One day last spring, Irina Bokova was at Unesco’s headquarters in Paris, a short distance across the Champ de Mars from the Eiffel Tower, when a group of colleagues came to her office to ask if she had seen what Islamic State had done in the Mosul museum. It wasn’t unusual at that time to hear about the intentional destruction of heritage sites in the Middle East, and since, as the organisation’s director general, she had a busy schedule of meetings, she told them she would look into it at the end of the day.
“No, no, no, no, this is really something serious,” they said. So she went into a nearby office to find a computer.
The video she watched still has the power to shock. A gang of armed men move through white-walled rooms filled with ancient sculptures and wall reliefs that have survived almost three millennia. There are winged bulls with human heads that 2,700 years ago guarded the entrance to the Assyrian cities of Nineveh and Nimrud; and a statue of a priest holding an eagle that was recovered from Hatra, the ancient capital of the first Arab kingdom. These are the sorts of objects one might find protected by a velvet rope and a Do Not Touch sign. The men beat them with sledgehammers and smash them into rubble.
Bokova picks out that moment as one of the most painful in the litany of recent destruction of world heritage sites – sites she, more than anyone, has a responsibility to protect. “The first thing is that you don’t believe this is happening in real time,” she tells me. “It was like a cheap movie, you know, about some thugs going and destroying something that is dear to us. And then it’s shock, disbelief, total powerlessness. You can’t do anything right now to stop them.” She still hasn’t brought herself to watch the whole film.
The targeting of cultural artefacts may be as old as history, but the current wave of jihadist destruction can be dated from the Taliban’s decision to blow up the 6th century Bamiyan buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001. It has accelerated since the Arab spring, touching Africa in the summer of 2012, when the occupiers of Timbuktu tore down 14-centuries-old mausoleums, and reaching a full-blown crisis following the rise of Islamic State. The list of monuments damaged or lost is long, and includes the Mosque of the Prophet Younis, built on the ruins of ancient Nineveh in Iraq and blown up by Isis in July 2014; and the 3,000-year-old ruins at Nimrud and ancient Hatra, demolished in March 2015. Jihadists aren’t the only culprits: large parts of Sana’a in Yemen have been destroyed by airstrikes, and Libyan artefacts have been stolen, too – but it is Syria that most preoccupies Unesco. All six Syrian world heritage sites are classified as being in danger, as are tens of others on a secondary, “tentative” world heritage list. “We probably don’t know the half of it,” says Jonathan Tubb, keeper of the Middle East collection at the British Museum in London. “There are many areas of Syria for which we simply have no information.”
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