Heritage at Risk: Acts of Human Aggression

by Divya Jayaram
August 23, 2013

Heritage At Risk

This is the third post in our blog series titled “Heritage at Risk.” Each month, we will highlight one risk factor that threatens our heritage and how CyArk’s mission can help preserve our history.

While destruction from natural disasters is next to inevitable--exacting a heavy toll on human life and causing potentially irreparable damage to our cultural legacy—human-induced hazards have the capacity to outdo even natural disasters in their detrimental effects on heritage and our collective cultural memory. Of these threats, incidents arising out of human aggression remain particularly intractable and disturbing. Throughout history, cultural assets have been a target for destruction mainly because of their deep ties to certain social, cultural, or religions identities. Regrettably, recent years have been marked by violence and tragic loss of human life as well as the destruction of heritage on a symbolic scale that has been unrivaled for the past several centuries.

War, civil disorder, terrorism, theft, neglect and vandalism are just some of the factors that have contributed to the accidental or willful destruction of our heritage. The giant Buddha statues that towered over the landscape of the Bamiyan valley of Afghanistan for 1,500 years were destroyed in 2001 because they were considered ‘profane’ and ‘un-Islamic.’ Countless Syrians have lost their lives or livelihoods in the country's ongoing violent civil war civil war. The internal strife in Syria has also corresponded with the devastating destruction of almost 700 years of cultural heritage. The constant bombings and looting of archaeological relics over the last couple of years have devastated the World Heritage City of Aleppo and the Syrian capital of Damascus, reducing large parts of these historic places to rubble with many of the ancient sites becoming battlegrounds for fighting. Lesser publicized examples in the recent past include the shelling of the historic Stari Most bridge in Bosnia and the Jaffna Fort in Sri Lanka, which were also victims to the grave effects of war and conflict.

Image of the Stari Most Bombing captured from a video footage. (Photo credit: Real War Films).
Stari Most, constructed in the 16th century to replace a rickety wooden suspension bridge, spans the River Neretva in Bosnia and Herzegovina (part of the former Yugoslavia). It was designed by Ottoman architect Mimar Hajruddin when the city of Mostar was fortified by the Ottoman Empire, the arched bridge was an architectural wonder in its time and was renamed ‘Stari Most,’ or, Old Bridge. A single-span stonemasonry arch 29 meters in length and 20 meters high, Stari Most was built of tenelija, a local fine-grained limestone. The individual stones were held together by iron clamps and joined with molten lead, a technology that was significantly advanced at its time.

The early 1990s witnessed a heavy retaliation by Bosnian Croat forces against the Bosnian army and government. This resulted in the division of the city of Mostar into two halves, separated by the Neretva river. In November of 1993, as part of the inter-ethnic war, the forces destroyed the bridge in a fierce siege and shelling, reducing the city’s most recognizable symbol to rubble. Ten years later, the Bosnian government determined that the bridge should be rebuilt as close to the original structure as possible, using the same technology and materials. Some of the tenelija stones from the destroyed bridge were recovered from the river below and the rest were mined from the original quarries. With financial assistance and support from an international coalition, the reconstructed Stari Most bridge was completed in 2004, and in 2005 it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally celebrated for its elegance, architectural ingenuity, and structural endurance, Stari Most ultimately became a symbol for the importance of tolerance and diversity.

Historical map of the star shaped Jaffna Fort and a drawing showing the front elevation of the Dutch Church. (Photo credit: Columbia University.)
Sri Lanka is renowned for its unique and beautiful cultural heritage. However, the lengthy and violent conflict on this island in the last three decades has destroyed a good deal of cultural heritage property. Located in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka, the historic Jaffna Fort is one such example. The fort was originally built by the Portuguese in 1618, and subsequently captured by the Dutch who expanded it in 1680. In 1795 the site was seized by the British, who controlled it until 1948. The second largest fort on the island, star-shaped Fort Jaffna was located at a strategic defensive point and was isolated from the local population, traditionally serving administrative purposes. Spread over an area of 14 acres, the fort was comprised of buildings constructed over the course of the island’s occupation by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British and showcased architectural features relevant to those periods of construction. The fort had two walls with five guard towers and was surrounded by a deep moat. It also consisted of separate administrative complexes, an armory, church, and housing for senior officers. After gaining independence from the British Colonial rule, the Jaffna Fort was used as an army base, and most buildings continued to serve the purpose for which they were originally built.

The conflict originated when a guerrilla organization sought to establish an independent state in northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka during the 1980s. On-and-off skirmishes against the Sri Lankan government led to militants attacking the army camp inside the fort. These attacks and the counter-attacks caused heavy damage and destroyed several heritage buildings within the fort, including the Dutch church, which was destroyed to the point of being unsalvageable. Parts of damaged buildings were used as building materials for bunkers, and mining activity in the area also contributed to the fort’s destruction. Eventually, Fort Jaffa was abandoned which lead to further degradation of the historical site. In 2009, a project was set up to renovate and restore the fort to its former glory. Today, many components of the fort have been restored, but much of the damage to the historic structures on site is beyond repair.

An unfortunate paradox is that during conflicts, cultural heritage sites are targeted for destruction because they are the most iconic sites, but it is for the same reason that they need to be preserved. As a response to the massive destruction of cultural property during the Second World War, international governments formulated the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which was signed in 1954. This international agreement, aimed at protecting cultural property from the effects of armed conflicts, was adopted by UNESCO and became effective in 1956.

Image showing the dilapidated entrance of Jaffna Fort. (Photo credit: Anton Croos.)
Today, it is a sad reality that heritage sites, many of which have stood witness to human history over the course of thousands of years, are in danger of being destroyed within moments by an act of violence. Once again we have the opportunity to turn heritage loss into an opportunity for greater heritage preservation. To counter this risk, CyArk's process of 3D digital documentation, archiving, and data dissemination may provide a platform for documenting the original details of historical sites before they are lost in times of conflict. One recent example of this is the World Heritage Site of the Royal Kasubi Tombs in Uganda, which were destroyed by arson in 2010. The digital data collected on-site by a volunteer partner now serves as a blueprint for the current reconstruction efforts at the tombs.

With technology transfer and the use of 3D laser scanning technology, we now have the tools to enable monuments and historic structures within conflict zones to be conserved, restored or one day rebuilt to their former glory. While it is only one step in an extensive process, CyArk believes that digital documentation has the potential to address the threat posed to our global heritage by human aggression.
Stari Most Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia. (Photo Credit: Francis Tyers)