The deliberate destruction of priceless objects in destabilised regions must be stopped.
The deliberate destruction of statues in the Mosul Museum in Iraq by ISIS in March 2015 shocked the world.
The destruction was confronting, and a powerful propaganda tool for the group who seek to eradicate the symbols of past civilizations. The incident elicited shock and indignation, and echoed video footage of the demolition of the massive standing Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001 by the Taliban.
In the West, many wonder what could motivate such seemingly pointless destruction. Examination of the case of the Bamiyan Buddha is revealing.
Bamiyan was famed for its massive standing Buddhas, carved into a cliff face in the 6th century AD. The 2001 destruction was not the first attempt to demolish what were viewed as heretical images. In the 17th century Aurangzeb, a Moghul emperor, tried to destroy the Buddhas with cannon fire, as did the later Persian king, Nader Afshar. In the 19th century the Afghan king Abdurrahman blasted the face of one of the Buddhas at Bamiyan.
Examining the reasons behind these attempted and successful destructions indicates they were either ethnically motivated or driven by fundamentalist doctrine. The Hazara peoples who inhabit the region around Bamiyan believe that Abdurrahman’s destruction was motivated by ethnic hatred as the Buddha had Hazara facial features.
The earlier attempts at destruction and the last, successful attempt were probably iconoclastic. Shorty after the 2001 destruction, Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was quoted as saying “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them.”
While these are examples of heritage destruction driven by ideals or hatred, a third motivator, in which heritage is not destroyed but stolen, must be considered — profit.
In some cases the theft of antiquities may be opportunistic criminal networks exploiting destabilised states to loot archaeological sites or museums. In other cases looting may be motivated by the need to raise funds to purchase materiel.
The shadowy world of the antiquities trade makes accurate figures difficult to obtain but the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has estimated the annual traffic in antiquities to be around US $2 billion. But some believe the value may be much higher, almost equaling the illegal trade in weapons or drugs, estimated in the region of US $43 billion in 2011.
It has been shown that at least some illegally obtained material is traded through long-established auction houses and perhaps a greater amount through private ‘respected’ dealers from whom many museums acquire pieces for their collections.
In formulating policy on how to better protect cultural heritage, the international community needs to consider the motivating factors and attempt to develop strategies to safeguard the heritage treasures of affected regions.
In the case of moveable heritage, transporting the objects to safer locations is one option. Thankfully, many items were moved prior to the recent iconoclastic destruction at the Mosul Museum.
These strategies rely on successfully predicting potential threats and are the only viable method of protecting antiquities.
The United States government was criticised for its failure to protect the Baghdad museum from looting during the 2003 occupation of the city. The looting of the museum was “entirely predictable” according to Irving Finkel of the British Museum, and entirely avoidable.
There is no way to ensure complete safety for antiquities and World Heritage listed locations, but certainly the development of strategies that would enable authorities to foresee potential threats is crucial. Given the value of the antiquities trade and the possible source of revenue to extremist factions antiquities provide, governments much invest more in the protection of heritage around the world.
This can be done by: taking a stronger stand on the illegal traffic and sale of antiquities and putting more funding toward the enforcement of international and national laws that protect antiquities; supporting conservation efforts by non-governmental organisations; tightening museum acquisition policy; funding academic research on the topic; and supporting outreach and education in areas affected by looting.
If the destruction of these priceless items is not to be in vain, we need to urgently take these policy steps to protect other vulnerable heritage for future generations.