The Impact of Armed Conflict on Cultural Heritage

Historically significant sites and objects of great cultural importance have been no exception to the effects of war. Their ruin becomes part of the casualties during times of armed conflict and political violence. Modern warfare and a lack of respect from intervening forces and countrymen themselves have led to the destruction of cultural heritage. 

Within days of the United States ground invasion of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, significant looting of museums in Babylon, Kufa, and Baghdad stripped the country of Mesopotamian relics. The U.S. converted the 4,000-year-old city of Babylon into a military base (Camp Alpha, 2003-2004) causing major damage though digging, excavating, scraping, and leveling the ancient city.1 The damage done to the city of Babylon is a dismal display of the effects war can have on cultural property. Unfortunately, Iraq is not an isolated case.  

US soldiers climbing the Ziggurat of Ur, near Base Adder in Iraq
2010, Spc. Samantha Ciaramitaro

Syria joins the list of national cultures distraught by the destruction of historical sites which has transcended even religious divides. The Crac des Chevaliers, which was once one of the best-preserved crusader castle in the world, has been destroyed by bombs in Syrian Civil war. This grand 11th century castle documented the evolution and influence of architecture in the Middle East during the time of the Crusaders. Each conqueror of Syria, including the Mamluks, made efforts to protect the castle despite its European Christian heritage.2 Saladin’s fortress (Qal’at Saleh El-Din) has also been desecrated. Mosques and other cultural sites have been the victims of civil war, bombing and intentional bulldozing, including Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque which has been diminished to rubble.  

Crac des Chevaliers prior to bombings
Photo by Bernard Gagnon, 2010. CC BY-SA 4.0

The multilateral approach to the war on terror, and that specifically with ISIS in Syria has invoked irreversible damage. Although destruction has garnered international attention, little effort is being put forth to restore heritage sites in the Middle East and North Africa. However, when more than 400,000 people have died3, how can you shift the focus away from the use of chemical weapons and mass civilian casualty to the protection of monuments?4 Disparaging attitudes and disrespect towards cultural heritage has in some ways permitted the indiscriminate bombing of historically significant places all over Iraq and Syria.   

Rubble in Syria, 2017

Political violence at large has led to destruction of cultural property, sometimes just because sites and the objects held within them were caught in the middle of a contested location. Political violence can be defined as the use of force to gain political power; it seeks to achieve a political objective through forceful tactics. This includes riots, civil war, terrorism, revolution, and coups.  

Egypt has fallen victim to cultural destruction during periods of political violence related to its internal strife. In 2014, Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art suffered extensive damage caused by a car bomb explosion meant to target the police station across the street. The museum holds 100,000 artifacts and a rare extensive collection reflecting Egyptian history. Egypt’s diverse national heritage reflects the development of humankind through Pharaonic, Coptic, and Islamic periods. Among the destroyed were dozens of artifacts from a collection dating to the Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171) and more than half a dozen manuscripts belonging to the Egyptian National Library and Archives.5  From 2011 to 2013 about 100 attacks were reported on Coptic churches in Egypt, especially targeting Upper Egypt which contains many monuments to the rich Coptic narrative.6  

  1. UNESCO Report. “Final Report on Damage Assessment in Babylon”. International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding of the Cultural Heritage of Iraq. 2009.
  2. Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din
  3. How Syria’s Death Toll is Lost in the Fog of War
  4. Gone: Syria’s Priceless Heritage Are Now Ruins of War
  5. Cairo Blast Rips Into Islamic Art Museum, Damaging Key Global Collection
  6. Churches of Upper Egypt