Last semester I had the opportunity to be a student of the Iraqi historian Omar Mohammed. He is the creator of the blog “Mosul Eye”. Through this blog Mr. Mohammed was able to inform the world the life under the Islamic State in Mosul, his city. Now-a-days he works hard to make Mosul reconstruction possible.
During Mr. Mohammed’s classes I was able to meet Mr. Valéry Freland, executive director of the newly created organization ALIPH (International alliance for the protection of heritage in conflict areas). In this article I want to capture the knowledge I learned from my teacher Mr. Mohammed and to let people know about the admirable work of ALIPH.
Since centuries ago, the attack on cultural heritage sites has been used as a war tactic. More recently we have seen how terrorist groups systematically decide to loot and attack historical and cultural sites.
An attempt has been made to study the reason why cultural heritage is a target of war, in order to prevent where there is the greatest risk and to create strategies to prevent it. Johan Brosché explains that there are 4 main reasons why these attacks are carried out.
First, cultural property is a target because it is connected to the problem that the parties to the conflict are fighting for. That is, for ideological reasons.
Second, cultural heritage is attacked for reasons of military strategy to: a) gain key positions, such as a mountain or sites along major roads; b) to break the unity and cohesion of the resistance; c) in guerrilla warfare they take control of a cultural site to establish a base, knowing that the government will not attack them there; d) places like churches or temples can become places for political discussion or organize opposition and attacks.
Third, attacking a cultural site can be a way to assert power and show that they are capable of anything. They are low risk war targets but they leave a very powerful signal.
Finally, cultural heritage, museums, collections, etc., are looted to later sell the pieces of art on the black market in order to continue financing the war. The illegal sale of antiquities constitutes an essential financial resource for armed groups in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, etc.
In the past twenty years the Middle East and the Sahel region has been ravaged by wars and jihadist attacks. Terrorist groups target cultural heritage mainly for ideological reasons. They see those places as a threat to their mission and mandate. What they seek is to destroy the identity and collective memory of the people. This way there is a greater ease of imposing and implanting their ideology and their idea of an Islamic State.
It is worth mentioning that the attack on cultural property is considered a war crime because it is property protected by the International Humanitarian Law. Therefore, anyone who attacks cultural heritage has to be condemned by the International Criminal Court.
UNESCO has reaffirmed that cultural heritage is important because it is capable of shaping individual and collective identity, as well as the collective memory. Cultural heritage promotes diversity and intercultural dialogue; creates a stronger sense of belonging; it can create peace building; it is an effective educational tool. . Culture is «vital in the process of strengthening ties between peoples and regions.”
Faced with this reality the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH) was created in 2017 to become the first international fund dedicated exclusively to the protection of cultural heritage in conflict areas.
ALIPH’s main mandate is to protect heritage to create peace. This newly created organization seeks the preservation of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage, with the conviction that the protection and reinforcement of historical memory can become a way of strengthening and empowering peoples and thus rebuilding peace.
The organization has eight member states (China, France, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates) and 3 private donors (Thomas S. Kaplan, Jean-Claude Gandur and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation).
ALIPH is a unique model as it is at the same time a private foundation under Swiss law, an international organization based in Geneva, a financial instrument, a public-private partnership, with scientific expertise and a small organization that gives them the advantage to act quickly and make quick decisions unanimously.
It is a foundation that seeks to act before, as preventive protection in case of a high and imminent risk; during, acting as emergency protection when possible; and after the conflict, in the rehabilitation, reconstruction and restoration of both tangible and intangible heritage.
Its priorities are the protection of sites and monuments, documenting and interconnecting heritage, safeguarding museums and their collections, and protecting intangible cultural heritage.
It currently finances 44 projects in 14 countries: Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Georgia, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Mali, Palestine, Peru, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and Sudan.
Iraq is the country in which ALIPH is most involved. In total, they have started financing 7 projects. They are very committed with Mosul a city that was captured in 2014 by ISIS and remained under its control until 2017. ALIPH will contribute to the project launched in 2018 by UNESCO to rebuild the city of Mosul called “Reviving the Spirit of Mosul”.
In Afghanistan, they started the first project to safeguard intangible heritage. They are financing a project to protect the traditional practice of decorative tile making in Herat, carpet weaving in Bamiyan and tambor making in Kabul.
Peru is the only country they are working in that is not part of the Middle East and Sahel region. They are financing the National Univeristy of Engineering to preserve 12 16th-century churches that were damaged during the civil war in the 80s.
This Monday, August 24, ALIPH announced that it will allocate a first amount of 5 million dollars to rehabilitate the damaged heritage in Beirut after the explosion that hit the port on August 4, and where several museums, libraries and monuments were affected. ALIPH is collaborating with other international and Lebanese institutions dedicated to the rehabilitation of heritage
ALIPH is a very new, innovative and hopeful organization because we observe that there is interest, political will and the will of certain private actors, to protect the cultural heritage of peoples, which is also the cultural heritage of all humanity. It is hope because the reconstruction of the identity of the peoples can re-create bonds of fraternity that sooner or later will create peace.
Reviving cultural heritage “will reveal that the only way to live together is by believing in diversity as a mosaic, where each distinct piece is integral to the revelation of the whole, where any missing piece will in the end rob all of their shared destiny”
(Omar Mohammed, 2019).
- ALIPH https://www.aliph-foundation.org/en/projects?country=241
- ALIPH Brochure. https://www.aliph-foundation.org/storage/wsm_presse/gX3r8V8ZxsqPY1kQ0M8FCEUCDnPfDhqLJyyyT27Z.pdf
- Brosché, Johan, Mattias Legnér, Joakim Kreutz & Akram Ijla (2017) Heritage under attack: motives for targeting cultural property during armed conflict, International Journal of Heritage Studies (23:3): 248-260
- Europan Union Council. 2014. Council conclusions of 21 May 2014 on cultural heritage as a strategic resource for a sustainable Europe. C 183/36
- Freland, Valery. 2020. The Future of Cultural Heritage Diplomacy. Conference lectured via zoom.
- Mohammed, Omar. 2019. Surviving Architecture of Mosul: An appeal to ALIPH foundation to preserve the surviving Arches of Mosul. Recovered from https://mosul-eye.org/2019/07/16/survived-architecture-of-mosul-an-appeal-to-aliph-foundation-to-preserve-the-survived-arches-of-mosul/
- Sigrid Van der Auwera & Annick Schramme. 2011. “Civil Society Action in the Field of Cultural Heritage”. Heritage & Society, 4 (1): 59-82. Recovered from http://dx.doi.org/10.1179/hso.2011.4.1.59
- UNESCO News. 2019 UNESCO and ALIPH formalize partnership on the protection of cultural heritage in conflict areas. https://en.unesco.org/news/unesco-and-aliph-formalize-partnership-protection-cultural-heritage-conflict-areas