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Arab nations fork out to save world's heritage sites

Heritage sites across the region have been targeted by militants [AFP]

Date of publication: 21 March, 2017

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Seven countries and a US donor have pledged tens of millions of dollars to a UNESCO-backed fund aimed at protecting the world's cultural heritage against war.

 

Four Arab countries were among seven that pledged $75.5 million to a UNESCO-backed fund aimed at protecting the world's cultural heritage against war and terrorism, reports confirmed on Monday.

With $30 million pledged, France ranked the highest but was closely followed by Saudi Arabia and co-host the UAE who promised $20 million and $15 million each.

Kuwait and Morocco pledged $5 million and $1.5 million respectively. 

US philanthropist Tom Kaplan also pledged $1 million, while Switzerland offered logistical support that it valued at $8 million.

The gathering of influential art patrons and world leaders was hosted by French President Francois Hollande at the Louvre museum in Paris, along with the co-host the UAE.

Arab countries have witnessed huge devastation and theft of the region's cultural heritage sites and museums, something which was brought up in the meeting.

"At Bamiyan, Mosul, Palmyra, Timbuktu and elsewhere, fanatics have engaged in trafficking, looting and the destruction of cultural heritage, adding to the persecution of populations," Hollande said.

Speaking in the Louvre's Khorsabad courtyard - which houses the imposing remains of a 706 BC palace from ancient Mesopotamia, the land of modern-day Iraq - Hollande said the country was a priority in the global fight against further cultural destruction.  

Islamic State group militants in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere have dynamited ancient statues and monuments, to the horror of archaelogists.

Meanwhile, the militant group has illicitly traded countless cultural artefacts for finances. An unknown number of Iraqi and Syrian treasures have been lost or damaged as they are smuggled out illegally to art collectors across the world.

Last December, a total of 40 countries pledged their support to the initiative at a conference in Abu Dhabi.

Safe havens

Meanwhile, a network of safe havens for endangered artworks was also put in place, allowing cultural property to be stored abroad temporarily, but only as a last resort.

Some countries, including Egypt and Greece, expressed reservations about such zones, citing sovereignty claims.

In January, Egypt's historic Museum of Islamic Art in central Cairo was reopened three years after a car bombing partially destroyed the building.

The museum - which boasts about 100,000 relics including a sword said to have belonged to the Prophet Mohammed - holds one of the largest Islamic civilisation collections in the world.

It displays priceless Islamic artwork from all periods of Islamic history, including one of the rarest copies of the Quran.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told participants at the time there should be "guarantees for the safe return" of national treasures.

In his speech on Monday, Hollande emphasised that measures would be taken to ensure that "sovereignty principles will be respected", 

After Islamic State group fighters seized the ancient ruins of Palmyra in May 2015, they systematically destroyed and looted the temples of the UNESCO World Heritage site.

The group also ravaged the Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq using bulldozers and explosives, and ransacked pre-Islamic treasures in Mosul's museum.

In Afghanistan, Bamiyan and Mali's Timbuktu are other UNESCO sites to suffer destruction at the hands of militants.

 

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