Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The need to protect our past

Urgent steps must be taken to protect the cultural heritage of the Arab countries in the present conflicts, writes Zahi Hawass

Hawass with Williams at the UN premises in New York
Hawass with Williams at the UN premises in New York

I was chosen by the International Federation for Peace and Sustainable Development, an organisation connected with the United Nations, to be an ambassador for cultural heritage on 19 April, and I wanted to use the occasion to draw attention to the threats hanging over the sites and monuments of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya notably because of terrorist attacks.

The aim of this organisation, directed by Sally Kader, is to promote the protection of cultural heritage in times of conflict and to determine which programmes are most relevant to strengthening such services. It works with the Arab League, the European Union and the UN’s cultural arm UNESCO in order to accomplish such goals.

The announcement was made at the United Nations in New York, and many ambassadors representing European, Arab and African countries attended. On stage was a representative of UNESCO, and other figures gave important speeches on the need to preserve the world’s cultural heritage. Many dear friends took part in the ceremony, among them the Egyptian-American scientist Farouk Al-Baz.

In this article I would like to give a brief description of the speech I gave at the ceremony to the ambassadors, politicians, intellectuals, museums curators and film stars present. I was particularly happy to see the renowned US singer and actress Vanessa Williams at the celebration, for example.

In beginning my speech, I highlighted the many restoration and conservation projects that Egypt has accomplished at its archaeological sites and monuments. Regarding the ancient Egyptian sites, for example, there has been the site-management project at the Hathor Temple in Denderah in order to make the site more tourist-friendly. There has been a similar project at the Sobek (crocodile) and Horus Temples in Kom Ombo, where the first museum in the world dedicated to crocodiles has been established.

I then explained how Egypt takes care of its Jewish monuments, for example through the conservation programme at the Moses Ben Mimoun (Maimonides) Synagogue in Cairo. For Coptic monuments, there has been the example of the restoration of the Hanging Church in Old Cairo. For Islamic monuments, there has been the restoration and rehabilitation of Al-Muezz Li-Din Allah Street in Islamic Cairo, where more than 36 houses, mosques and mausoleums have been restored.

I pointed out in my speech that the construction of more than 60 storage reserves had helped to save the country’s heritage during the period of the lack of security in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution.

Great work has also been carried out in Saudi Arabia under my friend Prince Sultan bin Salman, director-general of the country’s antiquities and tourism, as well as by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Jordan and by similar institutions in Bahrain, Tunisia and Morocco.

The reason that I went into this work in detail is because I do not agree that threatened heritage materials in Arab countries should be moved to a European or any other country. We welcome the cooperation of any other country in the world, but we cannot accept to see artefacts being moved to European countries.

This is so despite the fact that terrorism can undoubtedly destroy civilisation, something which we saw in Egypt under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood after the 25 January Revolution. The Brotherhood did not care to preserve the country’s sites and monuments, and it was responsible for the loss of some 1,050 objects at the Mallawi Museum in Middle Egypt, the burning of two ancient churches in the same area, and even the destruction of a large part of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has now brought security back to Egypt, helping to secure the country’s antiquities. Without Al-Sisi, perhaps even the Giza Pyramids could have been destroyed. However, while Al-Sisi has brought security to Egypt and with it the protection of the country’s heritage, the situation is sadly different in Iraq. There we have seen the destruction of the palace of the ancient Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud, for example.

Terrorists used axes and sharp tools to destroy statues and blocks of stone at the palace. The museum in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul was also destroyed, and the terrorists used power tools to destroy the gigantic statues they could not move from the museum. They stole smaller objects to sell in order to buy guns to kill innocent people. Even more destruction has happened in the Iraqi governorate of Salaheddin and at many churches in Mosul.

In Syria, we have seen the destruction at the Roman Theatre in Palmyra and at the Citadel in Aleppo, where the entrance has been destroyed as well as the northern wall. The ancient city of Palmyra itself has been destroyed in parts, and the Roman Theatre was even used by terrorists as a place for executions. The former head of the Syrian Antiquities Service, archaeologist Khaled Al-Asaad, was murdered by terrorists. An image of the ancient queen Zenobia was circulated on the Internet showing her crying when she saw what had happened to her capital at Palmyra.

In Yemen, we have seen the ancient capital Sanaa damaged or destroyed despite its UNESCO protection and the destruction of the Citadel of Radaa. It has not been possible to gather reliable information about what has happened in Libya because no one has been able to access the country to inspect the damage. However, photographs have circulated showing the destruction of Ottoman mosques and Roman theatres.

In my speech at the United Nations I presented various measures that need to be taken immediately to halt this destruction. I suggested that Egypt’s minister of antiquities, Khaled El-Enany, meet with his opposite numbers elsewhere in the Arab world to draft an action plan. A database of monuments, sites and museum collections should be set up so that artifacts smuggled out of Arab countries for sale can be tracked and seized.

There is also a need for further funding to be found for the restoration and conservation of the monuments and archaeological sites that have been damaged or destroyed.

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