By Denise Marray
Gulf Times London Correspondent
The destruction and looting of historic sites in Syria and Iraq was raised in the British House of Commons last week.
Conservative MP Robert Jenrick, who prior to being elected to parliament in 2014 was a director of Christie’s, opened the debate with the following observation: “The current conflict in Syria, which has now enveloped large parts of Iraq, has ended its fourth year. We have seen at least 250,000 people killed, 6.5mn people displaced, 2mn refugees in neighbouring countries, and abuses, killings and ethnic and religious cleansing on an almost unimaginable scale by ISIL, the Assad regime and many others, and there is no sign of abatement.
“In a time of such terrible human suffering, the question must be asked: why should we turn our attention, even momentarily, to the destruction and looting of heritage—of mosques, libraries, souks, castles and churches?”
In answering that question, he pointed to the long term corrosive impact of the erasing of heritage, and the dangerous profiteering of those intent on destruction.
“First, it could be a deliberate attempt to subjugate communities by destroying the buildings and the heritage that they hold dear, and to rob future generations of any connection to the past, or the ties that bind them together, that might allow reconciliation or even facilitate functioning economies based on tourism and visitors.
“Secondly, systematic looting might be viewed as a significant revenue stream for ISIL, the Assad regime and others.”
He told the House that today, “ISIL alone now controls more than 4,000 places of historic and archaeological interest as well as libraries, great and small, such as the Mosul library, in which it recently destroyed all the books that it took issue with including the entire children’s section.”
He praised the efforts of the curators, site guards, librarians, monks and academics trying to protect the heritage by producing inventories or by bearing witness and producing the facts for the rest of the world. “Many are unable or unwilling to leave, and hope—I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say this—still to be alive when it is all over to pick up the pieces,” he said.
He gave an example of the price that people are paying: “Let me tell one story that was told to me by the British Museum. In October, a site warden at Nineveh was executed by ISIL, and every adult male who came to mourn him disappeared, and are presumed murdered. They were remarkable individuals. Most of their stories cannot and should not be told for fear of endangering them. In part, this debate pays tribute to them and salutes what they are doing.”
He called for all countries to take a responsible stand in refusing to engage in the trading or hoarding of looted artefacts. He noted the lack of any antiquities law or proper law enforcement in many Gulf states.
The British government, he said “could raise the priority of this matter in our diplomatic efforts—at the UN where a resolution is being sought; in bilateral relationships with neighbouring countries such as Turkey; through our embassy in Beirut, a key conduit for this market; and in our relations with the Gulf states.
“In the longer term, we should bring into law The Hague convention on works of art from conflict areas, which would be a powerful symbol of intent. It is hard for us to continue to justify not signing it, especially as the United Kingdom—proudly for me, as someone who used to work in the art business—is the leading hub in the world for that growing and extremely successful business.”
He appealed for assistance to be given to the people on the ground to support them in their dangerous work of saving the cultural heritage. He pointed to the training and mentoring programmes provided by the British Museum and University College London as examples of the kind of assistance that can be provided in, for example, the compiling of inventories.
He said that it was vital for the world to recognise that losing the rich heritage of Iraq and Syria, “ancient civilisations of great beauty, accomplishment and intellectual achievement”, is a loss for all civilisations and future generations.
By Denise Marray