Sidi Bou Said and the role of cultural heritage in Tunisian conflict

Kelley Tackett, Brown University

Through the Virtual Student Federal Service internship at the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, I have researched and explored issues and events surrounding cultural heritage in the Middle East. This research has taken several forms over the course of the academic year: we began by locating and documenting heritage sites in Syria directly affected by the ongoing conflict, and then moved into regional case studies which included analyzing a broad range of datasets for specific periods of time between 1989 and the present.

My first case study assignment involved recognizing and tracking instances of damage to cultural heritage sites in Tunisia between 2004 and 2008. This required running a search through the Factiva database for articles published within the above timeframe which dealt in any way with museums, shrines, graveyards, cultural centers, monuments, archaeological sites, or any of the other myriad forms heritage can take. Naturally, such a search revealed thousands of results. I learned an incredible amount about Tunisian history and culture through this study, as it was necessary to read about tourism initiatives, museum openings, foreign relations, and travelers’ accounts of the beautiful country. Yet in all of this, there was not a single headline relating to a damaged site of cultural heritage. Though my allotted timeframe falls between ten and fifteen years ago, it was still difficult to counter the pervasive notion that Middle Eastern and North African cultural heritage is continually being targeted and destroyed. My initial work with Syrian data reinforced this idea, as every site I investigated was in some way connected to the harsh realities of the current civil war. An important part of working on this internship is attempting to recognize when and why cultural heritage is in jeopardy during inter- or intra-cultural conflict and the contrast between my work with Syrian sites and Tunisian archives has certainly helped facilitate that aim.

The Sufi mausoleum Sidi Bou Said after its destruction in 2013. Source:

The Sufi mausoleum Sidi Bou Said after its destruction in 2013. Source.

My second round of work with Tunisian data, this time between 2013 and 2014, did yield some results; yet, again, the articles written about the richness of Tunisian cultural heritage, the improvements being made throughout the country, and tourist stories far outweighed reports of violence and damage to cultural resources. In January of 2013 there were eight reports of damage to Sufi shrines in Tunisia. The attacks were all described with similar language, “burned”, “torched”, “ravaged by fire”. Tracking this cultural damage is important to understanding the role of material heritage in conflict: if the circumstances under which cultural heritage is weaponized can be better understood, there is the opportunity to better protect sites which are deemed at risk.

As a student in Middle Eastern archaeology and anthropology at Brown University, I have a definite interest in pursuing issues of cultural heritage, and my current academic trajectory includes following this passion through law school. This internship has allowed me to actively explore the field of cultural heritage in the Middle East outside and beyond what is possible within an academic context, and as I move into the final phases of this project, I will be excited to uncover more ways to remain involved in this fascinating, ever-expanding field of study.

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