- Culture in Crisis:Preserving Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones
The Antiquities Coalition
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, 2017
The current cultural heritage crisis in the Middle East is a complex and deeply rooted phenomenon, and making progress toward understanding it requires the input of scholars of cultural heritage, archaeology, international relations, modern Middle Eastern history, and Islamic studies. Culture in Crisis: Preserving Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones is a welcome addition to the conversation. This book began as a course taught by professor Daniel Serwer at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in the spring semester of 2016, which was conducted in collaboration with the Antiquities Coalition.1 Six graduate students specializing in conflict management or strategic studies spent the semester carrying out individually designed research projects, which they presented to the Antiquities Coalition in April 2016. The resulting papers, along with an introduction and conclusion by Serwer, were published in this volume. The book is distributed electronically in an open access format via the Antiquities Coalition's website.2 All this makes for a unique project, both in the partnership with a nongovernmental organization to offer a course at a major university, and in enabling talented early career graduate students to make critical interventions into their field with an eye toward influencing policy development.
The first and last essays in Culture in Crisis are especially notable for the new insights that they offer to current debates about the protection of cultural heritage in conflict zones. Leading off, Stephanie G. Billingham asks whether the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a rational actor and explores whether it would be possible to negotiate with the group to preserve cultural heritage sites under their control. Pointing to how ISIS performatively destroys large, famous, and immovable cultural objects in highly choreographed media spectacles, while profiting from the sale of smaller looted artifacts that can be smuggled abroad, she argues that contrary to its inflexible ideological image ISIS has been willing to "engage in economic relations with outsiders to sell oil and antiquities, and ransom foreign hostages to their home countries."3 This leads her to pose the following question: Would it be possible to negotiate with ISIS for the protection of ancient sites that fall under its control? Billingham ultimately concludes that the group will not accept any deal that does not strengthen its position in economic or political terms. Therefore, negotiating with ISIS [End Page 68] to save antiquities is unjustifiable, since it would enable the group to put other people at risk and inflict even greater damage on cultural property in Iraq and Syria.4
Billingham's analysis is prescient: in the spring of 2016, Bashar Αl-Assad's forces recaptured Palmyra from ISIS. They found less damage at the site than had been feared. In remarks to the media, chief of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), Maamoun Abdulkarim, stated that he had opened channels of communication with ISIS through DGAM employees still in Palmyra and had prevailed upon the group to spare much of the ruins.5 While the terms of the deal were not disclosed, it is difficult to imagine that ISIS complied with this request without receiving something in return.
Billingham then turns to a related question: What is it that makes destroying antiquities such effective propaganda? She casts a critical eye toward the principle of "universal heritage," which underpins the work of international organizations such as UNESCO. Utilizing Wendy Shaw's theorization of the interconnections between archaeology, museology, and postcolonial violence, Billingham suggests that "our dominating narrative of a shared world heritage" positions artifacts into a hegemonic narrative driven by Western values and cultural norms.6 At the same time, Western museums full of artifacts from the Middle East claim the mantle of universal heritage and some governments in Europe invest money and effort into saving artifacts while barring Middle Eastern refugees from entry into their country. She suggests that this creates a sense of alienation that allows ISIS to portray their calculated destruction of artifacts as a blow against Western...