On 4 October, 2015 Maamun Abdulkarim, the Syrian Director General of Antiquities and Museums, confirmed that the 2000 year old Arch of Triumph in the ancient city of Palmyra had been blown up by ISIS forces which control the city and the surrounding area.
He said “ It is now wanton destruction; their acts of vengeance are no longer ideologically driven because they are now blowing up buildings with no religious meaning.”
On 23 August, the temples of Baalshamien − Lord of the Heavens − and Bel, a goddess often associated with the moon, had been largely destroyed by ISIS (Daesh in Arabic). This iconoclastic approach to pre-Islamic faith and their material culture is the same as had led to the destruction of the large Buddha statues in Afghanistan – monuments that attested to the rich culture along the Silk Road.
Masmun Abdulkarim called upon the international community to find a way to save Palmyra. His cry comes from the heart as he is the nephew of the long-serving director of the archaeological sites of Palmyra, Dr Khaled al-Assad. On 18 August, Dr al-Assad had his neck cut and his body hung from a traffic light pole. The 83 year-old archaeologist had been held in seclusion (and probably tortured) for three weeks. In the public square of Palmyra an accusation was read out that he was the “director of pagan idols.”
From a distance, it is hard to know what elements within ISIS are responsible for these destructions and what are the motivations. ISIS has attracted fighters from a good number of countries, and it is impossible to know the nationalities within the chains of command. Many Syrians are proud of the vestiges of pre-Islamic civilizations, proof that the area was an important actor and in some ways a rival of Rome. Thus, it is not clear who wants to destroy works of art and cultural heritage. It is impossible to know at this stage if there are possibilities of rational discussion and good-faith negotiations with ISIS authorities to preserve cultural sites in Syria and Iraq.
Syria and Iraq are home to some of the world’s first cities, a complex and unique meeting of states, empires, and faiths. The protection of works of art and cultural heritage is an aspect of world law in which UNESCO is playing a leading role. There is also a need to build an awareness and then action on the part of non-governmental organizations, especially those in consultative status with the United Nations as well a cultural institutions. One of the difficulties with appeals to the “international community” is that the international community has no street address, and so appeals are rarely delivered. Too often, governments and people react after events rather than affirming a position from a deeper level of awareness and a legal basis in world law.
The protection of cultural heritage owes much to the vision and energy of the Russian artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). Roerich’s desire to make known the artistic achievements of the past through archaeology, coupled with the need to preserve the landmarks of the past from destruction, led to his work for the Banner of Peace to preserve art and architecture in time of war. Roerich had seen the destruction brought by the First World War and the civil war which followed the 1917 Russian Revolution. He worked with French international lawyers to draft a treaty by which museums, churches and buildings of value would be preserved in time of war through the use of a symbol − three red circles representing past, present and future – a practice inspired by the red cross to protect medical personnel in times of conflict.
Roerich mobilized artists and intellectuals in the 1920s for the establishment of this Banner of Peace. Henry A. Wallace, the US secretary of Agriculture and later Vice-President of the United States, was an admirer of Roerich and helped to have an official treaty introducing the Banner of Peace − the Roerich Peace Pact − signed at the White House on 15 April 1935 by 21 States in a Pan-American Union ceremony. At the signing, Henry Wallace on behalf of the USA said “at no time has such an ideal been more needed. It is high time for the idealists who make the reality of tomorrow, to rally around such a symbol of international cultural unity. It is time that we appeal to that appreciation of beauty, science, education which runs across all national boundaries to strengthen all that we hold dear in our particular governments and customs. Its acceptance signifies the approach of a time when those who truly love their own nation will appreciate in addition the unique contribution of other nations and also do reverence to that common spiritual enterprise which draws together in one fellowship all artists, scientists, educators and the truly religious of whatever faith.”
As Nicholas Roerich said in a presentation of his Pact “The world is striving toward peace in many ways and everyone realizes in his heart that this constructive work is a true prophesy of the New Era. We deplore the loss of the libraries of Louvain and Oviedo and the irreplaceable beauty of the Cathedral of Rheims. We remember the beautiful treasures of private collections which were lost during world calamities. But we do not want to inscribe on these deeds any words of hatred. Let us simply say: Destroyed by human ignorance – re built by human hope.”
The Roerich Peace Pact is the world-law basis for an expression of concern from the governments of what was the Pan-American Union (In 1948 it was reestablished as the Organization of American States). There is also the Hague Convention of May 1954 which was signed by a wider geographic range of States. The Roerich Peace Pact and the Hague Convention are rarely cited by governments. Therefore, leadership must come from non-governmental organizations and the cultural sector to work unitedly and creatively to prevent the wanton destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage.
Turning air pollution into art
Artists are known to take inspiration from the world around them. So it’s no surprise that some have begun shining light on one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time—air pollution.
According to the World Health Organization, every year around 7 million premature deaths are caused by air pollution, with 9 out of 10 people breathing toxic air. Air pollution is also known to contribute to climate change and so efforts to tackle it can also help address the climate crisis.
The time to act is now, and artists, like so many others are looking at ways to raise awareness about air pollution, find solutions to reduce it and even use it as a resource.
Michael Pinsky got inspired by the differences between the various types of air pollution, when he set out to make Pollution Pods. The project consists of five domes, each imitating air in five different areas of the world: Northern Norway, London, New Delhi, Beijing and São Paulo. As you move through the domes you experience varied levels and sources of air pollution.
“I wanted to have very different sensations from one dome to another,” Pinsky told UN Environment. “It’s not just a question of how strong the pollution is but that they have very different characteristics as well.”
For London, Pinsky recreates the smell of diesel. For Beijing, he mixes the smells of industrial fumes, coal or wood-based heating, and transportation emissions. While New Delhi whiffs of burnt plastic and grass, as citizens still burn a lot of their rubbish.
Luckily, the pollution is only in smell and visibility, without the actual harmful gases. But Pinsky says the experience still isn’t very pleasant. That’s the whole point: air pollution isn’t pleasant.
Pinsky hopes Pollution Pods will lead to a more “radical approach” when dealing with air pollution, particularly with transportation. “It’s not so easy to apply the same advocacy or philosophy towards different cities in the world,” he said. “But in some cases, you could turn the problem around in two years with the right policies.”
Daan Roosegaarde was motivated by living in Beijing and witnessing the city’s strive for economic development and citizen wellbeing, when he created the Smog-free Tower. The “largest smog vacuum cleaner in the world”, as Roosegaarde calls it, sucks up polluted air, cleans it and releases it back into the atmosphere.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m not a minister, I cannot give 20 billion euros to green energy today. But I’m an engineer and an artist, I can create a clean-air park, like an oasis.’”
The premise is that the smog-free tower sits in a city park, making the air 20–70 per cent cleaner than the rest of the city. It uses positive ionisation technology, which Roosegaarde says is the only way to clean large volumes of ultra-fine particles while using little energy.
Towers are now found around the world in China, Poland, the Netherlands, and soon, South Korea and Mexico. It’s also led to a global campaign, with local partners in each country replicating the towers. Roosegaarde has now introduced the smog-free ring—made of compressed smog particles—and the smog-free bicycle as well.
“This is not utopia. It’s a pro-topia where we, step-by-step, try to improve our cities,” he said. “The grand goal is to have them not needed anymore, but until then, you do what you can to remain healthy.”
Air pollution-based ink
Anirudh Sharma was visiting his family in Mumbai, India, when he began to notice that in the evening his white shirts would gradually turn speckled with something that resembled dirt.
“I realized this was air pollution, or sooty particulate matter, made of black particles released from exhaust of vehicles,” Sharma told his alma matter Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. “This is a major health issue.”
When he returned to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sharma decided to do something about the air pollution back home. So he set up Graviky Labs—a start-up that has developed a technology to attach to diesel exhaust systems to capture particulate matter. The team at Graviky treat the soot to turn it into ink, called Air-Ink, for use by artists around the world.
So far, the start-up has captured 1.6 billion micrograms of particulate matter, or the equivalent of collecting 1.6 trillion litres of outdoor air.
“Less pollution, more art. That’s what we’re going for,” Sharma said.
The feminist inspiration of Mona Lisa
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the Italian genius, Leonardo da Vinci, who died on 02 May 1519. On this occasion, UNESCO highlights some of the comments concerning the origins of one of the most famous paintings in history: Was Mona Lisa painted in a feminist spirit?
The thesis of the American art lover William Varvel highlights the links between feminism and the painting. According to his findings, Mona Lisa would represent a figure in the fight for gender equality. Why? William Varvel insists on “the theological rights of women” claimed through the vision of the famous painting from the Renaissance Period. These rights are linked to the status of priests, which women do not have access to. Therefore, the painting representing Mona Lisa would have for true desiderata the possibility for the women to have access to the priesthood. William Varvel assures that “Mona Lisa is a kind of declaration for the rights of women”.
To support his argument, the author of The Lady Speaks: Uncovering the Secrets of the Mona Lisa explains how Leonardo hid clues in the painting: in total, not less than “40 symbols, taken from the 21 verses of the chapter 14 of the Book of the Prophet Zechariah” in the painting.
Therefore, there is a link between religion, the painting of the Italian master and his feminist commitment. It is precisely this link that William Varvel wishes to highlight in order to allow a reflection on the subject. A new definition of the place of Mona Lisa in the artworks from the Renaissance is necessary to apprehend the political and feminist scope of this masterpiece.
How UN cultural treasures helped set the stage for Game of Thrones
From King’s Landing to the Iron Bank, so many of the breath-taking backdrops seen on the smash hit Game of Thrones television series are available for future generations to enjoy, thanks to a key, but little-known role played by the United Nations cultural agency.
Established in 1945, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has worked to improve dialogue and understanding between civilizations, cultures and peoples. One of UNESCO’s methods of doing this is by designating and preserving World Heritage Sites, defined as having outstanding universal value to humanity, which it inscribes on the World Heritage List to be protected for posterity.
To date, there are 1,092 natural and cultural places inscribed. The diverse and unique treasures range from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to the Pyramids of Egypt and the Taj Mahal in India.
Since 2011 UNESCO’s work has become inseparable with the magnificent film locations of the wildly popular Game of Thrones series.
For those tuning in to the show’s final episodes, here’s a look back at the Seven Kingdoms with a nod to the UN cultural agency.
Capital of the Seven Kingdoms
Long before it became known as King’s Landing – one of the Seven Kingdoms and seat of the mighty Iron Throne – the old city of Dubrovnik in Croatia was an important Mediterranean seat of power from the 13th century onwards. Severely damaged by an earthquake in 1667 and by armed conflict in the 1990s, UNESCO is co-coordinating a major restoration programme.
Dubrovnik joined the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in 1979.
Battle of the Blackwater
You may recall the fiery Battle of the Blackwater, or scenes where King Robert Baratheon rules from the Iron Throne in the Red Keep, overlooking Blackwater Bay: Fort Lovrijenac, outside the western wall of the Croatian city, actually played an important role in resisting Venetian rule in the 11th century.
Private retreat for House Martell
It is easy to see why Doran Martell called the Water Gardens of Dorne “my favourite place in this world”. Actually located in the heart of Seville, the Royal Palace of Alcázar is imbued with Moorish influences that date back from the Reconquest of 1248 to the 16th century. UNESCO points to it as “an exceptional testimony to the civilization of the Almohads as well as that of Christian Andalusia”.
UNESCO inscribed the Royal Palace of Alcázarin in 1987.
Daenerys’ journey through Essos
When you look at the Medina of Essaouira in Morocco, perhaps you can image The Khaleesi lining up The Unsullied eunuch slave-soldiers in the city of Astapor before renaming Slaver’s Bay, the Bay of Dragons. But for UNESCO, Essaouira is an exceptional example of a late-18th-century fortified town in North Africa. Since its creation, it has been a major international trading seaport, linking Morocco and its Saharan hinterland with Europe and the rest of the world.
The Medina of Essaouira joined the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in 2001.
Yunkai: ‘A most disreputable place’
In the Yellow City, Daenerys’ language skills are useful with the Yunkai’i, who speak a dialect of High Valyrian. But in Berber, the village of Ait-Ben-Haddou was a popular caravan route long before current-day Morocco was established. The crowded together earthen buildings surrounded by high walls offer a view of a traditional pre-Saharan habitat.
Ait-Ben-Haddou was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Theon returns to Lordsport Harbour
County Antrim envelops UNESCO-designated Giant’s Causeway and Causeway coast. It is also home to the small fishing harbour of Ballintoy, known to fans as the port of Pyke, home to the Iron Islands of the Greyjoys. Located in real-life Northern Ireland, the Causeway consists of some 40,000 massive black volcanic rock columns sticking out of the sea. Over the last 300 years, geographical studies have greatly contributed to the development of the earth sciences.
The Causeway coast was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.
Cersei’s ‘Walk of Shame’
The iconic scene in in which Cersei Lannister is forced to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing began atop of the baroque Jesuit Staircase, which leads to the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola and Jesuit College in the UNESCO-desnigated Old City of Dubrovnik .
Kingslayer for gender equality
The connection between the United Nations and Game of Thrones does not end with UNESCO’s inspiring sites.
While Jaime Lannister is the twin brother of Cersei and slayer of the Mad King, Aerys II Targaryen, real-life actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Development Fund. Passionate about ending discrimination and violence against women, the father of two girls is focusing his considerable talents on drawing attention to critical issues, such as gender equality – encouraging everyone to be agents of change.
Mr. Coster-Waldau was appointed a UNDP Goodwill Ambassador in 2016.
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