are occupied by foreign troops and destroyed in the process, and archives are deliberately obliterated as part of an ethnic cleansing policy”. Perhaps was Milan Kundera (1996:218) who expressed these thoughts best when he wrote:

“You begin to liquidate a people,” Hiibl said, “by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history. And then others write other books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then the people slowly begins to forget what it is and what it was. The world at large forgets it still faster.”

“And the language?”

“Why bother taking it away? It will become a mere folklore and sooner or later die a natural death.”


Legal Precedence

The “Hague Convention of 1899”[1] and the “Roerich Pact of 1935” were the first major international agreements which sought to outline measures to protect cultural property during periods of conflict and war. These were superseded in 1954 following the adoption of the “Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” (First Protocol 14 May 1954, Second Protocol 26 March 1999). Although this latter convention was the result of a conference held under the auspices of UNESCO, it retains its common label as The Hague convention after the name of the location at which the conference was held. Collectively this convention was a direct response to the large scale, global devastation and destruction of cultural heritage that occurred during the Second World War. It petitioned to ensure that cultural property, both movable and immovable was accorded a degree of protection and respect as the collective common heritage of humankind.

Quoting the UNESCO “Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage” (1972), the following are considered objects of cultural heritage:

monuments: architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, elements or structures of an archaeological nature, inscriptions, cave dwellings and combinations of features, which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science;

groups of buildings: groups of separate  or connected buildings which, because of their architecture, their homogeneity or their place in the landscape, are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science;

sites: works of man or the combined works of nature and man, and areas including archaeological sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view.’


Case Studies



In a conflict that has its origins as early as 1978, the loss incurred during this time is incalculable. For this reason like in many others, it becomes necessary to choose one specific artefact or event to be used as a case study. The Buddha’s of Bamiyan, are one such artefact that generated much interest globally. These were a pair of standing Buddhas, in the Gandhara style that had been carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley in the Hazarajat region during the 6th century.

During the last several centuries the Bamiyan statues have been targeted for destruction by a number of Muslim leaders. Despite their continued failure to achieve the task, a large amount of irreversible damage was done. In 1998, a local Taliban commander again signalled a desire to again attempt to destroy these monuments. His actions however were prevented (some drilling was completed in order to place explosive charges) by the local governor and under a directive ordered of Mullah Omar, Amir al-Mo´menin[2]  (Schemmel, 2016). In July 1999, Mullah Mohammed Omar issued a decree in favour of preservation, stating that: “The government considers the Bamiyan statues as an example of a potential major source of income for Afghanistan from international visitors.”(Kolrud and Prusac, 2014:167; Morgan, 2012:3; Furgusson, 2010:137). Omar is also recorded as adding that “The Taliban states that Bamiyan shall not be destroyed but protected” (Kolrud and Prusac, 2014:167; Morgan, 2012:3; Furgusson, 2010:137). Resistance to the edict came from Afghanistan’s more radical clerics who had already, according to their interpretation of Sharia law, began a campaign to cleanse Afghan society of ’un-Islamic’ influences. Some authors argue that the destruction of sites such as these is not an effort to present the obliteration of symbols of strong religious imagery, but rather that is a spectacle for international audiences to send “a strong message to the world about the Taliban’s religious determination and their ruthfulness in defending their faith” (Kolrud and Prusac, 2014:167). The edict issued in 1999 provided a short reprieve. On February 26, 2001, Omar again asserted that the Taliban would destroy all idols so that they are not worshiped now or in the future (Harrison 2013:184; Morgan 2012:15; Centivres 2008:3).


ch0Source: Morgan, 2012:15





Following the issuance of this statement, UNESCO petitions to stop the destruction with several appeals to the Taliban to halt the destruction (UN, 2001) to Centlivres (2008:3) beside formal procedures undertaken by the UNESCO to halt destruction and save the statues, numerous international delegations attempted to reach Kandahar in order to negotiate with Omar. ”The MET museum (New York), as well as some Buddhist states, such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, and even Iran offered to ‘buy’ the Buddhas or to pay for its preservation” (Centlivres 2008:3; Patterson, 2014 :230). Despite these formal and informal attempts, between March 6 and 7, 2001, the demolition began. Following the act, Mullah Omar, according to Datta, (2014:103) stated that: “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them. These idols have been the gods of infidels who worship them even now. The real God is Allah and other false Gods should be removed”.


International Impact

In a text sponsored by more than 90 countries The UN General Assembly strongly condemned the destruction as “act of intolerance that struck at the very basis of civilized coexistence and was contrary to the real spirit of Islam.” (UN, 2001), collectively they adopted a resolution, without vote that

…called upon the Taliban to protect Afghanistan’s cultural heritage from all acts of vandalism, damage and theft.  It also called upon Member States to help safeguard the unique Buddhist sculptures in Bamiyan, using appropriate technical measures, including, if necessary, their temporary relocation or removal from public view. (UN, 2001: GA/9858)

In Afghanistan there is no longer a native Buddhist population however such indiscriminate destruction deeply disturbed members of the general population and provoked shock and outrage amongst many Buddhist countries. This destruction globally labelled the Taliban as a symbol of barbarism who reject the basic principles of common humanity, and the concept of ‘cultural heritage’.


Further development

The destruction however, did reveal 50 new caves, utilized by monks in their religious isolation that had been recessed into the surrounding rock faces (Higuchi & Barnes 1995). Scientists have revealed that in 12 of the 50 caves exposed “were painted with oil painting technique, using perhaps walnut and poppy seed drying oils”, that date between the 5th and the 9th centuries (Marine Cotte, 2008:23). Researchers suggest that the paintings were made by artists who traveled on the Silk Road, the trade route between China and the West (Marine Cotte, 2008:23). It is believed that they are the oldest known surviving examples of oil painting, possibly predating oil painting in Europe by as much as six centuries (Taniguchi, cited in Marine Cotte, 2008:23; Patterson, 2014:230; Highfield, 2008)

On 8 September 2008  archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi and his team, while searching for a rumored 300-metre sleeping Buddha statue, at the site, announced the uncovering of parts of a previously unknown 19-metre reclining Buddha, a pose representing Buddha’s Parinirvana (AFP, 2008; National Geographic, n.d; BBC News, 2008)



Termed the Egyptian Crisis, a period of governmental, and civil political unrest, began with the Egyptian revolution in 2011. In August 2013, reporters from many news agencies around the globe headlined “monumental attack — unprecedented in modern times — on churches throughout Egypt” (Lane, 2013) as Morsi supporters destroyed, looted, pillaged, and/or burned churches and church associated facilities around the country (Hendawi, 2013). During the period many Muslims continued to oppose violent actions which targeted Christians. Some Muslims in Upper Egypt even reportedly helped Christians to defend churches, to the extent of offering their bodies as human shields (El-Reshidi, 2011; Webber, 2013).

The Deir el-Muharraq, also known as The Monastery of the Virgin Mary and St. Abraam, in the village of Delga is listed as being among the most important and holy of Christian sites anywhere in the world. Located near the town of Deir Mouas in Minya, the monastery contains three churches, Virgin Mary’s Ancient Church (Al-Adhra), St. Georges Church, Holy Virgin Mary’s Recent Church. It is believed that it was in a cave at this location that Mary and Jesus stayed for a period of six months and ten days (one of their longest terms) as they fled Egypt.

An additional event was the Church of the Virgin Lady, often believed to be one of the oldest if not the first consecrated Christian church. It has also been associated with several reported visions and apparitions of the Virgin Mary. While the architecture of this church suggests that it was built around the fifth century, the time of Roman persecution of Christians, it is believed that an earlier church dating back to the third century existed in the same location. The old church was looted before being burned.


Community Impact

The destruction that transpired in Dalga resonated strongly with the large Coptic community. In a governate with a total population of near 5 million, a little more than 2 million of these are Christians. Already several families have left the city believing that the Egyptian Orthodox Christian Community has largely been that target of discriminatory violence since the 1970s. To many of them this was simply the pinnacle of an escalating series of developments. Kingsley (2013) reported that “Up to 100 Christian families have fled since July, with dozens of Coptic properties – including three of Delga’s five churches – torched and looted” During interviews Kingsley quoted that “Everything was looted… [t]he pews were taken and the place was burned afterwards. Twenty icons were burned or stolen … The gates… [and e]ven the electrical wiring were also stolen “





Most writers concur that under the current conditions of war it is impossible to predict the number of monuments that have been or are still yet to be affected by the fighting. A number of reports clearly state “numerous archaeological sites in Syria are being systematically targeted for clandestine excavations by well-organized and often armed groups, not all originating from Syria” and that the number of “illegal excavations and looting have exponentially increased since the beginning of the conflict in Syria” (UNESCO, 2016). The damage that such actions poses to Syria’s heritage is clearly extensive, and the full extent will not be understood for many years, perhaps even after the resolution of conflict. The destruction of cultural heritage, weather in the form of a World Heritage Site, a National Heritage Site or a small Local Heritage Site have been damaged, intentionally or otherwise, with equal irreverence by those on all sides of this conflict, despite the efforts of the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (Al Quntar, 2013:349). In June 2013 the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) released a document that claims that 1,451 mosques across the country had been targeted, and damaged, between March of 2011 and June of 2013. Of these 348 were to have been completely destroyed.



Source: SNHR, 2013:3


A prime example of the ongoing devastation which exists was the complete destruction of the the 11th-Century minaret of the The Great Mosque of Aleppo “Umayyad Mosque” in the Northern City of Alpeppo (BBC News, 2013). Umayyad Mosque, built between the 28th and 13th centuries is religiously significant since it is here that reports place the remains of John the Baptists father (Weeks, 2013). Waseem (2014:15) notes that like other monuments in this city the World Heritage-listed Mosque was “built originally on a quart yard of a Byzantium church of Saint Helena, which is in turn believed to be built on a Roman temple Temenos which probably served as an Agora in the Hellenistic period.” The mosque itself had been rebuilt twice following extensive fire damage in 1159, and the Mongol invasion in 1260 (Ghosh, 2013; BBC, 2013). The 45 metre tall minaret, constructed in 1090 remained the oldest surviving original structure of the complex. It is a globally important city both religious and historically.

The rebel, July 2012, summer offensive saw the beginning of recent conflict in Aleppo (Watson, 2013). Since then some of the war’s s worst taken place in Aleppo. Watson (2013) reported that “the fighting has carved the city into rebel- and regime-held zones, killed thousands of people, forced thousands more to flee their homes and laid waste to entire neighborhoods”[3]. House-to-house fighting between rebel and government forces continued throughout the remainder of 2012, and by spring 2013 a clear demarcation existed. The Syrian army in the west and the rebels stayed in the east. A semi-no-man’s land exists between the two. The battles that have transpired in the period that followed had greatly affected the cultural heritage of the city. Estimates suggest that as much as 53% of the city’s cultural heritage has already been lost (Waseem, 2014:23).






The mosque was part of an area that was controlled by the rebel forces as of 2012. The surrounding area however continued to be heavily contested. During the numerous clashes, the mosque has been badly damaged by fire during heavy fighting. The official Syrian Arab News Agency reported that fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra group “placed explosive materials in the minaret and the mosque’s southern door and set them off”(Martines & Alkhshali, 2013; Ghosh, 2013, BBC, 2013). However, the coalition provided statement that the government forces destroyed the minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, stating that “the minaret was hit by tank shells and was shattered to the ground” (Martines & Alkhshali, 2013)


Community Impact

The battle over Aleppo has been termed “one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times” (Rossi, 2016). Unfortunately for the population of the city, the damage extends far beyond the destruction of purely tangible artefacts. It has drawn them into a conflict that continues to threaten the entire region, and is based solely on the moral and political positions of the actors involved (Al Husseni, 2016). Waseem (2014:22) relates that the “humanitarian situation is critical”, basic necessities such as food and water continue to remain in short supply, and levels of danger and violence in the city continue to be listed as the highest in the country, if not the entire world. Many of the political actors involved in the conflict use the damage as an ethical and socio-political tool, each casting blame and causation against the other, drawing in the wider global community, who might otherwise remain neutral to the escalating conflict. For the more localised populations while they may seek to escape, the destruction of their heritage has a way of holding them such that they seek to defend what remains from certain loss. The Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova (2016:1) explained such a sense of loss by describing that “Culture implies more than just monuments and stones – culture defines who we are. It carries universal values and the many faces of our shared humanity”.



UNESCO in their response to protect culture in crisis (2016:2) carefully explain that culture, both heritage and identity, “is particularly vulnerable to collateral damage, looting and intentional destruction[. This…] is often paired with the persecution of individuals based on their cultural, ethnic or religious affiliation and the denial of other communities’ identities resulting in ‘cultural cleansing’”. The continuation of conflict and the destruction of the World Heritage Sites in Afghanistan and Syria serve frequently to emphasise the limitation that exist for international organizations whose mandate it is to seek to protect religious heritage using political solutions. They highlight the resounding frequency that when extremist groups threaten National and Cultural heritage sites and items for religious reasons, ineffectual political efforts may not only be counterproductive but actually increase the likelihood of an attack. Bokova (2012), wrote:

Protecting culture is a security issue. There can be no lasting peace without respect. Attacks against cultural heritage are attacks against the very identity of communities. They mark a symbolic and real step up in the escalation of a conflict, leading to devastation that can be irreparable and whose impact lasts long after the dust has settled.

Outside the obvious loss to human life wars severely impact on the loss and destruction of the values and identities of people whose cultural heritage is attacked and/or lost (Waseem, 2014:11). The protection of cultural heritage is of high importance “since heritage bears witness to the inexhaustible progression of civilizations and societies, all of which are precious expressions of a single Humanity” (De Caro in Lambert & Rockwell 2012:vi). Not only can cultural heritage be seen as global, regional, communal and personal, the source of antagonism and conflict resulting from difference and similarity, but it can also be the centre around which peace and reconciliation become possible. While the destruction of heritage is, at its core, a great loss for humanity, it may also be the site of possibility for future generations to build upon.



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End Notes

[1] Particularly of note are:

Articles 23 – To destroy or seize the enemy’s property, unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war.

Article 46 – Family honors and rights, individual lives and private property, as well as religious convictions and liberty, must be respected. Private property cannot be confiscated.

Article 47 – Pillage is formally prohibited.

Article 56 – The property of the communes, that of religious, charitable, and educational institutions, and those of arts and science, even when State property, shall be treated as private property. All seizure of, and destruction, or intentional damage done to such institutions, to historical monuments, works of art or science, is prohibited, and should be made the subject of proceedings.

[2] Translation: Commander of the Faithful or the Supreme Leader of the Muslims

[3] Emphasis added