Open Democracy
Oct 4 2014

Cultural heritage and violence in the Middle East

Fiona Rose-Greenland 4 October 2014

When people are dying in their thousands, why should we care about the
destruction of artefacts? Cultural violence has long been a component
in the obliteration of communities; it legitimates the denial of
diversity and makes them much harder to rebuild.

Theatres of erasure: Syria and Iraq

The violence in Iraq has killed nearly 6,000 civilians since the start
of 2014, according to the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq. In Syria,
over 100,000 lives have been claimed and some two million persons
displaced since the start of the civil war in March 2011.

Media coverage has rightly focused on the human dimension of
suffering. With this essay, however, we want to reflect upon another
important aspect of the violence: the systematic destruction of
cultural sites and objects.

According to reports of the activist Facebook group Le patrimoine
archéologique syrien en danger, all six UNESCO World Heritage sites in
Syria have been damaged, major museum collections at Homs and Hama
have been looted, and dozens of ancient tells have been obliterated by

In Iraq, recent media stories recount ISIS fighters' use of
antiquities to raise revenues. So-called blood antiquities function as
cash-cows, fetching high prices from unscrupulous collectors and
netting a handsome cut for ISIS.

As devastating as this news is, Syria and Iraq are simply additional
chapters in the long-running story wherein conflict is characterised
by a two-fold assault on humanity: human bodies themselves as well as
the objects and sites that people create and infuse with cultural

Cultural violence is not a practice exclusive to Islamic groups or
areas; rather, it is the nature of all radical ideologies, religious
and national alike. They proceed with a predictable agenda: first to
paint the world in black and white, and then to erase all shades of
cultural practice from non-white to black.

Before asking ourselves what steps should be taken to save artefacts,
monuments, and antiquities in the Middle East, we need to understand
why doing so matters. This requires an understanding of the broader
historical pattern of organised cultural violence.

Cultural violence and genocide: a 20th-century hate story

The destruction of human communities is incomplete without cultural
violence. This was the conclusion of lawyer and human rights advocate
Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-born jurist who coined the term "genocide"
and fought successfully for its recognition by international legal
bodies as a crime. In Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944), he argued:

By 'genocide' we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic
group...[It signifies] a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at
the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national
groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. (Lemkin
1944: 80)

Among the "essential foundations" of the life of human societies,
Lemkin argued, were cultural sites, objects, and practices. The
Holocaust galvanised his human rights work, but it was the tragic case
of Turkish Armenians during the beginning decades of the twentieth
century that served as the basis for Lemkin's theory of genocide.

Turkish Armenians were subject to organised murder and deportation
under the Ottoman government, an event now widely acknowledged despite
continued denials by Turkish officials. Current scholarly discussion
on the Armenian genocide, however, focuses almost exclusively on the
human destruction, not taking into consideration the systematic
annihilation of Armenian sites and monuments that has taken place
since then.

Yet, the cultural destruction has been so extensive that few people in
Turkey today even know that eastern Asia Minor was once the ancestral
lands of Armenians; they do not because the Turkish state and its
governments have systematically removed all markers of the Armenians'

Such cultural destruction occurred in stages. First, the potential of
inherent threat was raised publicly to legitimate the forced removal
of Armenian women, men, and children of the Ottoman Empire, plundering
what they left behind and settling Muslim refugees in their houses.
Then, all Armenian churches, schools and monasteries were confiscated
and settled by either state officers or officials, or local Muslim

Since Asia Minor had been the ancestral lands of the Armenians for
thousands of years, the churches and monasteries as well as their
cemeteries were especially significant in documenting the course of
human history. Those Armenian buildings not converted to mosques were
torn down, used to store grain or shelter animals, or employed by the
military for target practice.

Also significant in this context was the systematic replacement of
Armenian place names (on streets, buildings, neighbourhoods, towns,
and villages) with Turkish names. The erasure of Armenians from
collective memory was completed during the Turkish Republic; in their
history textbooks, Turkish children hear nothing about Armenian
culture or learn simply that they were enemies of the Turks.

In sum, all cultural meaning that had emerged in the past and present
was eliminated systematically blow by blow, leaving behind patterns of
discrimination cut through with deep silences. This is cultural death,
and it is especially dangerous because it legitimates the denial of
diversity by authoritarian states and their societies.

Cultural violence was not an Ottoman innovation. Historical records
document previous erasures of peoples and their culture: the Native
Americans and First Nations of north America; the Mayas and Aztecs of
Mesoamerica; and the Roman destruction of Carthage (north Africa),
which some scholars point to as the earliest recorded organised

So what's new about the current spate of cultural violence in the
Middle East? The Internet and new media are bringing new complexity to
the pursuit of and resistance to cultural violence. We will wrap up
our essay by turning our thoughts to new media's Janus-like ability to
silence and amplify the experience of cultural violence.

The perils and possibilities of new media

The Facebook site we referred to in the opening of this essay is one
of many new media efforts to draw attention to the destruction of
historic sites, structures, and monuments in Syria.

Complementary projects are underway in Egypt, where archaeologist Dr.
Monica Hanna posts regular Tweets and Facebook posts about damage to
Egyptian historic culture; and in Cambodia, where the Facebook page
Heritage Watch--Cambodia is documenting in words and pictures looters'
ransacking of ancient temples and illicit sales of Cambodian cultural

Are these efforts effective? If their primary objective is to make
publicly available evidence of cultural violence, then yes - they have
succeeded. Whether such efforts have actually curbed rates of cultural
violence we cannot yet say. What we do know is that amplification
threatens ruling powers.

A case in point is the harrowing plight of Syrian journalist Ali
Mahmoud Othman, co-founder of Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en
danger. Othman was arrested by government forces in March 2012 and has
not been heard of since his televised "confession" in May 2012. As of
this writing, his supporters and loved ones continue to fear for his

If you are an educated but non-specialist reader, the chances are that
you know nothing of the Othman case but have heard a lot about James
Foley, the American journalist murdered by ISIS last month. The flip
side of new media, then, is that it has the power to direct our
attention to particular cases or issues while ignoring others.

Recurring Internet images of ISIS fighters beheading western men
obscure the equally outrageous and horrific acts of sexual violence
against women, torture of children, and destruction of homes, markets,
churches, Shi'a mosques, and ancient monuments. All of this
constitutes the challenging environment in which cultural activists
must do their work.

Moving ahead by preserving the past

What should we make of it all? Human beings are suffering death,
trauma, and displacement everyday in Syria and Iraq, but there remains
a thorny question: Surely human suffering should be prioritised before
cultural objects?

The simple answer is yes; people come first, and the basic operational
strategies of aid organisations and foreign governments - providing
tents, food, medicine, and psychological support - should fill the

However, ranking aid priorities from most to least urgent is
complicated and short-sighted. Lemkin's teachings still have something
to say to us today: without monuments and cultural objects, social
groups are atomised into disaffected, soulless individuals.

For this reason, the cultural environment deserves simultaneous close
attention by policymakers and foreign governments and NGOs. When
cultural violence is allowed to flourish the process of re-building
human communities is difficult if not impossible.