Antiquities in times of war

The Lebanon-Israel war made several cultural victims

Published on 29 April 2010

Author(s): Bikya Masr/Joseph Mayton

Type:  Feature

In Baalbek, one of the old world’s ancient relics, Israeli warplanes hit the outskirts of the ruins, knocking a few columns out of place at the necropolis

During the initial siege of Iraq by American troops the Baghdad Museum was looted as the US failed to protect the cultural heritage of Mesopotamia. According to reports, the US military vehemently protected the Ministry of Oil, while the plundering across town at the museum occurred. In past times, colonial armies stole artifacts from the nations they conquered, bringing them back to the ‘civilized’ world for all to see. Now, in the past century, wars have brought the question of cultural survival to the forefront of civilization.

As war continued to ravage Lebanon and Israel in 2006, culture was again on the menu. In Baalbek, one of the old world’s ancient relics, Israeli warplanes hit the outskirts of the ruins, knocking a few columns out of place at the necropolis. Baalbek is arguably the most magnificent Roman or Greek necropolises outside of Rome of Athens. Its size and beauty speak to an era long ago. However, as war barrages the small Levant country every half decade, the question of maintaining archeological sites and history has become a massive task for archaeologists in Lebanon. The situation here shows the struggle to keep history and culture safe.

“We must remain conscience of our history in times of peace and even more so during war,” argued Hikmat Jammal, an archaeologist working at Baalbek. “Places like Baalbek are so important to our culture that if we lose them we lose part of the history that we had loved and cared for.” Jammal said that while he is sure the bomb was not meant for the ancient ruins, he felt that people are increasingly forgetting that cultural history is just as important as political history. “They are intertwined in a nation’s life,” Jammal continued. “What needs to happen is more understanding of how to deal with artifacts in times of war … look at how poorly the US dealt with this situation after taking Baghdad.”

MacGuire Gibson, head of the American Association for Research in Baghdad, was consulted before the Iraq invasion but the Pentagon ignored his warnings about sites to protect. “It’s a lot like a lobotomy. The deep memory of an entire culture, a culture that has continued for thousands of years, has been removed,” he told The same can be said of Lebanon during the fighting in 2006. Jammal believes that while the human toll of the war is great, the cultural levy is just as important, especially when Lebanon and Israel stop the fighting. “When Israel bombed part of the Roman ruins here [Baalbek] they reminded me of the Taliban when they destroyed the Buddha statues,” continued Jammal.

Naamloze afbeelding

There are statutes in place that help to protect cultural heritage during times of war. The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has issued a statement of warning to the parties involved in fighting here in Lebanon. In their statement they make note of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Even of Armed Conflict and the principles of customary international law to protect the region’s rich archaeological, cultural and historic heritage. “The Hague convention calls on parties to armed conflict to avoid targeting of, and to minimize damage of, such cultural artifacts as monuments, sites and antiquities,” the organization’s statement reads.

According to AIA, both Israel and Lebanon are parties to the 1954 Hague Convention. “While the AIA realizes that not all parties to this conflict are nation states and therefore not parties to the Hague Convention, we nonetheless urge all parties to the conflict to work within the terms of the Hague Convention and customary international law to minimize damage and destruction of these cultural sites, which are of great value to all of humankind,” AIA continues.

It is not as simple as it seems, with Israel arguing that they attacked locations that were sanctuaries for Hezbollah fighters, which in the early weeks of that 2006 war found Baalbek with their bombs. This makes it increasingly difficult for the protection of such historical relics, such as Baalbek and museums across the country. Provided all sides work together to maintain military targets as their only places of attack, historical sites can be preserved, said Lebanese Member of Parliament Pierre Daccache. He believes that because Israel has a lot of history that it is unlikely that they are going to deliberately drop bombs on Lebanon’s historical and cultural icons. “But then again, this is war and anything is possible,” the MP said. “I would say that Israel would not want their holy places bombed and in turn they should be more responsible in their attacks near historical monuments. Thus far, they have done a decent job … at least in one category.”

Israeli warplanes targeted one of Beirut’s old lighthouses during the 2006 war. This was the second lighthouse to be built in Beirut after the first one was surrounded by buildings and could no longer be seen from water. According to analysts the destruction had no significant strategic impact on the war, but was hit because it has a symbolic impact.

Lebanon has had to rebuild their country numerous times over the years and following the end of violence in the 2006 war they had to do the same again. The three lighthouses on the coastline mark the continuation of the struggle to persevere. Even while the end of hostilities edged closer, the destruction of the lighthouse in Manara, will linger in residents minds long after the bombings stopped. “War destroys people and life but it can destroy culture and heritage if we do not strive to make sure this sort of action doesn’t happen … it is vital to a country rebuilding and we in Lebanon know too well what that entails,” adds Jammal. “Who knows, the situation in Iraq may have turned out differently had Iraqi culture not been humiliated by the looting of the museum … people forget how strongly this region believes in their history.”

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