Historical story

Cultural heritage under attack

Last updated:2022-07-25

For years, UvA archaeologist Joris Kila has been committed to protecting cultural heritage in conflict areas. He visited trouble spots such as Libya and Egypt and he was recently awarded an important international prize – the Art Protection and Security Award 2012. “I try to translate scientific insights into terms that military planners understand.”

What problems do you focus on exactly? “In conflict zones, think of countries like Syria, Egypt or Afghanistan, cultural and archaeological heritage is constantly threatened by the warring parties and criminals who see their chance. A striking example is the looting of the archaeological museum in Baghdad in 2003. Important and very precious archaeological finds disappeared without a trace. American soldiers stood by and watched.”

“And while there is an international treaty (Convention for the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict, The Hague, 1954) that has been signed by, for example, the US (albeit only ratified in 2008), but also Syria and Egypt, and has been ratified. That treaty obliges countries to do everything possible in accordance with certain rules to protect cultural heritage. The Netherlands has also signed the treaty, but within Defense there is currently no attention for foreign missions and in the teaching programmes. I think that's a bad thing.”

Shouldn't that treaty be revised first? Conflicts between two countries with professional armies are much less common these days. “That is indeed an additional problem that I am concerned with. Today, most armed conflicts are asymmetrical in nature. This means that wars are increasingly being waged between unequal but also non-official in the sense of non-uniformed warring parties. For example, a relatively small group of rebels against a large state army. As an outsider it is difficult to get in touch with the warring parties, so it is very difficult to point out the importance of cultural heritage to them. There are also legal consequences because there are no official combatants on which the law of war is often still based.

“In the case of Afghanistan, but also more recently in Libya, a foreign intervention force eventually became involved in the conflict. That was immediately one of the successes of our international research group. We drew up a so-called no-strike list. It specified the locations of important archaeological sites in Libya with military coordinates. The commanders passed this list on to NATO pilots who carried out bombing raids. There was no bombing in those specific places or the nearby heritage was spared through precision bombing.”

You have recently been to Egypt and Libya to see the state of the cultural heritage in those countries after the 'Arab Spring'. How was it? “It was not that bad in Libya. Many archaeological sites have been sealed off since the beginning of the conflict, leaving them fairly intact. The local population was especially to blame for this. Unfortunately, there has been massive looting in Egypt, and this continues to this day. We have only been able to check sites around Cairo (Gizeh, Saqqara, Abusir etc.) as sites were sometimes exposed when the guards had left overnight. Quite a bit of damage has been done there. Disturbing reports are also coming from Syria, where a conflict is currently underway. For example, the Syrian army has set up a military post in a temple complex near Palmyra. Something that the 1954 Hague Convention expressly forbids.”

You further write that there is an important link between cultural heritage and identity formation. Why does that matter? “Cultural heritage can symbolize the identity of a (population) group. By looting or destroying the cultural heritage of an opponent in the event of an armed conflict, you also destroy part of an opponent's identity. That is an important reason why cultural heritage is so often under attack.”

You've been researching this issue for five years, and you recently received a major international award for your work. What role can science play in protecting cultural heritage? “Prior to missions in conflict zones in, for example, the Middle East, it is important to make military personnel aware that the soil, or as the Americans call it, the 'human terrain' on which they will soon be working, contains heritage that they are obliged to comply with according to applicable treaties. are to protect. If they come across damaged or looted archaeological sites, museums, archives or monuments, etc., they should report it. Mapping where the sites are should become a mandatory part of the preparation of every mission. The success of the no-strike list for Libya shows that it is indeed possible.”

“In addition, in order to prevent massive looting like in Iraq in 2003, we need to be well aware of the backgrounds of this type of looting. People may loot out of anger or vandalism. But also for the simple reason that they are hungry and know that archaeological objects are worth money because of the apparently still increasing demand. There is also looting on behalf of dealers and collectors organized from the West or by parties such as the Taliban.”

“The latter is an important focus in my work. To show military planners and commanders the importance of protecting cultural heritage, I try to convince them that there is direct military advantage to be gained, so-called 'force multipliers.'When precious archaeological heritage falls into the hands of an adversary and if someone knows how to pass it on to the antiques market via smugglers, he can buy weaponry with the proceeds.

“In addition to the aforementioned Taliban, Iraqi militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr also partly financed his fight against the Americans in this way. In addition, an army that does its best to protect heritage builds a good reputation because it follows the international legal order. Despite these arguments, the priority for these kinds of matters with the Dutch army is still minimal. Especially with the current austerity trend at Defense, nobody wants to spend money and attention on it anymore.”

More about cultural heritage at Science24:

  • Egyptian heritage under threat
  • Graves in Westerbork