Categorized | USA, Iran

U.S. Actions Threaten Cultural Sites Beyond Iran


Remains of Persepolis, ceremonial capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire built by Darius I in sixth century BC. Persepolis is a well-preserved example of ancient Persian culture. (DOMINIKA ZARZYCKA/NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March/April 2020, pp. 31-33

Special Report

By Eleni Zaras

IN A JAN. 4 TWEET President Donald Trump threatened to target 52 Iranian cultural sites, “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.” What actually came very fast was backlash from all sides, condemning the illegality of such threats.

Despite condemnation from Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as media, museums and scholars, the commander-in-chief stood by his remarks and the following day asked rhetorically, “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people, and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.”

Such an attack would be a war crime. Attacking cultural heritage sites violates the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, and the 2017 United Nations Security Council Resolution 2347.

On Jan. 6, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) warned Trump against targeting Iranian cultural sites, saying, “Cultural sites is not hitting them hard; it’s creating more problems. We’re trying to show solidarity with the Iranian people.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also countered Trump’s threats. On Jan. 6, Esper affirmed that the U.S. will follow the law and not attack cultural heritage sites. Without fully backing down from his initial rhetoric, Trump walked back his threat on Jan. 7, saying, “I like to obey the law.”

Indeed, the threats rallied not just the Iranian people, many of whom took to Twitter with the hashtag #IranCulturalSites, but also major museum directors and academics, who normally avoid politics. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Association of Art Museum Directors, the American Alliance of Museums, World Monuments Fund, and the Association of Art Museum Curators expressed their concerns in open letters, through press releases and on social media.

Former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Thomas Campbell, issued a long condemnation via Instagram, stating, “We are better than this, in diplomacy, rhetoric and action. Let’s hold high the flame of shared cultural achievements that remind us of our common humanity, across time, geography, faith and politics.”

But are we better than this? Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which will notably host an exhibition of Persian art in the fall, tweeted: “This is a worrying step toward the normalization of cultural destruction as a war aim.”

As Hunt suggests, what is concerning about Trump’s threatening tweets is not just their illegality, but also their long-term consequences and how they fit into broader trends. The devaluation of Iranian culture, history and natural sites dovetails with previous policies, positions and efforts of the Trump administration. The remarks churn up and risk normalizing problematic narratives about Islamic and pre-Islamic art and culture, historically infused with Orientalist and imperialist rhetoric that scholars have fought against for decades.

The Trump administration has not been shy in backing out of international organizations and treaties that protect cultural and natural sites, most notably withdrawing from UNESCO. Domestically, as The Washington Post reported on March 18, 2019, Trump has each year in office proposed “a federal budget that would shutter the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—which supports PBS and NPR—and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.” His repeated attempts to discredit journalists who counter his framing of events also undercuts fact-based reporting and politicizes facts and history.

Before Trump became president, although the U.S. did not directly attack cultural sites, the Iraq War bore witness to incidents of American forces endangering cultural sites. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, American troops refused to guard the Iraqi National Museum and Archives, until after it was looted of priceless treasures and documents. Americans also set up military bases close to—or even within—historical sites and monuments. The proximity inevitably put the sites at risk, as University of Michigan Professor of Islamic Art History Christiane Gruber points out, referring in particular to the 9th century Malwiya minaret in Samarra. The Malwiya minaret is one of the only spiral minarets in existence and is part of what used to be one of the largest and most important mosques of its time. In the fall of 2004, the American forces occupied the minaret and transformed it into a sniper outpost. Iraqi authorities ordered American troops to vacate the monument in March 2005, but the top tier was still blasted on April 1, 2005 by opposition fighters to prevent future use as a sniper hideout. Undeterred, U.S. troops retook the minaret for military purposes in 2006.


The Coalition Forces had a base at the Ur archeological site, near an old temple called the Ziggurat dating back to 2100 BC, with the remains of Abraham’s house and 7,000-year-old graves. The American base was a regular target for the insurgents’ mortar attacks. In April 2008, a mortar landed only a few meters from the precious Ziggurat. The heavy tanks and artillery vibrations also shook the foundations of these fragile monuments made of mud. (VERONIQUE DE VIGUERIE/EDIT BY GETTY IMAGES)

The United States military also set up bases on top of ancient cities such as Babylon, causing direct and irreparable damage. A 2009 UNESCO report on Babylon enumerates the damage. Direct destruction by the Americans included, but was not limited to, damage of bricks and animals of the Ishtar Gate and of the Processional Way, leveling, compacting and chemically treating soil, paving of un-excavated archaeological zones, digging of trenches, and filling sandbags with shard-laden soil. In addition to this direct abuse of the site, the vibrations of vehicles and air traffic destabilized structures. While Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein did more than his fair share of damage as well, the American presence proved more destructive and was deemed “a grave encroachment” on the site.

Following criticism of the damage to Babylon in 2006, NBC reported that “Col. John Coleman, former chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, told the BBC that if the head of the Iraqi antiquities board wanted an apology, and ‘if it makes him feel good, we can certainly give him one.’ But he also asked: ‘If it wasn’t for our presence, what would the state of those archaeological ruins be?’”

Even today, the U.S. is arguably complicit in the destruction of sites in Yemen which are attacked by the Saudi-led coalition that Americans continue to arm. A 2017 study by Professor Lamya Khalidi of the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis reported that, according to official Yemeni lists, of 78 major historical sites damaged as of March 2015, “59 of these have been damaged or destroyed by Saudi coalition bombs (17 in the range of 70- to 100-percent destroyed) despite the coalition having been handed by UNESCO no fly lists of cultural heritage to avoid.” The others were targeted by al-Qaeda, ISIS and opposition Houthi forces.

This accounting does not include additional damage by coalition bombs that targeted UNESCO sites in Sana’a’s old city, the historic city of Zabid and elsewhere—attacks that have damaged hundreds of historic houses, mosques, archaeological sites and even multiple museums. According to Professor Khalidi, “The most flagrant of these bombing campaigns [against museums] was the total destruction of the Dhamar Archaeological Museum, which housed upward of 12,500 objects, not including massive quantities of unregistered archaeological remains stored there by active archaeological field programs. It was pulverized by coalition bombs in May 2015.”

“Tragically,” Khalidi assesses, “much of this damage, notably that from Saudi airstrikes and from demolitions carried out by IS, appears to be intentional. The systemic destruction of the country’s cultural heritage is in effect a targeting of its people and a gradual erasure of their cultural identity.”

Still, the United States, the UK, France and Australia have continued to sell arms, worth billions of dollars, to Saudi Arabia.

The ripple effect of such acts of cultural erasure transforms how we frame and perceive history and cultures. The destruction of pre-Islamic sites reinforces narratives of a rupture between pre-Islamic and Islamic history, which can go as far as purporting that “pre-Islamic heritage is not necessary,” explains Aziz Morfeq who works in Sanaa for the Yemeni arts and culture NGO Basement Cultural Foundation. “Many groups in Yemen,” he starts without naming names, “share common ground with the Saudi way of thinking; it is not important to preserve [pre-Islamic] heritage.” Destroying these sites becomes a swift method of “eliminating problems” in history.

Furthermore, narratives popularized during the 19th century in Western Europe framed Islamic art as non-figural, timeless and decorative, and thus without historical or technical value. Destroying Islamic art and architecture in fact serves to re-enforce racist narratives stipulating that Muslims “cannot be fully human because they don’t produce art,” elucidates Professor Gruber, much of whose work has aimed to undo the assumption that Islamic art does not include figural representation.

What Gruber views as “anxiety inducing” is that “if such sites are destroyed… [it] entrenches such pernicious narratives.” Gruber also underscores that the UNESCO sites in Iran are not limited to architectural monuments, but also include nature preserves, hydraulic systems and other technical “ingenuities” of the human spirit.

“Unfortunately, in the past 10 years,” for her Islamic art survey course, “I have [had] to address destruction and targets and sites of potential weaponization.” Not explaining the militarized and politicized significance they now bear would be denying a new reality and function of these sites. “Buildings are living organisms; they change through time.” The word itself, she notes, is “a ‘building’—it’s a gerund—we shift with them, and they shift with us.”

In the end, Gruber muses that “the silver lining” of these recent events and discussions is that they “reify pressing concerns—not just to preserve art and architecture and archaeology, but also human ingenuity, the animal world, and our planetary futures.”


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