In the twenty-first century, terrorism still murders our heritage, plunders, and robs us of our references. By "our heritage", I mean the one of Humanity, of our shared history. The Arab Spring started in 2010 with anti-government revolutions in several Middle Eastern countries. The following year the movement touched Syria governed by Bashar-Al-Assad. People were hungry, jobless, and called for democracy. Their demands were first not received and moreover strongly repressed by the head of the government. The civil war was the perfect opportunity for terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to implant themselves in the territory in 2014. Battles between the government, the rebels and the terrorists caused both human and material damage.
Palmyra, a marvelous ancient city formerly listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stands today among the rubble. Most of its precious architecture has been erased forever, and there is nothing Syrian citizens can do about it. The jihadists have destroyed the funeral towers of tombs, sacred temples of Balshaamin and Bêl and even the roman theatre. But one of the most striking sad facts is the use of public executions, particularly the beheading of Khaled Al Assad, head of Antiquities in Palmyra. Since 2013, Palmyra has even been declared by UNESCO as “World Heritage in Danger”.
I had the chance to speak with Sahl Razzouk, a European Studies student in Denmark who fled Aleppo (Syria) in 2012 because of the war. Sharing his view on the current situation meant a lot to him:
“I felt terrible, and I tried to write about the destruction and what ISIS are doing, wiping a part of the country's heritage. I tried to express my resentment to what happened, and I was shocked that many of my friends from Syria started arguing and criticizing me for talking about "stones" more than humans. I felt bad and excused them, maybe I’m just so into this given my background studying Archaeology before European studies. I didn’t graduate but I learnt a lot about the meaning of this heritage.”
Two years ago, the fire reduced the cathedral Notre-Dame in Paris to ashes. As a French citizen, I felt how touched people were after the loss of a huge symbol of France. A country's heritage is precious for its inhabitants. Children grow up and build their identity by learning from their past and by discovering and understanding their origins. If you suddenly take this away from people, they feel like losing their identity. However, Sahl Razzouk made me realize that sometimes, it is not easy for people to understand how impactful material destruction can be on their cultural legacy:
“But not generalizing, people carried more sympathy to the human situation than what happened in Palmyra. Another story, I was once crossing a little village in Northern Syria and there were checkpoints by the opposition (they were radicals, but locals and you know they still carry the same mentality and disgusting tactics to control the areas). I remember I had a conversation with one of them because they stopped me asking for identification. I noticed they used relics from a Roman castle and when I asked them about it and if they knew how much this meant for the history of the area they were controlling, their answer was kind of stupid. One of them said: “why do you even care about bunch of stones? Don’t feel bad if we also bombed the whole castle”. In general, I was really sad that citizens of ‘nonradical background’ shared the same statement of those armed radicals, but on the other hand, a big proportion of the people I know were feeling deeply bad about the destruction that happened. Palmyra was one of many places that experienced this. Many other archaeological and ancient sites also got destroyed, exhumed or trafficked out of the country.”
That leads to another more fundamental problem: should we restore this damaged heritage? Can we bring back to life our slaughtered testimony?
If we take Palmyra's example, the ancient Roman architecture dating back two thousand years no longer exists. The destruction has put an end to tourism, endangering the economic health of Syria. For this reason, Russia wants to completely rebuild the lost city. The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg currently hosts the exhibition Two Palmyras: Real and Virtual (until 24th January). “Palmyra in Time and Space” is a 3D model exhibited, showing all the research concerning the city’s reconstruction. In addition, the museum wants to begin the restoration of the Archaeological Museum of Palmyra, its lost collections, and the Arch of Triumph.
Sahl Razzouk told me a bit about what happened after the destruction in Palmyra. He wonders what the real reason is why Russia is so involved in the country nowadays:
“They [the government] hosted many activities, such as musical concerts, sponsored by the defense ministry of Syria and Russia in Palmyra. I heard that Russia had an agreement with Syria for a common workshop to rebuild the old city. I find it interesting that Russia is pushing to do such reforms and I’m trying to understand why. Is it just to build the trust between Russia and Syrians after all the massacres they committed in Syria?”
Unfortunately, Palmyra's soul will never relive with the new infrastructures. In addition, I believe the deepest issue is now the future of our history. Indeed, terrorist events and the civil war in Syria belong to the country's culture and past too from now on. Rebuilding the ancient city would erase the testimony of the horrifying acts of ISIS. The point of view of UNESCO on the question is formal: we should not touch Palmyra to keep a track of the terrorists' presence. For instance, this solution has already been applied to the Buddhas of Bâmiyân destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Mounir Bouchenaki, Archaeologist Director of the Arab Regional Centre for Heritage found a middle ground. His proposal is to first secure the rubble to allow a meticulous analysis to identify what would need to be rebuilt or not. In this way, we could keep a testimony of two parts of Syria's history: Ancient Palmyra's architecture and the one today transformed by the terrorist acts. But this decision requires some time to be implemented. The Syrians are therefore far away from recovering the heritage they lost.
This whole debate is difficult and raises questions about the ownership of our heritage. Why should someone own more parts of history than others? Our past is common to everyone and should not be divided or cause disagreements. It should bring us together, unify humanity and not divide it. When the terrorists demolished Mali's heritage in 2012 as the mausoleums of Tombouctou or the Tomb of Askia in Gao, everyone contributed to unifying their strengths to rebuild the architecture as before. International organizations as UNESCO, neighboring countries or the UN tried to get the African country’s economy back on track. This shows the human solidarity around the past and our common legacy.
It is impressive to see how people are committed to their heritage and how they can forget about their disagreements when their legacy is endangered. Palmyra remains today the center of the questions raised above. No one can predict a terrorist attack, but awareness needs to be raised, at the very least, to allow our Heritage to be protected from further threats.