Even as reports of Islamic militants smashing statues of musicians and poets in Mosul, Iraq and desecrating the tomb of a 12th century philosopher were circulating, the 38th UNESCO World Heritage committee was holding its annual meeting in Doha. The sessions in Qatar saw new applications from the Arab world to be included in the list of heritage sites and, more importantly, prompted debate on how best to protect sites in the line of fire from damage and destruction.
While a variety of heritage questions connected to the Arab world were raised at the Committee held in Doha’s Convention Centre, for many observers these matters were eclipsed by the crisis in Syria and Iraq with the imminent threat from the Islamic State insurgents and others. Monument protection and conservation at the international level are one of the tasks of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) which was established at the end of the Second World War providing concerted worldwide support for the monuments inscribed on the list.
Sheikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad Al Thani, who chaired the committee meeting made an announcement before the start of business that Qatar was donating $10m to set up a fund to help protect and restore heritage sites threatened by physical damage from armed conflict. This generous gesture brought a spontaneous round of applause from the assembled experts before they got down to work. The committee’s work comprises implementation of the World Heritage Convention, as well as defining the use of the World Heritage Fund and allocating financial assistance – upon request – from any of the 21 countries, known as State parties.
The setting up of the special fund added to the cautious optimism expressed by Mounir Bouchenaki, Director of the Arab Regional Centre, based in Bahrain who recently received the Syrian Director General of Museums and Antiquities, Maamoun Abdulkarim at the Centre’s headquarters in Manama. Bahrain’s Minister of Culture Sheikha Mai Al Khalifa is keen to see Syrian employees in charge of supervising and monitoring the country’s six endangered World Heritage Sites, receive specialised training to enable them to carry out their work more efficiently.
“Under the umbrella of UNESCO, the Bahrain-based Arab Regional Centre and the International Centre for the Study and Preservation and Restoration of Culturalin Sharjah, will be holding training sessions,” Mounir Bouchenaki explained: “We discussed each of the historic monuments as well as the museum and organised a programme of activities that will be launched shortly,” he noted. Until the security situation improves training sessions will be held outside Syria.The European Union has earmarked two million euros for restorations work in Syria and this work has already been started at the Crack des Chevaliers fortress, under the guidance of Maamoun Abdelkarim, Director General of the country’s Museums and Antiquities.
ICCROM, which currently has 133 member states is the only institution of its kind with a worldwide mandate to promote the conservation of all types of cultural heritage, both movable and immovable, raising awareness about the importance of preserving cultural heritage through training, research, co-operation and advocacy as well as disseminating information.
Although the Arab world is home to a huge diversity of natural heritage, with particular emphasis on desert and marine landscapes, the number of natural sites recognised as such is currently the smallest of any UNESCO region. Italy alonehas 49 sites, while the entire Arab region has a mere 77. Of these only six are reorded as being natural sites of outstanding universal value.
The Arab regional Centre in Bahrain aims to enhance the area’s representation on the World Heritage List through personalised training sessions that will help countries such as Iraq, where the crisis has impinged on preparing the necessary files to apply for a place on the world heritage list, qualify for the process. So far the Centre has hosted three workshops inviting 15 Iraqi participants to each session along with international experts involved in overseeing the compilation of a file on the marsh lands of southern Iraq.
According to Haifaa Abdulhalim, a World Heritage co-ordinator at the Centre in Bahrain, this is part of a dynamic action plan to increase the number of recognised natural sites on the list. “We are working with a view to getting the marsh lands in the south of Iraq being accepted onto the World Heritage List and remain hopeful these efforts will lead to success when the nomination files are considered,” she noted.
The team in Manama are also holding workshops for experts from Najaf to facilitate the preparation of technical files on the Najaf cemetery which, they are optimistic, may also be included on the influential list.
Files now being studied by advisory bodies will likely be presented in 2015 in Berlin, Germany, during the next World Heritage Committee.
Mounir Bouchenaki is an expert on heritage in Iraq. He was part of a mission in a mission to Baghdad at the end of the Iraqi invasion in 2003, where he visiting the damaged and looted National Museum and many other cultural institutions in the capital and elsewhere.
Bouchenaki is optimistic that in the case of Iraq, there are at least two reasons to be optimistic. “One is the awareness of the population who realise the richness of their heritage and will endeavour to protect it. The second is support from the international community,” he explains. He is also buoyed up by the sharing of expertise with Africa; the collaboration is still in its early days but which holds great promise.
Although concern over the deepening crisis in Iraq and Syria was never far away at the Doha meetings, there were some success stories in the making. Part of the task of the Centre in Bahrain is controlling illicit building at historical and archaeological sites in Arab countries. This is not always straightforward as in the case of Yemen, where lack of proper regulation and a weakened central power compound difficulties already inherent in the prevention of illegal building. Kamal Bittar, who has been in charge of the UNESCO site at Zabid has succeeded in keeping the location on the list. Zabid was the capital of Yemen between the 13th and 15th centuries and home of the city’s famed Islamic University, as well as a host of other domestic and military architecture. Today, modern day demands for accommodation and services have encroached upon the ancient sites and threaten to engulf all traces of the city’s ancient heritage to the extent that Zabid was about to be deleted by a decision of the World Heritage Committee last year. “Through our intervention we obtained very concrete results, no pun intended!” he says. “The Yemeni authorities have now declared a new law protecting of historical cities and have also put in place the mechanisms that will ensure all illicit constructions in the old city of Zabid are destroyed.” The World Heritage Committee meeting in Qatar, having considered these results, elected to keep the city of Zabid on the list.”
Mohamed Sameh Amr, chairperson of the UNESCO Executive Board accepts that in the face of escalating violence and the deepening crises in Iraq and Syria, with the ever-present prospect prospect of fighting spilling over into other countries, questions are inevitably raised about whether heritage sites can ever be properly protected from the ravages of war. Mohamed Sameh Amr believes that by concerted effort it is possible to make a difference. “It is important to remember that not only UNESCO has the power to intervene in such situations. There must be co-ordination with the local authorities,” he states. “What we have to do is to co-ordinate with those groups who have control on the ground, whatever their political allegiance. We are only interested in protecting culture not in playing politics.”
But as the power base splinters, old boundaries disappear and new political allegiances form it is more and more difficult for the likes of Mounir Bouchenaki to come up with strategy that takes into consideration not only today’s reality but that of the coming months.