By Charles Henry
In 2014, I began conversations with the Heritas Group, a new organization devoted to solving large-scale problems pertaining to the world’s collective cultural heritage. Heritas is concerned especially with those regions of the planet that are disrupted by war and political instability. Our conversations focused on several geographical areas, but almost always returned to the Middle East and the current alarming rate of theft, looting, and illegal sale of cultural artifacts. In addition to the theft of antiquities, many instances of the outright destruction of a nation’s cultural legacy have occurred.
The Preamble of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict observed the fundamental principle of the shared importance of every nation’s cultural legacy, stating that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world.”
Sadly, looting and illegal trafficking has figured prominently in the history of the last 50 years following the compassionate, multicultural Hague Convention. The explosive demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001 remains an iconic representation of a devastating cultural loss. Today, the list of the world’s troubled spots and regional wars is long and saddening; prominent among the most disrupted areas is the Middle East, including Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. In the past decade, one of the more notorious acts of looting took place, the theft of nearly 15,000 items from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2003. The enormous scale of loss, both in economic terms and in terms of national identity, was difficult to calculate. While many of the items taken from the Baghdad Museum were recovered, thousands were not, including ritual vessels, amulets, sculpture, and ancient cylinder seals.
More recently, reports abound concerning thefts occurring during the civil protests in Egypt, including items stolen from the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo, as well as thefts in Abusir and Saqqara. Some extensive looting was reported against a warehouse of ancient treasures in South Saqqara. The Museum in Memphis was also attacked.
Syria has experienced some of the more staggering acts of looting and destruction to date. ISIS, or the Islamic State, has stolen or destroyed artifacts and architectural structures at several UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country, including Dima-Europos, the Great Mosque in Aleppo, and at Raqqa. Ancient tablets, figurines, jewelry, mosaics, and coins count among those items looted.Pascal Butterlin, a professor of archaeology at Université Paris who has spent 20 years working in Syria, wrote in an e-mail that the looting of the country’s archaeological sites was the “worst patrimonial disaster since World War II.” Across the boarder in Iraq, ISIS is reported to have control of over 4,000 archeological sites, with access to an astonishing amount of historical and cultural objects, many of great significance and value.
One of the more important approaches used to impede the looting and illegal trade has been a reliance on two UNESCO conventions, written and adopted in 1970 and 1995, that call for inventories, catalogs, and other methods of record keeping to locate cultural objects and confirm their ownership and legal status. These conventions have been adopted by most countries around the world, including nearly all nations of the Middle East. The inventories are shared internationally and consulted at the point of transfer or sale of an item of cultural or historical significance, and have been effective in impeding some theft and illegal trade. The UNESCO conventions, however, were developed before the florescence of digital technology: so much has changed since 1995.
Among the more profound changes has been the emergence of the concept and the subsequent technological architecture of digital libraries. This technology today offers powerful, cost-effective applications and systems that can aid in impeding the looting and illegal trade of a nation’s patrimony. My dialogue with the Heritas Group recently developed into a policy brief that acknowledges the power of digital libraries to capture, organize, and maintain a digital surrogate of our cultural record. The policy brief recommends the creation of national digital libraries for those countries in the Middle East beset by theft and destruction. These libraries would include detailed inventories linked to high-resolution images of objects of cultural significance. Each national library would be developed and be used with all the others—a coherent, international collaboration.
The advantages of digital libraries are numerous: the libraries can be searched using multiple terms in multiple languages, they never close, many people can use the digital library simultaneously, they are safe because of redundant locations of the data, and they are easy to update. These digital libraries would serve as a sophisticated tracking mechanism for governmental agencies.
While nothing can replace a unique object of historical importance, in light of the increasing acts of willful destruction of a nation’s heritage, a comprehensive digital library could serve as the only remaining record of a missing, destroyed, or desecrated work, a phantom of an act of war. Some elements of the libraries (images, brief descriptions) could be made publicly available to encourage a greater understanding of the region’s cultural legacy, encourage respect for the importance of cultural heritage, and be used as an educational tool of the region’s history: a means to safeguard a fundamentally important expression of our humanity.
 The policy brief is under review; a link to the document will be added when it is made public.