Zeina Elcheikh discusses the consequences of war on movable cultural heritage.
“Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen” (Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings). When the German poet Henrich Heine wrote these words in 1823, he did not thought that they would become a prophecy, dreadfully fulfilled when the Nazis launched the burning book’s campaign in 1933: an event followed by atrocities in which people were, indeed, burned. Yet, this incident has been preceded and succeeded by many others though history where not only people, but also books and other movable artifacts have been targeted. Today, the challenges confronting fragile movable heritage in times of conflicts, seem to have a chance of resolution in our digital era.
The Library of Alexandria was one of the largest and most significant libraries in the ancient world. Part of its fame comes from its burning down, which has become ever since a symbol for the destruction of knowledge and culture. Centuries, in 1258, and further to the east, when the Mongols conquered Baghdad under the command of Hulagu, the House of Wisdom and its valuable manuscripts were destroyed; its scholars were also killed. It had been reported by the survivors that the waters of the Tigris had become black from the ink of the books thrown into the river. Over time, this type of destruction has become crueler with the evolution of warfare. The Belgian town of Leuven suffered from mass destruction in August 1914. In five consecutive days, the city was demolished and its library was destroyed. In May and June 1933, the book-burning campaign of the Nazis was an attribute of an authoritarian regime to censor an allegedly opposing culture.
The Vijecnica in Sarajevo is one of the most famous buildings in the city. Since 1947, the Town Hall building had been used as the national library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the civil war in the 1990s, the library was damaged by cruel bombardment, and more than two million books and documents burned. The Vijecnica was restored in 1996 and reopened in May 2014. In 2013, many of the manuscripts of Timbuktu’s Library were reported to have been destroyed, along with many other monuments of medieval Islamic culture, during the conflict in Northern Mali. The thread of atrocities goes on. In the very recent attack on cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, in which historical monuments were used as military targets and damaged, and movable cultural property has also been cruelly destroyed or illegally sold.
The targeting of cultural heritage has always been part of the atrocities committed during conflicts and belligerent actions. Whether it’s a building or a manuscript, the deliberate targeting of cultural property, usually charged with symbols and meanings, has been a symbolic gesture of taking from an “adversary” what is precious. “Book burning,” which had been, far and wide, publicly practiced in the Middle Ages, by burning books and other written materials, carried symbolic meanings. It is an efficacious sign, which did something, and in doing it showed what was to be done refers to the ritual destruction.
After the mass destruction and atrocities against cultural heritage during the Second World War, concerns have been increased concerns about the fate of the cultural properties during conflicts. This has led to draft a convention, developed later, to adopt the international principles and guidelines for the protection of cultural property during armed conflict: the Hague Convention in 1954, and its second protocol in 1999. In addition to monuments, museums, archives and libraries are repositories for movable cultural heritage, and play a major role in transmitting knowledge. While many museums, archives and libraries are themselves buildings with either historical or architectural value, their content has given them an added value.
For the reason that movable heritage is simply “movable”, it can be easily displaced, sold, damaged or even eradicated. This fragile nature puts the historical evidence of the artefacts in questions at a great risk of permanent loss, which creates a great challenge for the conservation of the artefacts themselves and the transmission of knowledge they carry. Digital technology has been widely used in museums, archives and libraries to reach a wider audience in a digital form, and has also contributed to the conservation of cultural heritage and communication of knowledge.
Digitization is among various methods for dealing with the movable cultural property of great importance. This is especially shown in two related issues. Firstly, digitization allows many institutions to show their collections on the Internet. The users in different geographical areas can at any time, and at the same time, have access to valuable and rare materials. One can worldwide make a virtual visit to the collections, and save the time for scholars. Secondly, digitization plays a great role in the conservation of cultural heritage. It protects valuable items (in particular sensitive books and manuscripts), prevents damage to the original caused by handling and display, and allows to make a copy. In other words, the digitization brings a new life when damage and loss are inevitable.
“The first step to liquidate a people is to erase his memory. Destroy its books, its culture and its history” (Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)
When the repository of knowledge and culture, along with its content are subject to risk, the responsibility for protection doubles up. When a library is reduced to rubble and its books turned into ash, we are faced by more than just a material loss of a building and some books. We lose a part of the knowledge and cultural heritage of a people, when we lose a library.
Zeina Elcheikh, worked with German International Cooperation and the French Institute for the Near East in Syria, and the joined the UNESCO office in Cairo as an intern. She is currently a PhD student at the Institute for History of Architecture/Stuttgart University, and works as an assistant in the digitization project of cultural heritage at the Württembergische Landesbibliothek in Stuttgart. Zeina is also a member of AiP’s Advisory Board.