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US-Iran war drums spell doom for cultural property

Saturday January 25 2020

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It has been the hope of many actors in the heritage sector that the current hostilities between Iran and the US will not escalate into an armed conflict. Armed conflicts always mean the destruction of the heritage of a people of the world, many times irreparably.

The hostile political exchange of words, threats and missiles has seen the International Council of Museums, (ICOM), and the International Council of Monuments (ICOMOS) remind all parties of armed conflicts of the 1954 Hague convention for the protection of cultural property. Iran ratified this convention in 1959 and the US in 2009.

As such both nations agree that ‘damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to cultural property of mankind’. Cultural Heritage can be looked at as tangible and intangible. Tangible are the physical attributes or artefacts and includes build heritage such as museums, monuments and places of worship like mosques and churches and archaeological and paleontological sites, movable works of art and manuscripts.

Intangible heritage is associated with a people’s way of life and their activities. It includes music, dance, customs and the traditions. Both aspects take years to build, yet they can be destroyed in a moment.

Armed conflicts and natural disasters, substantially contribute to the Red List of cultural objects, which is published by the International Council of Museums. The list contains artefacts that are at risk of being stolen and trafficked internationally. They often find their way into the export black market and among an international cartel of collectors of the world’s priceless cultural collections, artefacts and antiquities, in spite of the fact that these items remain protected by both national legislations and international agreements.

Further, modern day conflicts specifically target heritage as its destruction, looting or theft is usually driven by a desire to erase and destroy the collective memory of a community and scatter aspect of the identity of a people or a nation. Conflicts also lead to loss of critical scientific information which such artefacts often transmit and historical value some of which sometimes pertains to humanity.


The struggle against the illicit traffic of cultural items has many challenges, least of them being the inability of customs officers to identify such items even in instances where they arrive at a port of entry along with other luggage.

Africa has over the years suffered extensive loss of her cultural heritage as a result of the colonial experience and, recently, armed conflicts. Kenya has not been spared these losses. Some of the better known pieces include the Vingango, carved grave markers of the Miji Kenda people of the coast. Though they hold spiritual and ritual significance to the community, in the Western world they are considered to be mere pieces of art.

The others are the famous Man Eaters of Tsavo, lions that terrorised railway builders in 1989 around the Tsavo area, etching a history of the building of the railway in the history of Kenya, but somehow ended up at the Field Museum in Chicago. There are also numerous pieces at the British Museum, the better known being those associated with Koitalel Arap Samoei, a Nandi Orokoiyot who led the resistance against British rule.


Both the US and Iran are also state parties to the 1972 Convention on the Protection of world Heritage, popularly known and understood for listing World Heritage Sites. Iran has 25 sites on this prestigious list. Many of these sites are not just important to Iran but have a rich history of Christian traditions. Such sites include Babylon and both the cities of Nineveh and Mesopotamia.

The United States on the other hand has 23 World Heritage Sites, majority of which are natural including the Grand Canyon National park and the Yellow Stone National Park that is home to indigenous peoples of America, hence their culture is deeply rooted in the features and sceneries of this park.

An attack on either country therefore clearly puts the heritage of the world at risk and must be discouraged at any cost. Protection and conservation of heritage has its own unique challenges and destruction can mean irreplaceable loss.

Armed conflicts are also the worst kind of confrontation as they destroy the most precious natural heritage of humanity – human life!

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