On 20 May 2015, ISIS seized the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Cultural Heritage site of Palmyra, raising fears that the well-preserved remains of this Silk Road city would be razed. Initially, militants left Palmyra unmolested. But beginning on 3 July 2015, ISIS posted on social media videos of its demolition of six statues stolen from Palmyra, “a 2,000 year old lion statue [the militants] discovered in a Palmyra museum garden,” and “a 13th century tomb near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk” (Gladstone and Samaan 2015). ISIS disregarded international outrage since the artifacts it targeted were “sacrilegious vestiges that deserve to be obliterated” (Ibid.). In August 2015, militants decapitated the retired director of antiquities at Palmyra, Mr. Khalid al-Asaad (Hubbard 2015); destroyed the 2,000 year old Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra’s best preserved building in the sprawling complex (Barnard 2015); and dynamited the extraordinary Temple of Bel (Barnard and Saad 2015). Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, “called the destruction ‘a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity’” (Ibid.).
What ISIS does is not new. Culturally significant sites, objects, and practices have long been treated as “ideological and moral battlefields.” (Kott 2014, 96). But ISIS does this in an age of enlarged consciousness regarding the importance of cultural heritage—and UNESCO, in my view, has been at the forefront of cultivating this consciousness.
According to international law, heritage entails that certain areas beyond national jurisdiction (e.g. Antarctica, the high seas, and the seabed) and celestial objects (e.g. the moon), as well as cultural practices, products, and natural sites significant to cultural expression and meaning, are to be protected from exploitation and held in trust for future generations. The cultural heritage of humankind concept first appeared in the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in Armed Conflict. While it may have been deployed as a rhetorical frame to assert the importance of objects which governments deemed valuable, its significance has been gradually captured by references to the interrelatedness of cultural achievements and objects in ways that constitute a body of work, practices, and knowledges greater than the sum of its parts. Cultural heritage, in short, captures the wide range of human creativity and ingenuity, symbolizes collective identities, and testifies to the diversity of ways we are and can be human.
The point is not hyperbole. Raphael Lemkin, architect of the concept of genocide, understood that destroying the culture of a people was akin to murdering its soul, and thus included a cultural dimension in his definition of genocide in 1944 (see Nersessian). UNESCO Director-General Bokova, on a recent visit to Nepal to observe the first anniversary of the 28 April 2015 earthquake which laid waste to a majority of Nepal’s cultural heritage sites, reiterated that “culture bears the soul of the Nepalese people.” Nepal, UNESCO, and the international community, she noted, must respond to the devastation “because culture and cultural heritage are unparalleled forces of belonging, identity and renewal.”
While the 1948 Genocide Convention omitted culture from its conception of genocide, UNESCO has systematically worked to situate cultural heritage—that broad assemblage of moveable (e.g. art and sculpture) and immoveable (e.g. buildings and monuments) objects, and intangible “oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, [and] the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts”—in geopolitical consciousness. The 1954 Hague Convention instituted an international protective regime predicated on recognition of the universal value of cultural heritage, “since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world,” and thus articulated restrictions with respect to the treatment of cultural properties during armed conflict. In 1970, in response to concerns about the peacetime flow of cultural objects from the developing to the developed world, UNESCO concluded a convention to tackle the problem of the illicit import, export, and transfer of cultural property. Two years later, in its third major cultural convention, UNESCO formulated the concepts of World Cultural and Natural Heritage: vaunted, sought-after designations to inscribe universal valuation onto sites deemed to fulfill criteria related to aesthetic, artistic, ecological, ethnological, historical, physiographic, and/or scientific importance. A 2001 convention broadened the net of tangible cultural heritage to include “all traces of human existence” found underwater. Yet critics maintained that such conventions, while indispensable, overlooked the salience of intangible dimensions of cultural life; in short, they typified a largely Western understanding of culture and cultural heritage.
Some may find it difficult to think
beyond what might be perceived as mere rhetoric. Throughout history, cultures
and their associated practices and objects have been erased from existence and memory.
But consciousness shifts. The devastating 2010 Haitian and 2015 Nepali
earthquakes exposed the unequivocal fact that for many peoples, sites and
objects obtain meaning through cultural practices; cultural practices, in turn,
derive meaning from their specific relationship to location and to objects. A
loss of one entails an endangerment to the other. The current situations in
Iraq and Syria have similarly revealed that the loss of antiquities with no
overt connection to contemporary cultural practices nevertheless strikes at the
very heart of collective identity (Kimmelman
2015). The human rights and human dignity thread in UNESCO's latest
work forces us to focus not so much on the monetary damages and losses
incurred, but on the very real costs to human identity, livelihood, and
In short, what’s at stake in the destruction of cultural heritage is not merely the erasure of beautiful objects, historic sites, festive traditions, and performative expressions, but the breadth of human diversity itself.
Christina Kott, “‘Kultur’ / ‘Zivilisation’” in Jo Tollebeek and Eline van Assche (eds.), Ravaged: Art and Culture in Times of Conflict (Brussels: M – Museum Leuven, 2014).
Wayne Sandholtz, Prohibiting Plunder: How Norms Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)
 I use the term ‘cultural heritage’ rather than ‘cultural property’ except when the latter is used by the sources to which I refer. The broader term ‘cultural heritage’ encompasses intangible elements of culture, and comprehends layered and mutually implicative relationships of diverse cultures in ways that begin to decouple culture and its manifestations from notions of proprietorship and sovereignty.