The modern-day Middle East has been turbulent to say the least. Unstable borders post Sykes-Picot, various dictatorships, and numerous wars and massacres have put the region on edge.
During these periods of instability, the rich and ancient culture of the region have suffered the most. To make it worse, there has been ongoing government neglect over ancient heritage sites due to corruption, lack of care, natural disasters, or lack of funds to maintain them.
Plagued by sectarianism, corruption, inflation, and warlords, Lebanon, once the most prosperous nation in the modern Middle East is now its most rapidly declining state.
Years of neglect towards antiquities, along with government mismanagement have left much of Lebanon’s archaeological sites in a decaying and eroding state. The country, which is currently in a spiral towards collapse, could potentially see its ancient heritage trafficked with a lack of a central government over the state in which its sectarian tensions still have not died.
Having some of the world’s oldest heritage sites, the archaeological damage to Syria over the past decade has been cataclysmic. The war, which has been ongoing since 2011 that has included various factions has seen immense cultural damage across the nation.
The ISIS extremist group has destroyed ancient Assyrian, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian churches along with various ancient archaeological sites. One of these is the world-renowned ancient city of Palmyra, which took extensive damage from the occupation.
Shelling from both the Syrian Army and rebel factions have caused great damage to the historical city of Aleppo, which still to this day has gone through a slow reconstruction. The Turkish military invasions have also caused considerable damage to ancient sites, particularly in Afrin.
Syria’s northern regions also sit dangerously close to fault lines, in which a major earthquake caused considerable damage to the nation, along with Turkey. Sanctions, rising inflation, government negligence, and a fractured nation will continue to play a role in cultural degradation for years to come.
Iraq, which has already suffered a violent and turbulent history post Sykes-Picot, faces ongoing destabilization when the aftermath of the US invasion exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions. Over 17000 artifacts were looted from various museums, and militant groups such as ISIS went on a rampage, particularly in the northern regions where Iraqi military divisions fled from the group in 2014.
Even with foreign influence and militant insurgencies that helped destabilize the nation, the Iraqi government has not been innocent in protecting its own heritage. In 2021, the Iraqi government purposely bulldozed part of the 3000-year-old Assyrian Wall of Nineveh to make way for a highway project.
Neglecting the heritage of Iraq’s oldest ethnic groups has been nothing new, as the Mullah’s influence from Iran has influenced the inane decisions of the new Baghdad government. With focus given more to the Shia majority over the rest of the ethnic groups in the nation, sectarianism and negligence of cultural heritage will continue to grow.
The 2023 earthquake in Turkey and Syria has caused incalculable losses to some of the oldest artifacts from the ancient city of Antioch/Antakya and numerous Roman and Ottoman era churches and mosques. Natural disasters have only been a slight problem of cultural degradation overall in the nation as the ruling AKP Party under President Tayyip Erdogan has done little to preserve cultural heritage.
Neglect of antiquities has been reported numerous times under Erdogan’s growing authoritative rule as government mismanagement has caused economic stagnation and an inflation crisis. The upcoming Turkish elections could determine the amount of international funds and donations Ankara needs to help maintain preservation as Erdogan has butted heads with Western states the last few years. The more secular parties would be willing to work with others to maintain the heritage that was a foundation of the original foundation of the Republic.
Yemen, which is already the poorest nation in the Middle East, has been battered in an inhumane war that has been taking place since 2015. Under constant shelling by various factions with their own political motives and international backing, Yemen’s rich and ancient cultural heritage has been threatened on numerous occasions.
UNESCO has raised the alarm over fears of destruction of some of the world’s oldest heritage sites, particularly in the battered capital of Sana’a. The World Monument Fund has led restoration efforts to help preserve archaeological artifacts. If a peace deal is not reached to end the war, cultural heritage in the Arabian nation will continue to be at risk.
With an ever-turbulent region, cultural preservation will have to continue to become a focus as various factors from unstable governments, conflicts, rising inflation, sectarianism, and foreign influence continue to play a factor in the Middle East’s rich ancient heritage.
[Photo: Ancient city of Palmyra, by James Gordon from Los Angeles, California, USA, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”