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To End a War on the Past

The theft or destruction of ancient monuments and works of art may not rouse public ire as common street crime does. But this largely invisible criminal activity exacts a high cost, ravaging mankind's shared cultural heritage. And it's more common than people realize.

The backdrop for much of this cultural destruction is war. The shelling of Dubrovnik, a historic walled jewel on Croatia's Dalmatian Coast, was an early, wrenching episode in the war that engulfed Yugoslavia. Dubrovnik survived and again draws sightseers, but city officials estimate that $2 billion in damage remains unrepaired.

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Less blatant, but no less disturbing, is the piecemeal destruction of Iraq's cultural treasures after the Gulf War. Superb examples of ancient civilization, like the ruins of Hatra in northern Iraq, are being looted. Crews of diggers have invaded some sites. The safeguarding of Iraq's Mesopotamian and Babylonian heritage has long been a priority for Iraqis, but the government now claims that sanctions are depriving it of the resources to protect ancient sites.

The truth of that claim is difficult to assess. But the plundering goes on nonetheless, depriving not just Iraqis, but archaeologists and humanity generally of the opportunity to keep intact the traces of a magnificent past and understand its secrets.

Similar piece-by-piece destruction of monuments is occurring in Guatemala, also the scene of war until a 1996 agreement ended civil conflict there. Mayan ruins dot the country's dense jungle. It's difficult for the government to guard the more than 2,000 ancient sites. But officials are at least becoming more active in their efforts to thwart looters, who saw off bits of stone statuary and tablets displaying Mayan script. The government is now relocating many pieces from vulnerable sites to museums where they can better be protected.

In Iraq, Guatemala, and many other parts of the world the motive behind such despoiling is, of course, money. Not just the desire of poor people to make a few bucks as laborers, but the drive of smugglers to rake in millions. And though collectors and museum officials know the trade is illegal - and many are alert to illicit items - the market won't dry up until wealthy buyers refuse to buy.

Occasionally police uncover a trove. Officers in Munich recently closed in on Aydin Dikman, who is believed responsible for the theft of numerous icons and other artifacts from Greek Orthodox churches and monasteries in the Turkish-controlled half of Cyprus. Dikman's residence and storage areas also contained stashes of Mayan art, ancient Greek pottery, and other priceless items, according to a report in The New York Times.

More such police work is needed. International accords, such as the 1970 UNESCO agreement to curb the illegal trade in cultural treasures, must be diligently enforced in the country of purchase.

Both governments and private bodies in the US and Western Europe - where most stolen items go - must cooperate more closely with officials in countries like Guatemala and, yes, Iraq. That means lowering barriers to contact between adversaries.

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Peacemaking in places like the Balkans and Middle East must continue. But there must also be strong efforts to save in situ priceless antiquities.

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