Can We Protect Our Past?

The Future of Artwork Protection in the Near East after the Conflicts in 2010-2015

Having set itself the ultimate goal of vanquishing Western civilisation both physically and by dealing blows to Western identity, traditions and culture, the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) began to systematically destroy and sell off the cultural heritage of the Near East.

Although black trade is not a new thing, it has escalated and entered a new phase in the last 30 years affecting developing and developed countries alike. This change can be traced back to three factors: insufficient protection afforded to objects of cultural value, advances in transportation, and an increased demand on the globalised art market. Illegal art trade in the Near East started to flourish when the local population realised the value attributed to their historic monuments by the West and they began to conduct illegal and incompetent digs. Regrettably, the international community had devoted little attention to this up until 2011. The excavations and trading had been tolerated or banned by the authorities, and these processes had carried on without hardly any organisation or strategy. Change ensued in 2011, during the Syrian war, when ISIS gathered strength. Besides conducting illegal transactions, the terrorist organisation set about systematically demolishing the cultural heritage of the region.

Having recognised the potential financial gain obtainable on the black market, ISIS initially carried out illegal trading directly but later began to organise, supervise and, obviously, take a share from transactions realised by others.

The UN, and within it UNESCO, approach the protection of cultural heritage that represents outstanding significance and value for humanity at a fundamentally supranational level, and regards the seeking out, registration, conservation, protection and presentation of endangered artworks as their main mission, coordinated by an international team of experts. The scope of the new system extends from national museums and collections to dealers or archaeologists, geared to optimise efficiency. The flexible regulatory system allows easy adaptation to new situations.

UNESCO’s World Heritage List contains ten locations in the Near East, out of which nine – including some that have already been destroyed – are described as ‘subject to immediate threat’. UNESCO issued Red Lists in 2013 and 2015, raising awareness to the region’s outstanding cultural wealth, which, therefore, must be given distinguished attention not only in regard to protection but also looting and theft. These lists primarily compiled for the authorities, museologists, experts, researchers and dealers not only name the endangered locations but also provide a detailed description of the groups of stolen treasures to make their identification easier.