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Regional strife destroying historical Arab treasures

Constant wars and instability are wreaking havoc on ancient relics across the Arab world, from Syria and Iraq to Egypt and North Africa.
Police officers and people gather in front of the damaged Museum of Islamic Art building, after a bomb blast occurred at the nearby Cairo Security Directorate, which includes police and state security, in downtown Cairo, January 24, 2014. A suicide bomber in a car blew himself up in the parking lot of a top security compound in central Cairo on Friday, killing at least four people in one of the most high-profile attacks on the state in months, security sources said. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh  (EGYPT - Tags

Ninety-nine years after opening its doors in 1903, the current structure of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo shut its doors. Eight years later, after a painstaking restoration costing $14.4 million, it reopened to the public. The museum itself housed 4,000 items from a collection of over 100,000, encompassing the Umayyad, Abbasid, Tulunid, Fatimid, Ayubid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods of Egypt, according to Al-Ahram. On the morning of Jan. 24, a car bomb exploded outside the museum, destroying priceless treasures of the largest Islamic museum in the world in an attempt to target a state security bureau. Egypt’s minister of antiquities declared that the museum had been “completely destroyed.”

In August 2013, looters stole or damaged 1,060 of 1,089 objects housed at Egypt’s Mallawi Museum in Minia, killing a security guard. The following month 400 artifacts were recovered. The Arab Spring hasn’t always been bad for the heritage of Egypt and the Arab world. During the 2011 Egyptian uprising, looters broke into the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square that houses over 120,000 artifacts. Incredibly, they were only able to steal 18 objects thanks to vigilant Egyptian citizens. I recall one of the most heartening moments I experienced during my coverage of the Jan. 25 uprising was when reports emerged that Egyptians were forming a human chain to protect the Egyptian Museum from looting. (A tweet I sent out then was retweeted over 1,500 times.)

Sadly, over the past few decades, much of the heritage of the Arab world has come under threat or has been destroyed. During the 1990-1991 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, the National Museum was ransacked and looted. Even today, hundreds of treasures remain lost, possibly forever. During the occupation, about 20,000 of the museum's artworks were shipped to Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, most of which were later recovered with the aid of UNESCO.

It took 48 hours in April 2003 during George W. Bush’s disastrous US invasion of Iraq for the historic National Museum in Baghdad to be looted. About 15,000 artifacts were lost, only a quarter of which have been recovered. In addition to the stolen and lost artifacts, numerous archeological sites were damaged or destroyed. In 2006, a senior US military officer admitted that his troops caused damage to the ruins of Babylon following a BBC report that the US Marines had built a helicopter pad on the historic ruins. The officer finally said that if the head of the Iraqi antiquities board wanted an apology, and “if it makes him feel good, we can certainly give him one,” according to the Associated Press.

Algeria’s centuries-old Kasbah, which despite having a section of it knocked down, survived French colonization and an insurgency by Islamic militants who sought refuge there in the 1990s. Today, it is threatened with decay and neglect. More recently, Islamic extremists have started a campaign of deliberate destruction of historical sites from Mali to Afghanistan and across the Arab world. In 2012, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula videotaped themselves destroying the ancient mausoleum of al-Ja'dani outside Jaar in Abyan province in Yemen. (The Taliban employed a similar strategy when they filmed their destruction of the 1,700-year-old Buddha statues in March 2011.)

While Libya’s National Museum in Tripoli survived the 2011 war largely intact, a “collection of priceless coins, jewelry and small statues” known as the "treasures of Benghazi" dating back to the age of Alexander the Great, were stolen from a bank vault in May 2011. Following the war, Libyan Salafists desecrated graves of World War II soldiers then turned their attention to historic Sufi shrines, many of which they ransacked, burnt down or bulldozed.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy can be found in the ongoing Syrian civil war that has caused the deaths of countless innocent human beings. The war has also taken an unprecedented toll on the heritage of Syria, one of the greatest sites of human heritage in the world. Three years on, it is impossible to document the extent of the damage to the country's historical sites. A 2012 report by Time magazine found that rebels were looting and smuggling ancient artifacts to fund the war effort. As a result of the war, “all six of Syria's UNESCO World Heritage Sites have reportedly been damaged or destroyed.” Aleppo was especially hit hard, losing its ancient market and parts of its historic Umayyad Mosque and citadel. In July 2013, the Syrian government launched an airstrike against the medieval Krak des Chevaliers castle, damaging one of its towers in an apparent attempt to target rebels.

The destruction of the Arab world’s heritage sites will likely persist as long as these states continue to witness civil strife and a lack of stable governments. In the meantime, cities such as Cairo should consider moving security installments, including the Interior Ministry and police directorates, away from historical sites. Although the protection of these world heritage sites are a global responsibility, the example set by the Egyptians who formed a human chain around the museum in January 2011 proves that the best protector of a country’s heritage is a responsible and culturally aware population.

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