The River Tigris was said to have turned black from the ink spilled when the Mongols demolished the Great Library of Baghdad. Dresden’s Frauenkirche, an 18th-century church famed for its outstanding architecture, was ruined by British bombs during World War Two. The Great Sphinx’s nose was knocked off by a misfired cannonball from one of Napoleon’s soldiers. That last one’s a myth, but over the centuries war has been responsible for the destruction of countless historically important sites. The latest victim is the Great Mosque of Aleppo, rumoured resting place of John the Baptist’s father. Despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this April the mosque was caught in the crossfire of Syria’s Civil War. The fighting has left the holy site riddled with bullet holes. Its famous minaret, a landmark since 1090, has been toppled by shells.
UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova has ‘expressed her deep distress’ regarding these events. She was similarly forced to reiterate Syria’s obligation to protect the mosque in October 2012, when it was also damaged, albeit to a superficial extent, by warfare. But does Syria ignoring this demand mean that UNESCO campaigns don’t work?
A UNESCO World Heritage Site is recognised as culturally or naturally important to humanity by 190 member states. To assist in the protection and conservation of these sites, countries contribute about four million US dollars a year to an international fund. In recent years, this has led to many archaeologically important sites being removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger. Examples include Anghor Archaeological Park in Cambodia and the sixteenth century Old Walled City of Shibam in Yemen, which have been saved from falling into rubble by extensive restoration projects. Sadly, Aleppo’s minaret could not be protected but UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention is working effectively to safeguard other significant historical places.