The Long View: Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa are home to the first cities, the first law codes, the first writing, and a host of other attributes we associate with our civilisation today. The oldest synagogues, churches and mosques are all found there, and remain in use. Their archaeological heritage is of enormous international significance, not only locally but for the world. The World Heritage site of Aleppo in Syria, for example, is a city that has been occupied continuously for maybe 6000 years: it claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and it’s certainly a strong contender. The street plans alone are thousands of years old; even the markets, still serving until they burned down in 2013, were medieval. The city is a part of the people.

But this heritage is vanishing before our eyes, under increasing threat from massive and sustained population explosion, agricultural development, urban expansion, warfare, and looting. 60% of Aleppo’s historic centre has been almost completely reduced to rubble in the space of a few years. With damage such as this, it is hard to ignore the immediacy of the problem. In January 2015, the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford was awarded a large grant by the Arcadia Foundation to document this heritage at risk, and so EAMENA — Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa — was born.

The project aims to provide the information required for effective protection of these sites to the relevant authorities. We are recording and mapping unrecorded and endangered sites in order to evaluate and monitor their condition. By understanding the extent of threat and damage to sites, and working with archaeological services in individual countries, we will provide tools and strategies for the future conservation and management of threatened heritage, both in terms of individual sites and entire archaeological landscapes. Central to this is the creation of an open-access database of all visible sites. Only by knowing the nature of the threats to ancient sites can archaeologists advise national authorities on how to plan to salvage a vital part of our shared human heritage.

Hussinit Alquba Mosque in Mosul, Nineveh Province, Iraq. Destroyed by Da’esh in 2014
Hussinit Alquba Mosque in Mosul, Nineveh Province, Iraq. Destroyed by Da’esh in 2014

This might sound simple, but it’s important to remember that most of these countries lack a comprehensive Sites and Monuments Record, something we take for granted in the UK, although there is an online database available for Jordan.The reasons for this are complex (and vary by country), but include: a lack of funding to develop computerised systems, and a lack of training to design and manage a database. There’s also a lack of funding for the regional antiquities offices, meaning they can’t find and record new sites; planning laws that do not incorporate rules for the discovery of new sites, and no laws insisting on the reporting of new sites. Finally, most of the surveys in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region were carried out by foreign missions (with national representatives). It’s only recently that archaeologists are moving to combine their survey data into one database for countries like Syria and Lebanon. This is no mean feat given the issues of data inter-operability (i.e. making your database talk to another database, and getting them both to talk to our database!). A very important element of the EAMENA project is its open access database, soon to be launched for all to see, using ARCHES 3 software which makes it easier for anyone else who is using it to share data. Hence another important facet of EAMENA is building partnerships, to share as much data as possible with those who have been and still are working in the region.

At the end of the day, however, huge areas of the region remain unsurveyed. Here, the use of satellite and aerial imagery is especially important, particularly for those countries where access on the ground is either impossible or severely restricted (e.g. Syria, Iraq, Libya, and the Yemen). A significant part of the project is to examine such images, particularly the freely available imagery on Google Earth, looking for unrecorded sites. In some areas, however, modern development had destroyed sites before current satellite imagery was acquired. In those areas we can either use historic aerial photographs (where they exist) or a series of satellite images taken in the 1960s and 1970s called CORONA: they show the landscape before the advent of modern industrialisation and the spread of intensive mechanised farming, allowing us to identify and record sites that are now long destroyed. Sadly, most information about those sites — their date, who made them, how they lived — is gone forever. This is not to suggest that further development shouldn’t go ahead — with an increasing population there is a real need for food and shelter — but sites should be recorded first.

My PhD conducted work of this type on selected case-study areas of Syria, looking at change between 1960 and 2010, before the current conflict broke out. It is not only conflict that damages sites: even in rural areas that were not heavily agricultural, more than 75% of studied sites were at least partly farmed in 2010, causing them (at best) to erode. In the same area, orchards had been planted on more than a quarter of sites. In an intensively agricultural rural area, the number of recorded threats to previously surveyed sites more than doubled during the study period: cultivation, for example, was recorded on more than 90%. Without an understanding of the threats to sites such as these, we cannot begin to devise protection strategies. In September, EAMENA co-hosted a conference in Amman – Protecting the Past: Archaeology, conservation and tourism in the north of Jordan. The conference brought together representatives from projects like EAMENA, with UNESCO, the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, and others working on site protection, to look for solutions. Details will be published soon on the EAMENA blog.

Tell beydar 2013_line
The walled city of Tell Beydar, Syria, built before 2, 900 BC. The village (blue) has expanded around the site over a buried settlement outside the ancient city walls (red), together with the accompanying infrastructure, such as tarmac roads. There are buildings on the northern wall, and a football pitch was visible on the southern wall 2010, but this has now been removed. The wadi has dried up and been ploughed away, as has some of the eastern wall.

However, EAMENA are not just focussing on peacetime threats. Although they are unarguably more numerous, the damage done by conflict is more immediate, as it tends to focus on the larger, higher profile sites, rather than the innumerable small sites. That’s not to say they’re less important – the Jazirah area of Northern Syria, for example, has an ancient road network that is at least 5,000 years old. It is estimated that more than two thirds of it has been lost in the last sixty years, as what are effectively now lines on the ground will never attract the international attention of a major standing site. Yet it’s important to understand the whole of human existence and history, not just the buildings they lived in, but how they moved through the land, and how they saw the world they lived in. Losing a road network (which is almost unique) loses information and evidence about travel and trade between cities that are hundreds of kilometres apart. Old CORONA images and aerial photographs are now the only record we have of most of the ancient routes.

The other side of our work focusses on this type of site damage. At the moment, our primary task is awareness-raising to increase the pressure for change. This might not sound like much, but it has several important dimensions. Firstly, the UK is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council not to ratify the international humanitarian law regarding the protection of sites in conflict (the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict). Earlier this year, John Whittingdale, the UK Culture Secretary announced his intention to see the legislation ratified, but this isn’t the first time that promise has been made (and subsequently broken, so let us hope this is one that will be kept). Already, the bill has been pushed out of this year’s parliamentary sessions into next year – so keeping the pressure on is vital.

Secondly, efforts to deal with it are largely hampered by a lack of funding. Keeping international attention on the problem directly increases the chance of funding. For example, although looting has been a major component of the Syrian war since early 2012, and the links between terrorism and insurgency have been known since at least the Second Gulf War, the FBI has only recently started to pay serious attention, announcing a reward for information at the end of September.

Thirdly, international pressure is increasingly aware of the damage being done and how this directly hurts the people. After the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, many people would not return home until sites of significance were rebuilt. In Japan, after the tsunami, attendees to the World Conference on Disaster Reduction visited one of the affected villages, 70% of which was destroyed. The government was rebuilding the infrastructure, but although some people were still in temporary accommodation, for the community their heritage was the priority. A particularly important historic building, once three stories high, was moved by the flood and reduced to one story. The community located it, recovered it, and began to rebuild it. Awareness raising increases the likelihood that as people plan future rebuilding and reconstruction, they incorporate cultural heritage into those plans. Evidence from Spain, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq have all demonstrated that a failure to adequately consider cultural heritage in the post-conflict period can increase tensions, and even spark a resurgence of violence. The International Criminal Court is trying its first case about destruction of cultural heritage, under the category of War Crimes. International attention not only increases the likelihood that a suitable sentence will be determined, but increases the chances of further prosecutions, which not only serve justice but could potentially act as a deterrent. Awareness-raising is vital.

Conference logo

So on 31st October, OxPeace are co-hosting a free conference, supported by EAMANA and a number of other groups: Conflict and Cultural Heritage, at St John’s College. The conference aims to raise public awareness and develop understanding of the issues surrounding protecting cultural heritage at risk from armed conflict. Focussing on the Middle East, the area currently undergoing the greatest destruction and where the heritage is most at risk, we aim to demonstrate the importance of the heritage, why its destruction matters, and what can be done. Topics to be explored will include the material heritage of the region from international and local perspectives, and the living heritage of communities with rich and longstanding traditions, before exploring why such destruction is happening, and the beliefs that underlie extremist practices. Focus will then move to an overview of what is being done already, and what more the international community can do. We hope to provide information from a variety of cultures, perspectives, and organisations, including academics, archaeologists, the military, and the media, and have an excellent list of speakers attending.

Cultural heritage is a non-renewable resource. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Every day, a little more heritage is, as Bill Bryson said, “being nibbled to death”, gradually ploughed away into nothingness, demolished building by building, bulldozed away in the name of modernity, looted for profit or from poverty, or lost to the shells and bombs of war. Sometimes it can be rebuilt: after World War II, the centre of Warsaw was completely reconstructed, but there will always be questions about whether the site is the same, or a new creation.  Sometimes there simply isn’t enough money to rebuild. Sometimes the destruction of the site adds a new layer of memory and it is considered better to leave it be: the Bamiyan Buddhas, for example, were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 and have never been rebuilt. Preserving heritage raises a number of complex questions about what should be saved, what can be saved, and how to do either, questions we are only just beginning to face. Given the scale of our research, EAMENA will be at the forefront of those discussions.

Emma Cunliffe

For more details about the upcoming conference, including a list of speakers, please visit their website. The conference will have four panels; 

  • What is happening? The significance of sites at risk and the current situation
  • Why is this happening? Understanding ISIL and other Islamic extremism
  • What is being done or should be done? Exploring archaeological and military heritage protection initiatives
  • Where do we go from here? Panel responding to the day’s discussions

Dr Emma Cunliffe is a Research Associate with Oxford University’s Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East Project. She specialises in satellite imagery analysis of site damage and heritage protection during peace and conflict, focussing on Syria. Her latest co-authored article will be published in January in the International Journal of Cultural Property, examining the legal situation regarding cultural heritage protection in Syria (i.e. why it’s so hard for the international community to act). She is a committee member of UK Blue Shield, and a consultant for the NGO Heritage for Peace, who work to protect Syria’s heritage during the conflict, and will shortly be launching a major crowdfunding campaign to assist their colleagues in Syria. 

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