14 August 2018
The Temple of Bel in Palmyra in Syria is a World Heritage Site that was destroyed by ISIS. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Many of the people and places CNEWA serves are somehow imperiled—whether by war, persecution, economic hardship or drought. Often, the stories we tell in our magazine, ONE, revolve around ways of life that are rapidly disappearing.
We aren’t the only ones chronicling this phenomenon. The United Nations has been involved in this, as well, and has actively taken steps to try and save what otherwise might be lost.
In 1965 the United States, under the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, hosted a conference entitled “World Heritage Trust.” The conference recognized the universal human significance of some sites in the world. These sites—both natural and cultural—touch the deepest part of what it means to be human in the best sense of the term. The conference recognized that natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon invoke a sense of wonder and awe that transcends language, culture and religious affiliation. Likewise some sites—buildings, cities, places of worship—also signify the heights human achievement can attain. It was recognized that these sites, while remaining under local state sovereignty, are nonetheless part of the patrimony of the entire human family.
In 1972 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Four years later, the World Heritages Committee was formed, with the express intent of creating the World Heritage List — places and landmarks to be treasured by all. As of 2017, there are 1,052 World Heritages Sites around the world. Of these, 814 are cultural, 203 are natural and 35 are “mixed.” (For a complete list of these sites, visit this link.)
While the World Heritage List revolves around those things both natural and created that bring out and reflect the best in humanity, it cannot be overlooked that in the list of the sites — in addition to noting whether the site is cultural, natural or mixed — there is a note as to whether is it threatened. Many are threatened — and some are threatened by deliberate human activity.
The Middle East, the world of CNEWA’s original mission, is one of the so-called cradles of civilization. Sixteen World Heritages Sites can be found in Jordan, Syria and Iraq alone. These countries have been involved in war for almost a decade. Hence, many of these sites are also the victims of war. Caught between fighting factions, places such as the citadel in Aleppo, the Nebi Yunus Mosque in Mosul and many others have been reduced to rubble. The Islamic State (ISIS), with its nihilist theology, deliberately destroyed many ancient sites because they were considered “infidel.” Ancient statues and artifacts and priceless, irreplaceable manuscripts have been wantonly destroyed.
On 18 August 2015, the 82-year-old Syrian scholar Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded by ISIS and his dead body was then publicly crucified. His crime? He refused to reveal to ISIS where the archaeological treasures of the World Heritage Site of Palmyra were hidden. Al-Asaad dedicated his life to studying and preserving the ancient heritage of his country and, indeed, the whole world.
He gave his life to save that heritage.
If the UNESCO World Heritage Sites were created to reflect and bring out the best of humanity, they have also been the victims of the worst of humanity.
While CNEWA does not work directly with UNESCO or the World Heritage Sites, we do strive to reduce the violence and inhumanity in all places where we work. By helping to meet the basic needs of people often left homeless, scarred by violence and war, we hope ultimately to meet their spiritual needs as human beings — beings who are compassionate, just, secure and open to things of beauty like the UNESCO World Heritages Sites, often in their own lands.
Tags: Syria Iraq United Nations