The excavation of Carchemish (1912-13) with Leonard Woolley (right) and T E Lawrence (left)
In an impassioned piece of writing for The Wall Street Journal, Bonnie Burnham, President of the World Monuments Fund, says –
This winter, the film “Monuments Men” told the story of how, over two years, with virtually no resources or support, a ragtag division of 345 volunteers from 17 countries working under the aegis of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) program rescued six million stolen artworks from Nazi depots, including some of the world’s most esteemed masterpieces, and saved hundreds of historic buildings, objects and archival collections from destruction in Europe and Asia.
Yet there has been no sequel to the work of the Monuments Men. Time and again, major cultural treasures have been destroyed, museums looted and archaeological sites despoiled during conflicts. Even after civil law was re-established in Afghanistan, Egypt and Iraq, the destruction has continued under the noses of authorities. In Syria, cellphones have captured the obliteration of the historic center of Aleppo. The director general of antiquities in Syria reports that 420 monumental sites have been damaged in the two years since the civil war began, many in the cities of Aleppo and Homs. The costs of reconstruction would run to the hundreds of millions of dollars and require highly specialized technical capabilities. Also troubling is the widespread looting that has occurred in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Yemen during the past decade. Estimates of antiquities looting and theft in Egypt and Syria since 2011 run into the billions of dollars; but sadly, we’ll never know its full extent.
Cultural heritage links us to our history and identity through structures, objects and traditions. It gives places meaning through references to the past. It enriches our quality of life, contributes to a community’s economic well-being and is fundamental to a healthy society. People in places under siege are no less concerned about their heritage than those who watch from the outside. But people caught in these circumstances are often powerless to intervene, which is why we need a dedicated effort on their behalf.