The Arab cultural heritage crisis: Two exhibitions in Paris

David Tresilian , Wednesday 28 Nov 2018

The exhibitions - the Cités millénaires and Le Crac des Chevaliers - draw attention to the destruction that is threatening the heritage of the Arab world

An old photo of Mosul
An old photo of Mosul

The destruction of the cultural heritage of the Arab world has been almost unparalleled in recent years.

Half the Old City of Mosul in Iraq and a third of the Old City of Aleppo in Syria now lie in rubble, and terrorist groups have damaged or destroyed heritage sites such as Palmyra in Syria and various ancient and more modern sites in northern Iraq.

Air strikes have damaged sites in Syria and Yemen, and looting and illegal smuggling continue across the region.

In some countries the extent of the damage cannot be known with certainty because of civil conflicts. In others it has been possible to gather evidence of the destruction through expert missions or remote surveillance by drones or satellites.

While this information cannot necessarily help efforts to end the conflicts, it can raise awareness among the national and international public of the stakes involved.

Two current exhibitions in Paris are contributing to efforts to draw attention to the destruction of the Arab world’s cultural heritage as a result of the conflicts that have raged across the region over the past decade or more.

While this destruction pales in comparison to the human costs of these conflicts, with thousands killed and millions displaced in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen alone, it should be recognised as one of the effects of these wars.

When the conflicts eventually come to an end, the full scale of the destruction will be plain for all to see. Some are already likening the devastation to that which took place in Europe during World War II.

Cités millénaires
Cités millénaires

The first exhibition, Cités millénaires, is at the Institut du Monde arabe on the left bank of the Seine in Paris and looks at what has happened to four major heritage sites during the past decade or so of conflict in the Arab world.

These sites — the Old City of Mosul in Northern Iraq, the Old City of Aleppo in Syria, the Hellenistic site of Palmyra in Syria, and the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna in Libya — have been largely inaccessible to outside visits over recent years, though this situation has now changed, allowing archaeologists and others to pick over the ruins.

Subtitled a “Virtual journey from Palmyra to Mosul”, the Cités millénaires exhibition uses cutting-edge digital technology to present the sites in the form of giant 3D projections that seem to immerse the visitor in images of startling size and scale.

Writing in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, curator Aurélie Clemente-Ruiz reminds readers of the extent of the destruction that took place in Mosul and Aleppo between 2012-2014 and 2016-2017 when these cities were either occupied by terrorist groups, like Mosul, or caught up in ongoing civil war.

Also writing in the exhibition catalogue, Yves Ubelmann of the French digital start-up ICONEM explains how the spectacular 3D images of the ruined sites that make up the exhibition were obtained.

In the case of Mosul, he says, the company worked with UN cultural body UNESCO and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq in 2015 to launch drone flights over the Old City of Mosul, then occupied by the Islamic State group, in order to gather information on the site.

This was before most of the destruction took place in the battle to retake the city in 2016-2017, and it was only in February 2017 that an ICONEM team, supported by UNESCO, was able physically to visit Mosul.

“At first sight, the city seemed to have been completely destroyed,” Ubelmann writes.

“Since the whole area had been mined, it was only by examining images taken by drone that we were able to survey areas inaccessible by land… discovering that the demolished areas [shown up on satellite images on each side of the river] did not include the whole of the Old City, which still included some ancient monuments, inaccessible to visits and invisible to satellite imagery, that had in fact been preserved.”

Something similar took place at the Syrian heritage site of Palmyra and in the Northern Syrian city of Aleppo, where ICONEM was able to gather digital imagery after the destruction of 2015-2016. In the case of Aleppo, this reached 100 per cent of the Old City in the areas north and south of the Citadel, according to French specialist Jean-Claude David writing in the exhibition catalogue.

“The jewellery souq, the carpet souq, the ancient souq of Al-Manadil, and the ancient auction souq,” perhaps reminiscent of the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar area in Cairo, “were all destroyed,” he writes. “The other souqs were burned down.” Most of this destruction was as a result of aerial bombardment during the ongoing Syrian civil war, and David paints a bleak picture of what has been lost.

In addition to much of the historic urban fabric, monuments such as the 13th-century minaret of the Umayyad Mosque have been destroyed, as well as 16th and 17th-century Ottoman mosques and public buildings. The question now arises, David writes, of how much of this heritage can be salvaged or restored. Some small-scale restoration projects are apparently underway, but “what will happen to the vast popular areas to the east, north, south and south-west [of the Old City], which have been very largely destroyed?”

Le Crac des Chevaliers
Le Crac des Chevaliers

Crac des Chevaliers

Elsewhere in Paris at the city’s architecture museum, the Cité de l’architecture, a smaller exhibition looks at the history and present fortunes of the Crac des Chevaliers, another important Syrian heritage site that has been damaged in the current civil war.

Built by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem from 1142 to 1271 CE with further constructions by the Mamelukes in the late 13th century and beyond, the Crac des Chevaliers is one of the best-preserved Crusader Castles in Syria and bears witness to the now long-forgotten mini-states set up by the European Crusaders in this part of the Levant in the mediaeval period.

The Castle was used as a fortress by the country’s Mameluke rulers until the Ottoman conquest in 1517, after which it was allowed to fall into disrepair. It was only in 1859 that it was rediscovered and photographed by European visitors, though it had to wait until the 1920s and after Syria had passed under French colonial control for large-scale restoration work to begin.

In 1931, the Castle was a star exhibit at the Souvenirs du temps des Croisades (Memories of the Crusades) exhibition in Paris, and in 1933 it was officially acquired by the French government.

The exhibition, entitled Le Crac des Chevaliers, chroniques d’un rêve de pierre (a dream in stone), contains fascinating original documents relating particularly to the Castle’s rediscovery and restoration, including many early photographs. It also contains the original deed, written on parchment, by which Raymond II, count of Tripoli, ceded the site to the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem in 1142.

Writing in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, a set of mostly French specialists recount the history and present condition of the Castle. One particularly interesting chapter, by researcher Stefan Winter, tells of how the Castle, Hisn Al-Akrad in Arabic, or Qalaat Al-Hisn, was almost completely forgotten during the centuries of Ottoman rule, until by the early 19th century the empire’s Syrian provinces had become little more than “toys in the hands of local governors and rural chiefs.”

This situation had scarcely improved by the time the British Palestine Exploration Fund began surveying the area in the 1860s, or when it was visited first by the British archaeologist Gertrude Bell in 1905 and then by T E Lawrence, of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame, in 1909 for his academic work on the Crusader Castles. Today, the threat is of destruction as much as of neglect, and the Castle was damaged in air strikes in 2013 and 2014 during the present Syrian civil war.

While exhibitions of this type reach a limited audience, they may still have an important role to play in bringing together cutting-edge work and serving as focal points for heritage specialists as well as for the wider public. This is perhaps particularly the case for the Cités millénaires exhibition at the Institut du Monde arabe, which also hosted a colloquium on Arab heritage in danger on 11 October.

Leading figures from many of the sites concerned presented their thoughts on the present condition of the built heritage of the Arab world. While the news was bad overall, there were some brighter points holding out hopes for the future. According to Ezzeddin Ahmed Omar Fagi, director of the site of Leptis Magna in Libya, for example, the site has thus far been preserved from destruction despite the difficult conditions in contemporary Libya.

The news was less encouraging from Yemen and Iraq, however, with Marylène Barret-Audouin, formerly of the French embassy in Yemen, and Jérémie Schiettecatte, a French expert on Pre-Islamic Arabia, painting a depressing picture of the scale of the recent losses in Yemen, most of it as a result of air strikes in the current civil war.

Similarly, while Faisal Jaber, director of the independent Gilgamesh Centre for Antiquities and Heritage Protection in Mosul, gave a remarkable account of the work of his Centre throughout the period of the Islamic State occupation of the city, he was not able to disguise the enormous destruction of the cultural heritage that has taken place in northern Iraq in recent years.

Cités millénaires, voyage virtuel de Palmyre à Mossoul, Institut du Monde arabe, Paris, until 10 February 2019; Le Crac des Chevaliers, chroniques d’un rêve de pierre, Cité de l’architecture, Paris, until 14 January 2019.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 November 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Exhibiting the heritage crisis

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