As the Russian invasion of Ukraine grinds on causing immense human suffering and destroying homes, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure, the country’s cultural heritage has not been spared in the process.
International and non-governmental organisations have been documenting the damage that has been caused to many historical sites, museums, and monuments. The UN cultural organisation UNESCO has recently declared that an estimated 50 sites have already been damaged.
Some NGOs say the number may be even higher since the damage inflicted by the war remains largely unassessed.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information has also issued a statement accusing Russia of deliberately choosing such sites in order “to achieve its main goal: to destroy the centres of Ukrainian culture.”
“In this way, the occupiers seek to destroy the identity and historical memory of the Ukrainian people,” the statement said.
Russia has denied hitting non-military targets in Ukraine, but the alarming figures may refute those claims. Heritage professionals insist that such acts of destruction are a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention, which obliges countries to “abstain from all hostile acts” against cultural property during armed conflict.
Although many international treaties have been designed to protect heritage in conflict-zones, they have often failed to protect heritage sites from gunfire and missiles.
The 1954 Hague Convention provides provisions that prevent the export of cultural property in occupied territories and guard them in case they have to be transferred from the territories concerned so that they can be handed back when the conflict comes to an end.
The convention says that cultural property should never be seized in compensation and that urgent preventive measures should be taken in cooperation with the national authorities for the protection of cultural property.
But such treaties seem to have failed to protect cultural heritage in many war-torn countries. Instead, it has often been endangered in sometimes a deliberate war on tradition and an attempt to erase identity.
In Yemen, more than 50 archaeological and historical sites have been destroyed over the past 10 years during the conflict in the country. Large parts of the wall of the ancient city of Baraqish, which dates back to the fifth century BCE, the Mosque and Mausoleum of Imam Abdel-Razzaq Ibn Hammam Al-Sanaani in Sanaa, the Citadel of Sirah, and the National Museum in Aden have all been damaged.
In Iraq, some 12,000 artefacts have been looted during the conflict in the country, and the site of the ancient city of Babylon was severely damaged because it was used as a military base.
In Lebanon, a large part of the historic city of Tyre was looted in the conflict in the country, with finds being exported abroad. About 300 Syrian archaeological sites have been destroyed in the ongoing conflict in Syria, among them Islamic sites, the ancient city of Palmyra in the country’s centre, one of the most important archaeological sites, and the Greek and Roman site of Apamea.
Whereas countries around the world are grappling with the economic repercussions of the war in Ukraine, heritage professionals have been trying to find ways to protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage. They fear that the country’s history, culture, and identity are literally under fire.
According to the UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay in July, “these repeated attacks on Ukrainian cultural sites must stop, as cultural heritage in all its forms should not be targeted under any circumstances.”
“I renew my call for compliance with international humanitarian law and the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.”
UKRAINIAN SITES: Ukraine is the eastern gateway to Europe, and its long history dates back to the sixth century BCE when the Greeks occupied a city in the country’s southern part named Chersonesus.
This site was occupied by Russian forces in the ongoing war, and it includes buildings dating back to the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine eras. A Greek temple, a Roman amphitheatre, and a basilica dating back to the sixth century are the most famous monuments that remain to date.
The city of Hersonius in Ukraine was also declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2013.
The Saint Sophia Cathedral is one of the most beautiful landmarks of the city of Kyiv and the first site in Ukraine to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1990. It dates back to the 11th century CE and was built by the monks Anthony and Theodosius as a centre for Orthodox Christianity in Kyiv.
It includes an impressive collection of mosaic paintings and murals, while its unique architectural style includes five naves, five apses, and 13 domes. The mosaics and wall paintings retain their splendour to date. It inspired the architecture of other churches and associated Kyiv with the Orthodox faith.
The ancient city of Lviv and its historical centre in the west of Ukraine is considered the cultural capital of the country. The city was founded in the Middle Ages and was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998.
It has a cosmopolitan character since various communities settled there over the centuries, and it had inhabitants of different religions including Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The city’s architecture represents a mixture of styles from Eastern Europe tinged by Italian and German styles. It has born several names such as the City of Lions, the Royal City, and the Pearl of the Crown of Europe.
Its most important landmarks are Rynok Square, the Black House, Corniakt Palace, the Dominican Church, the Bernardine Abbey, the Latin Cathedral, and St George’s Church.
ALARMING FIGURES: A UNESCO report issued on 5 December stated that more than 2,783 educational institutions and more than 224 heritage and cultural sites have been damaged in Ukraine since the beginning of the war.
The sites include 99 religious sites, 17 museums, 79 buildings of historical and artistic interest, 19 monuments, 10 libraries, and folklore and heritage centres. There are 15 damaged sites in the city of Chernihiv, 54 in Kharkiv, 33 in Kyiv, nine in Zaporizhzhya, 63 in Donetsk, three in Zhytomyr, 26 in Luhansk, 10 in Sumy, and seven in Mykolaiv.
There are also two sites in Vinnytsya and one site in Dnipropetrovs’k.
Some museums in Ukraine have also announced the loss of artefacts in the war. About 25 works by the Ukrainian artist Maria Primayenko in the Ivankov Museum in Kyiv have reportedly been damaged, as well as 25,000 other pieces of art lost during bombings near the Kharkiv Museum that caused severe damage to the museum and its interior.
Russian forces bombed the Mariupol Theatre last March, despite the fact that hundreds of civilians had sought refuge inside it.
Parts of the large glass ceiling and windows have been destroyed in the Odessa Museum of Fine Arts, which was inaugurated in 1899, and the Donetsk Museum has lost 30 per cent of its artefacts since the war broke out.
The mayor of the city of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine has posted a video clip on the Internet of the bombing of a library, which soon turned into rubble.
The official website of the Odessa Museum, the largest museum in Ukraine, lists an estimated 400 to 800 ancient Egyptian artefacts, all of which are currently at risk of destruction. The pieces date back to the period between the Pre-Dynastic and the Ptolemaic era and include a number of bronze statues of gods, coloured coffins, mummies, canopic vessels, ornaments, and clothes.
This is the only museum in Ukraine that includes a collection of Egyptian antiquities, and it was reportedly donated to Ukraine in the 19th century.
Some researchers and those interested in heritage in Egypt have been calling for the return of the artefacts to Egypt, necessary in order not to repeat the tragic scenario of the Rio de Janeiro Museum fire in 2018, in which a huge number of Egyptian antiquities were lost.
SAVING HERITAGE: There have been international and local efforts to save the heritage of Ukraine since the outbreak of the war.
While protecting civilians comes first, Azoulay said in a statement last March that preserving cultural heritage should also be a priority.
“We must safeguard the cultural heritage in Ukraine as a testimony of the past but also as a catalyst for peace and cohesion for the future, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve,” she said at the start of the conflict.
In addition to UNESCO’s support for the cultural sector and artists and professionals working in the field of culture, the organisation has started a campaign to collect $20 million to support and protect the cultural heritage of Ukraine and finance the repair of the damage the country has suffered since the beginning of the war.
UNESCO has also contacted international experts to provide support to Ukraine so that member states of the World Heritage Committee can quickly consider putting the country’s sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
Sites in Kyiv and Lviv have been recommended for inclusion, given the danger posed to them, and a liaison officer has been appointed in Kyiv by UNESCO to coordinate such efforts.
In partnership with the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), UNESCO is also analysing satellite imagery of priority sites that are either at risk or already affected in order to assess the damage.
Its role is not just to warn of the seriousness of the situation, but also to pave the way for the reconstruction process. The UN has already established a fund for actions in support of Ukraine and called on member states to submit proposals for a rapid response.
According to Lazar Elondo Asomu, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris, a monitoring system is already covering dozens of priority sites, including World Heritage Sites, in Ukraine. The organisation has urged local officials to mark such sites with a blue and white shield, hoping that Russia will respect international conventions on the protection of cultural heritage during armed conflict, to which it is signatory.
Azoulay has also announced that the organisation intends to strengthen the support it provides to the city of Odessa. It will fund the repair of damage to the Odessa Museum of Fine Arts and the Odessa Museum of Modern Art. It will also support the digitisation of at least 1,500 works of art in Odessa, as well as the documentary collection of the State Archives in Odessa, by providing necessary technical equipment, she said.
The Odessa Regional Administration will be provided with new equipment for the protection of cultural property on site, and the Directorate of Culture, Religions and Architectural Heritage Protection will be provided with protection boards, sandbags, fire extinguishers, fire-resistant fabrics and gas masks to ensure that the work carried out since the first day of the war can continue in order to restore public monuments and sculptures.
The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) held a live-streamed workshop in March to develop a methodology for assessing damages and risks at vulnerable heritage sites. During the workshop, interpreted simultaneously into Ukrainian, the participants received emergency training on how to conduct systematic and coordinated damage and risk assessments of movable and immovable cultural heritage.
“Ukrainian culture, as the core of Ukrainian identity and part of the World Heritage, should be restored and rebuilt after the Russian invasion. This requires not only emotional motives, but also systematic and professional approaches, skills, knowledge and experience,” Ihor Boshevelo, director of the Ukrainian National Monument and Field Museum, told the workshop.
SPREADING AWARENESS: Awareness of the importance of the Ukrainian cultural heritage at the political and popular levels is evident from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s official call for the candidacy of the historic centre of Odessa for inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in a speech to the organisation’s executive board in October.
Odessa was founded at the end of the 18th century on the northwestern coast of the Black Sea and once had a prominent political role as the fourth-largest city in the Russian Empire after Moscow, St Petersburg, and Warsaw.
At the grassroots level, many initiatives have been launched under the slogan of saving the Ukrainian heritage by photographing various art pieces and monuments in different cities. The initiatives are carried out by volunteers who take photographs on mobile phones or cameras with the aim of documenting their country’s heritage and preserving their identity against the war’s destruction.
One of the most popular initiatives comes under the name of SUCHO — Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online — which involves more than 1,500 international volunteers collaborating online to digitise and preserve the Ukrainian cultural heritage.
Since its inception, SUCHO has been able to archive more than 5,000 websites and 50 terabytes of data on Ukrainian cultural institutions, museums, heritage buildings, and art centres. It is now working on training cultural workers in digitisation methods.
The author is a senior researcher at the Academic Research Sector, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and a lecturer at Alexandria and Damanhour universities.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly