Culture and History on the Front Line: Part 2 – What can be done?

In part one I outlined, in the briefest terms, the cultural crimes that Islamic State are perpetrating, and how this is an issue for all the people of the world. In this post I will look at the few things we can do.

Criminalisation

The first thing that may spring to mind is to criminalise the destruction of cultural properties and important archaeological sites. The trouble is that this has already occurred; since the 1862 Lieber Code there have been laws in place in parts of the world to protect cultural and historical sites and buildings in times of war. This was finally brought to an international level in the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property and its Additional Protocols. Under these documents the acts of IS are undoubtedly war crimes as the Director of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has repeatedly said in the media.

Unfortunately there are several issues with this route of protection, first that it is not respected by ISIS; they were not a signatory to the convention. Secondly that its enforcement is hampered by the fact that Iraq and Syria are still in a time of war, and finally because the regulations prescribe no punishment for cultural war crimes. So it seems that this route will only become a source of restitution after the fact and in the event that some IS soldiers and leaders are captured after their defeat.

Virtual Reconstruction

Another option, that is currently underway in the case of Mosul Museum, is to construct a virtual replica of the museum before it was destroyed. This has the benefit of being crowdsource-able, in fact it relies on the donation of photographs and videos of the museum and its collections from anyone. Additionally the reconstruction, using photogrammetry, can be used to produce replicas of the lost items albeit at a lower three-dimensional resolution.

If you would like to contribute and have images from the museum, likely before 2003, then please visit http://projectmosul.itn-dch.net/ and get involved.

‘Monuments Men’

The final main option I will feature here is the most dangerous, and yet is underway in some parts of IS occupied territory and other areas they have recently lost. In a similar way to the 2014 film by the same name, a small group of academics is crossing regularly into Syria from Turkey to record, hide and protect archaeological sites, material culture and documents. This approach is best suited to protecting small items and not entire sites but it has immense value, so much so that should it be offered I would be tempted to join them.

So overall then what can be done?

It seems most likely that, as troubling as it is to believe, the main responses and solutions will be after the damage has been done. I would argue, as Simon Jenkins does in the Spectator, that reconstruction must be a priority. I would add that it should not take the over twelve years that UNESCO has been wrangling about how to deal with the empty caverns where the Bamiyan Buddhas were seated before their detonation. This reconstruction should be swift and utilise all of the available knowledge and technology. Of course this will not compare to the originals in many ways but it will spit in the face of fanaticism and will give the chance of a tourism boost to the region, allowing everyone to experience the history and archaeology that will otherwise be lost.

Christopher Booth 20.3.2015

Part 1

Sources:

Jenkins, S. (2015) “When Isis destroy ancient monuments, it’s not always true that ‘people are more important’” – http://bit.ly/1F2Ud1w – accessed 18/3/2015

Parkinson, J; Albayrak, A; and Mavin, D. (2015) “Syrian ‘Monuments Men’ Race to Protect Antiquities as Looting Bankrolls Terror” – http://on.wsj.com/1DGZSdj – accessed 20/3/2015

http://projectmosul.itn-dch.net/