Terror Heritage?

Sadly, stories of the destruction of heritage in the Middle East are increasingly becoming the norm, rather than the extreme. As religious extremists target more and more historic sites and collections, are we witnessing not the loss of heritage, but the creation of a new form of “terror heritage”?

Heritage is always being created. While forms of heritage, such as castles and cathedrals, must first be built, it is later generations who decide that these structures are of value – who decide to preserve, conserve, and present buildings, and in doing so, turn the historic into their heritage. Within the terminology of heritage, there is vast variety, but it is always people who decide what will become heritage. There are, however, forms of heritage that are defined by circumstance, great disasters, or catastrophes. These events might be natural, such as earthquakes or tsunamis, that mark landscape and society alike, but then there are more direct human actions. Last month, videos circulated of a shocking attack on the Mosul Museum in Iraq, where ancient antiquities were deliberately destroyed. Yet, in those acts of mindless aggression, was the status of the collections and sites being elevated? Was there a form of “terror heritage” being created, where very acts of destruction made the global community more aware of, and more enthusiastic about, ensuring the long-term survival of those cultural artifacts?

In Mali, a form of “terror heritage” has certainly been created as a result of concerted efforts to destroy the great literary heritage of Timbuktu. For Islamic literary heritage, Mali has few rivals in terms of quantity and quality of collections, being home to a vast repository of thousands of centuries-old manuscripts in Timbuktu. The unique and essential archive of cultural heritage retained within Timbuktu has, however, become a target for destruction. Having held the city for almost a year, rebel Tuareg fighters, allied to al-Qaeda, were driven out of Timbuktu. But, before they left, the rebels set the manuscripts of Timbuktu ablaze. This catastrophic conclusion to a conflict that had run for over two years would directly influence efforts to ensure the long-term protection of the manuscripts that survived.

For the same reason sites of religious significance have been decimated in Iraq, the manuscripts were condemned as idolatrous. An extreme justification was, therefore, established for the systematic destruction of thousands of texts, charting hundreds of years’ worth of history. It is questionable how much this was actually a religiously-motivated attack, or simply a final act of defiance by the retreating rebels. Either way, the consequences were the same: the manuscripts were gone.

Or at least that is what the rebels thought when they left.

In an equally defiant act, and in a bold move, which highlights the true sense of value applied to the manuscripts, secretive efforts had been undertaken to safeguard and smuggle away the vulnerable cultural materials. The main target for the fleeing rebels had actually been the Ahmed Baba Institute, the main repository for manuscripts. With the building set ablaze, it was considered likely that the materials held within would burn as well. For a few thousand artifacts, this was indeed the case. But, the dedicated staff of the research institute had actually removed the core collection, a total of some twenty-seven thousand. Relocated to homes, or entrusted to the care of private collectors, the majority of the manuscripts were preserved. Those who pulled off this covert, but no less dramatic, rescue effort, in a very real sense risked their lives in order to save the nation’s heritage. Those few manuscripts left to burn, did so as a sacrificial act, to throw off the unsuspecting rebels, and mislead them as to the true extent of what materials remained in the building.

Today, fundraising efforts are underway to digitize the vast collection, protecting the archive of information should any such threats present themselves again. Crowd-funded movements, such as the T160k organization, seek to ensure the long-term viability of the manuscript collections in face of wide-ranging threats. The work of T160k comes as a direct response to the dangers faced by these heritage collections. While conservation efforts had been ongoing prior to the threat of destruction, it has only been in the immediate period following the threat of destruction that the long-term preservation of the manuscripts has become a real, global priority. Much of the emphasis in the work of T160k focuses on the idea of sustainable conservation. This approach looks at both conserving collections, but also at training locals in conservation skills and standards so the knowledge and expertise is enshrined in the community who will curate these collections long into the future. The “crowd,” locally and globally, has responded to a severe threat, helping to ensure the viability of this literary heritage for generations to come.

In the same way that the heritage status of the Timbuktu manuscripts may have been changed by the very attempt to destroy them, a similar process of “terror heritage” is being established in France. In January, the world of contemporary literature was rocked by the attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. While the circumstances of these respective attacks were fundamentally different, the attack on literary expression unites these events. Equally, the public response to the attack in France might ultimately contribute to the heritagization, i.e., the social process of creating heritage, of the magazine.

Charlie Hebdo rapidly became something far more than a mere magazine. It evolved to become an expression of defiance and a commemoration of lives lost. Equally, for some, copies of the magazine became valuable commodities for exchange on the market, or macabre legacies of a tragic event. Whatever the motivation for procurement of copies, it is clear that for many buyers, the prospect of cashing in on the perceived collectable value of the magazine may well have been more significant than the desire to read a satirical paper. Was this effort to own a copy a process of preservation, or was it, perhaps, a form of heritagization?

The attack in January elevated the magazine to becoming a global representative of free speech in the face of extremism. World leaders looked to rally around the publication, citing the attacks on its writers as an assault on “free democratic culture.” In a similar vein, the manuscripts liberated from destruction in Timbuktu share the same status. While of cultural and historical value in their own right, the rescue of the manuscripts became symbolic of a nation’s efforts to retain their cultural heritage and identity in the face of violent oppression. The response to attempt to digitize the manuscript archive was one stimulated by an act of terror. Yet, by being threatened by an extreme interpretation of faith, the literature considered here has in fact been strengthened and seen its cultural value increased exponentially.

Heritage can, therefore, be seen as a creation of circumstance as much as being dependent on any intrinsic value. Charlie Hebdo, alongside the manuscripts of Timbuktu, has gained a cultural status above and beyond its fundamental merits because of the extreme religious response they attracted. These collections and publications survive as forms of cultural inheritance, defined by their individual and respective disastrous fates as a true form of “terror heritage.” In a striking irony, efforts to destroy these forms of heritage only serve to enshrine their value and significance to a much wider demographic. Thus, acts of terror can easily create heritage and ensures its legacy, even when some of us try to destroy it.

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