Friday, May 29, 2015

Uniting for Heritage

An international conference held in Cairo this week is spearheading efforts to protect and preserve the region’s cultural heritage, reports Nevine El-Aref.

Bokova and Eldamaty during the conference’s opening session and at the MIA
Ever since antiquity, cultural heritage has been a casualty of crime and conflict. As long as there have been tombs, there have been tomb raiders and illicit excavations. As long as there have been civilizations, there have been enemy armies bent on plundering them.

As the value of antiquities continues to skyrocket, organised criminals, armed insurgents and terrorist networks have turned to cultural racketeering to fund crime and conflict around the world.

Recent videos on social media showing Islamic State (IS) militants destroying ancient artefacts in Iraq’s museums and blowing up 3,000-year-old temples, destroying priceless heritage, have sent shockwaves through the archaeological community and international organisations.

In some of the videos, militants can be seen taking sledgehammers to the iconic winged bulls of Assyria and sawing apart floral reliefs in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud. Afterwards, the entire site was destroyed with explosives.

Destruction at the MIA in the aftermath of the car bomb
explosion in January 2014
photo: Khaled El-Fiqi
In an attempt to stand up against such crimes and stop the destruction of ancient temples and artefacts in Iraq by the extremist IS group, as well as the looting and smuggling of antiquities in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya, a two-day conference titled “Culture Under Threat: the Security, Economic and Cultural Impact of Antiquities Theft in the Middle East” was held in Egypt this week.

It was organised by two US-based NGOs, the Antiquities Coalition and the Middle East Institute, in cooperation with Egypt’s ministries of foreign affairs and antiquities and under the joint patronage of UNESCO.

Ten Arab countries attended the conference, including Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the United Arabs Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Egypt. The aim of the conference was to step up international efforts to stop the illicit trafficking of cultural objects and antiquities as a means of financing terrorism.

“Egypt holds a special place in UNESCO’s history because it has defined the gold standard in international cooperation for safeguarding the common heritage of humanity — this is precisely the spirit we need to instill today,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said at the conference.

The ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud destroyed by I.S.I.S.
She pointed out that the 1960s salvage campaign for the Nubian temples in Upper Egypt had embodied such cooperation. UNESCO played a major role in the relocation of the monuments.

She added that it is important to see the same cooperation between Egyptian NGOs and the private sector to protect the Middle East’s cultural property and human heritage from looting and destruction, such as is now happening in Iraq and Syria.

Bokova highlighted Egypt’s efforts to regain looted and smuggled artefacts. As she said, “Egypt has succeeded in proving to the whole world its capability to protect its cultural heritage. An example of this is when the public made a human chain to protect the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square on 28 January 2011.”

“We need full cooperation between the security services and the antiquities authorities concerned, as well as to work on the regional and international levels in order to solve such problems,” Bokova said.

“The destruction of cultural heritage is being used as a tactic of war, to intimidate populations, to finance criminal activities, to spread hatred,” she added. 

The fact that ten ministers had gathered at the conference was “a strong symbol of our joint commitment to respond, and UNESCO is determined to live up to its responsibilities, because we believe the protection of heritage is far more that a cultural issue — it has become a security imperative,” she said.

ACTIONS TO BE TAKEN: Speaking at the conference, Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty called for amendment of the 1970 UNESCO Convention that stipulates the return of all looted and illegally smuggled antiquities to their homelands. He asked that this be extended to include antiquities looted and smuggled before 1970...... Read More 

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