What the world could lose in an Iran conflict

As tensions escalate between the U.S. and Iran, significant cultural heritage sites could become collateral damage.

The Iranian city of Yazd, home to more than a half million people, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2017 in recognition of its unique architectural heritage.
Photograph by Richard I'Anson, Getty Images

From sprawling Persian palaces to intimate religious shrines of extraordinary architectural delicacy, Iran is home to 22 UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites and hundreds more historic sites of global importance. The ruins of the ancient capitals of Pasargadae and Persepolis still convey the cosmopolitan power of the great empire that built them, while the innovative infrastructure that sustained the country’s ancient desert cities still waters them today. Millions of pilgrims flock to its monuments to Shia Islam, and entire Iranian cities have been designated sites of universal historic importance by UNESCO.

Which is why President Trump’s weekend series of tweets warning that the U.S. will target Iranian cultural sites has been met with fierce criticism in cultural heritage circles.

The protection of cultural heritage is enshrined in the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage—international conventions that both the U.S. and Iran are signatory to.

<p>Iranian Muslim women visit the UNESCO world heritage site of the Qara Kelisa (Black Church) in Chaldran, northwest Iran. Also known as the Monastery of St. Thaddeus, it is one of three Armenian monasteries in Iran declared a World Heritage site.</p>

Iranian Muslim women visit the UNESCO world heritage site of the Qara Kelisa (Black Church) in Chaldran, northwest Iran. Also known as the Monastery of St. Thaddeus, it is one of three Armenian monasteries in Iran declared a World Heritage site.

Photograph by Hasan Sarbakhshian, AP

Many argue that the 1954 Hague Convention has its origins in an earlier, uniquely American document signed into law by Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War. The Lieber Code states in part: Classical works of art, libraries, scientific collections, or precious instruments, such as astronomical telescopes, as well as hospitals, must be secured against all avoidable injury, even when they are contained in fortified places whilst besieged or bombarded.

Among Iran’s most treasured sites are the Pasagardae and Persepolis, the ancient royal centers of the Persian Empire, where the sheer scale of vision and artistic expression of its architects still resonates more than 2,000 years later. The cities of Yazd and Shustar are testaments to the innovation of ancient engineers, who harnessed the power of water to keep the desert cities green for millennia. The multilingual inscription at Bisotun, celebrating the victory of the Persian emperor Darius over his enemies, has been likened to the Rosetta Stone. Then there are the religious monuments—from Ishfahan’s magnificently detailed Friday Mosque, to the contemplative spaces of the Sufi complex of Sheikh Safi al-Din, to the 7th-century Christian monastery of St. Thaddeus—that serve as testimony to the rich diversity that has thrived in the heart of western Asia.

On Sunday, Trump doubled down on his threat to target Iran’s cultural sites while questioning the validity of the 1954 Hague Convention to reporters aboard Air Force One: “[Iran is] allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.” (At this time, President Trump has not explicitly stated which—if any—of these Iranian cultural sites he plans to target.)

There’s a good reason why cultural heritage is explicitly protected during times of war: The physical objects and monuments that reflect the values of a community or culture provide a critical sense of cohesion and continuity. Destroying these monuments is an act of erasing human identity.

This is why the Islamic State specifically targeted Muslim monuments of religious groups they fought against. This is why Serbian forces bombed Sarajevo’s National Library. And we’re reminded how wrenching these losses can be even in peace time with the burning of Notre Dame and Brazil's National Museum.

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