c31 editorial - heritage at risk

C31 Editorial - Heritage at risk

About seventy years ago, when the UN (1945) and UNESCO (1946) were born from the ruins of the Second World War, culture and heritage seemed a solid foundation on which to rebuild a new society that went beyond the devastating conflicts that had marked most of the countries of the world in the first half of the 20th century.

About seventy years ago, when the UN (1945) and UNESCO (1946) were born from the ruins of the Second World War, culture and heritage seemed a solid foundation on which to rebuild a new society that went beyond the devastating conflicts that had marked most of the countries of the world in the first half of the 20th century. Over the following decades, cultural heritage became more and more relevant to global economic policies, progressively losing its elitist and distinctive connotation and assuming that of a cultural industry, subject to the laws of the market.

On the threshold of the third millennium, while there was a radical process of change in the global economy, heritage entered the current language as it had never happened before, taking the role of a brand for cities and countries, capable of supporting and guiding touristic demand. After having been the object of attention for centuries for a restricted area of the society, the patrimony seemed to have really reached that universal value that it had been hoped for since the 1972 UNESCO Convention, which started the process leading to creation of the World Heritage List, now reaching 1121 sites in 167 countries around the world.

And yet, at the very beginning of the 21st century, while everything suggested that the great anthropic risks to heritage were finally attenuated with respect to what happened in the previous century, we witnessed one of the most incredible and deliberate destruction of a monument, that of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, blown up for alleged religious motives by the Taliban in March 2001. Condemned by almost all the governments of the world, this event caused a general indignation also for the ways in which this destruction was carried out: for some days the Taliban had been ruthless with dynamite and tanks against the hard stone that seemed to want to resist them, as it had done for centuries.

At that time, no one believed that threats to heritage would have grown exponentially, as happened in the second decade of this century, coinciding with the conflicts that devastated a large part of the Arab world. With the progressive spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, we have thus witnessed barbarous destruction that had never been seen, even in the darkest centuries of humanity: entire museum collections devastated, statues mutilated, up to the deliberate destruction of some extraordinary sites like Palmira. Here the violence against heritage has reached its peak, in parallel with what was perpetrated against unarmed human beings.

We therefore decided to draw inspiration from these dramatic episodes – on which there is still a lot to be known beyond the most striking news disseminated by the media all over the world – to dedicate an issue of Compasses to the more general theme of heritage at risk, with a specific focus on the Middle East and archaeology. From Libya to Turkey, from Palestine to Iran, from the UAE to Lebanon, almost all the articles that make up this number tell us about heritage at risk, especially the archaeological one, threatened not only by conflicts, but also by natural and man-made phenomena of consumption. In the first group we find Libya, whose sites are now threatened by abandonment and looting, but also Palestine, whose cultural landscape is compromised by the latent conflict that has now marked the territory for many decades. In the second group, the cases of the archaeological heritage of Turkey and Iran are distinguished with different problems and outcomes, while the city of Beirut is investigated for the imposing urban transformations that for ages have marked one of the most complex and multicultural cities in the Middle East, with a specific focus on the architecture of the tomb of Rafiq Hariri created by the French architect Marc Barani.

While the issue was already under work, we witnessed dismayed the Notre-Dame fire of last April 15th, which in a few hours caused a very hard blow to one of the most important monuments in the world, which was believed to be much more protected of the cases mentioned above. The destruction of the roof and the flèche of Notre-Dame proves, if proofs were needed, how fragile is the heritage at all latitudes and that even the seemingly safer places can reveal pitfalls and negligence, capable of literally sending centuries of history up in smoke. This is why we decided to open this issue with a reflection on Notre-Dame, which traces the history of what was lost but, above all, warns against the risks of a hasty and disrespectful reconstruction remembering all the scientific skills necessary for a complex project such as this. Following in the [Essays] section, there is a study on the heritage of the Modern in Morocco, through the case of the thermal complex of Sidi Harazem by Jean François Zevaco. The remaining articles in the section return to the central theme of the issue, illustrating the activities carried out by UNESCO in Libya for heritage conservation between 2011 and 2016 and above all the results of an exhibition dedicated to the sites of Mosul, Aleppo, Palmyra and Leptis Magna and the related events that have marked them in recent years.

All the remaining issue, as already mentioned, follows the theme of heritage, although not strictly in the Middle East and not necessarily at risk: so we have the case of the restoration of the Casa do Carnaval in Salvador de Bahia, carried out by the A&P Arquitetura e Urbanismo, that of the arrangement of the archaeological area of Nola (Campania) by Alberto Izzo & Partners, then to return to the UAE with the project for the historical district of Sharjah realized by COdESIGN, and the proposal elaborated by the American University in Dubai for the museum and the Jumeirah research center. Finally, also the sections [materials & interiors] and [smart food] host examples related to the theme of heritage: in the first case with the musical activities developed in historic buildings by La Digestion group, in the second with the announcement of the opening of the Open Colonna, a concept restaurant created in the heart of Milan, in Piazza Cordusio.

But it is ultimately on the subject of heritage at risk in the Middle East that here we want to draw attention to, so that we can really turn the page with respect to a decade that saw the most wicked actions carried out in the name of a vandalic fanaticism that ended up destroying itself too.