'The World Forgetting, by the World Forgot'


At present there are many complex legal cases on cultural heritage waiting to be settled. These cases are a judicial challenge for all stakeholders. What makes it even more of a challenge is that most don’t realise the fact that cultural heritage is a component of a human rights issue. Cultural heritage could be described as a record of the genius of human beings. The legacy of artefacts, antiquities, traditions and living expressions could be seen as unintelligible foot print left behind for the next generations to mark our path through this world. It’s unimaginable to separate a people’s cultural heritage from the people itself and their rights. So by neglecting, or worse destroying a part of (the cultural) DNA of our ancestors, it will bear important consequences for us and those generations to come.

Blog by Nadine Youhat

Some of the grave violations of cultural heritage deserved international attention in recent years, but the destruction of cultural heritage is something of all times and all cultures. There are even very ironic examples of the snake biting its own tail. This is the case with the Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting the looting of Jerusalem, which is well documented by Flavius Josephus [37CE - 100CE]. The Arch of Titus tells the story of Titus who had forbidden his troops to plunder or destroy Jerusalem, but overwhelmed by the gold plated temple of King Solomon the art works were picked up by a large crowd and taken to Rome. Among the artefacts were a very heavy golden table, the ancient Hebrew lampstand Menorah and even the two stone tables with the Ten Commandments were reportedly looted by Titus’s men.

It has not affected our admiration for the Arch of Titus. In an artistic way the Arch of Titus is still seen as ground breaking for its innovative use of relief with both allegorical and historical figures, and for writing military history in Roman times. But more specifically the iconographic illustrations taught us how antiquities were looted from the Second Temple of Solomon, how they caused such destruction at the time and how in fact they represent an assault on human dignity and human rights.

Many wars, many lost souls, much destruction later, one must realize that access to and the enjoyment of cultural heritage is a human right and guaranteed by international law and that it must be taken seriously. Cultural heritage is also a fundamental resource for other human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

When we preserve cultural heritage, it will continue to tell us how we lived, what we believed was right and even how we thought the looting of a temple is a story worth preserving. It’s a human right to show what has occurred, good or bad, to help remind us of what our ancestors did when they were here and tell the story to those who are still to come. Let's prevent 'the world forgetting, by the world forgot' as Héloïse once sighed to Abelard in the poem of Alexander Pope (1717).

The Peace Palace Library has a large volume of books, e-articles and documents on cultural heritage and human rights, and you are most welcome to pay them visit.