Caretaker Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada announced Thursday Nov.2 on X (formerly Twitter) his decision to remove the Blue Shield emblem from the Baalbeck temple complex. Mortada’s decision caused panic and raised concern for Lebanon’s most renowned archaeological site.
Concern has been high considering that war has been at Lebanon’s doorstep since Oct. 7, when the Israel-Hamas conflict broke out, rekindling tensions in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah and the Israeli army have been exchanging fire daily. Mortada’s decision implies abandoning Baalbek’s Roman ruins without legal protection in the case of a potential damage-inducing war.
“The atrocities committed in Gaza have proved that such a ‘shield’ does not protect anything,” Mortada posted. “What protects Lebanon, its people and its private and public property is our valiant army and the resistance,” he added, referring to Hezbollah, to which he is close.
The Blue Shield emblem was removed a few minutes before Mortada’s post by employees at the site. The Culture Ministry did not respond to L’Orient-Le Jour’s request for comment.
One of the many shields
The 5 by 3-meter plaque that was attached to an outer wall of the temple is just one of many signs that Lebanon’s heritage is under international protection.
“It doesn’t change anything, the site remains fully protected,” said Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, archaeologist and member of Baladi, a Lebanese NGO specializing in heritage preservation.
“What has been removed is the large logo that we had recently placed on the surrounding wall. But there is still another, smaller plaque at the site entrance, not to mention all the others scattered inside,” added Bajjaly, who is also a member of the Lebanese Committee of the Blue Shield that she set up in 2015.
The little signs, which can be seen here and there from one end of the ancient temples of Jupiter and Bacchus to the other, are proof that the Hague Convention is being properly implemented.
The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict calls for archaeological sites and museums to be spared, including during civil wars.
The commitments made by the 82 state parties of the convention include “marking certain important buildings and monuments with a distinctive emblem of the convention.” The convention’s emblem is a famous blue shield, known internationally as the Blue Shield, as specified in the 1999 Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention, which the Lebanese Parliament ratified in 2019.
Lebanon has 22 protected sites
Israel has never ratified the convention, unlike the Palestinian Authority (PA), which adopted the protocol in 2012. This partly explains why Israel has never been punished for damaging several heritage sites in southern Lebanon during the 2006 war.
“There were smaller sites that were affected at the time,” said Farchakh Bajjaly. Many of the sites had also been protected by these shields since 1982, notably in Sour and Saida at the height of the civil war, she explained.
“Today, these Blue Shields are present at 22 archaeological sites in Lebanon,” she said. “They were set up in partnership with the Ministry of Culture and the Lebanese army, some of whose units received training in the protection of cultural property alongside those of UNIFIL.”
After Mortada’s decision, no further UN insignias are expected to be removed. “As far as we know, the emblems that have been present on Lebanese territory before the start of the crisis should remain in place,” said Farchakh Bajjaly.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.