“The destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East is unprecedented in human history, and what is lost can never be replaced, some of which is over 4,000 years old.”
The Middle East is home to some of the world’s most important heritage sites that date back millennia. Today, many such sites play a key role in creating a sense of belonging and cultural identity.
In the context of Iraq and Syria, they are a testament to a shared past where different cultures and religions mostly coexisted in peace.
Researchers from the Alfred Deakin Institute are studying the causes of mass heritage destruction across the Middle East and are exploring the factors that drive it.
The consequences of this destruction in terms of impacts on cultural identity and the challenges involved in restoring local heritage will form an important body of knowledge told from a non-Western perspective.
An enormous loss to cultural history
“The destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East is unprecedented in human history, and what is lost can never be replaced, some of which is over 4,000 years old,” says Professor Benjamin Isakhan, a Professor of International Politics at Deakin University.
Deakin’s research, led by Professor Isakhan, is concerned with the destruction of key heritage sites and monuments by groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the Middle East.
These significant sites include Palmyra, an ancient city, and the Mosul Museum, the second largest museum in Iraq.
In addition to these monuments acting as a window into the past and being critical to the development of a peaceful future within the Middle East, their destruction also has had a profound effect on individual and cultural identity.
Analysing the connection between cultural identity and heritage in the Middle East
Western countries are fascinated with the ancient Middle East and many institutions and global bodies have launched their own initiatives to reconstruct the heritage lost in Syria and Iraq.
While well-intentioned, these efforts tend to rely on assumptions about how the people of Iraq and Syria engage with their heritage, how they perceive and interpret its destruction, and the value placed on its reconstruction.
For instance, a local mosque may have a greater significance for residents than a site deemed ‘valuable’ by Western experts. Islamic heritage can often be overlooked in favour of these sites, leaving important sites unprotected.
To address this imbalance, researchers from the Alfred Deakin Institute are collaborating with leading global experts as well as many local partners in Syria and Iraq to conduct country-wide surveys and interviews.
The Australian Research Council (ARC) funded project, After Islamic State: Local-State-Global Heritage Dynamics in Syria and Iraq, consists of a survey that focuses on residents in Mosul, Iraq and Aleppo, Syria, and will explore their relationship to their cultural heritage.
The survey will ask how local residents engage with their heritage, interpret the destruction of significant monuments, and which sites they would most like to see reconstructed.
Residents’ opinions on heritage and the extent to which these opinions converge with the attitudes of key state and global players will also be examined.
Measuring the destruction to prevent further damage
This research began with a number of projects that measured the destruction of cultural property in Iraq and Syria.
The first was an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) funded project that focuses on the destruction of heritage sites during the Iraq War from 2003.
The second project was funded by the Australian Department of Defence and included the creation of databases of key heritage sites across the Middle East.
The project used grid coordinates to document their condition, cultural significance, and religious affiliation.
These coordinates were then relayed to the Defence Force, in an effort to prevent further damage to these priceless monuments.
The After Islamic State: Local-State-Global Heritage Dynamics in Syria and Iraq survey has been designed and is set to begin collecting data in 2021.
This project offers the most robust and nuanced study to date of Syrian and Iraqi public opinion on heritage and the extent to which it converges with or diverges from the attitudes and actions of key state and global figures.
Benjamin Isakhan is Professor of International Politics at Deakin University and founding Director of POLIS, a research network for Political Science and International Relations scholars within the Alfred Deakin Institute.