The rush to restore cultural monuments in Iraq and Syria has papered over the failure to rebuild houses, infrastructure, and people’s lives.

... the focus of much media attention and international aid seems to be the important but often symbolic cultural heritage of the city. The UAE has pledged more than $50 million for a five-year reconstruction project for the mosque. The situation is especially puzzling given that the mosque and its minaret seem of greater importance to international media than to Moslawis themselves.

This scene of disturbing priorities in reconstruction and in media attention has replayed itself over and over again in Iraq and Syria over the last few years.

The ruined Great Mosque of Al-Nuri welcomes visitors for the cornerstone ceremony, December 17, 2018
The ruined Great Mosque of Al-Nuri welcomes visitors for the cornerstone ceremony, December 17, 2018 © AFP


At their best, these heritage reconstruction efforts offer not just symbolic progress but jobs to local residents. The UAE projects that the reconstruction of the al-Nuri mosque will employ 1,000 Iraqi graduates. The World Monuments Fund is training Syrian refugees in Jordan to assist in heritage reconstruction efforts when they return home. But even then, these projects suggest a skewed set of priorities.

All of this raises a basic question: Who is this reconstruction for, and for what purpose?

Reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Syria have been a top-down process, as several architectural experts have warned. Their agendas are set not by the needs of communities so much as the interests of national governments. And it is in the interests of those governments — not only the Iraqi and Syrian governments themselves, but also Russia, the UAE, and others — to promote the restoration of cultural heritage. Heritage tourism is very lucrative. Heritage also allows governments to burnish their image and questionable legitimacy, to consolidate their power after civil wars, and to project a false sense of normalcy. And funding heritage allows other countries to pose as the saviors of civilization. There is much less symbolic value, or money, in practical things.

And so we read feel-good stories of signs of the return of normalcy, in the form of rebuilt historic buildings or book fairs or music concerts.