On May 14, 1954, the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was signed in The Hague. As its name indicates, this treaty obliges the signatory states (today 126) to protect cultural heritage in the event of war, both their own and that of the eventual enemy.

In its second chapter, article 8, the Convention establishes a type of special protection that may be granted to certain cultural property, such as monumental centres and other buildings of great importance to mankind.

They must meet a number of conditions, such as being at a sufficient distance from a major industrial centre or any sensitive military objective (airfields, radio stations, ports, railway stations, etc.), and obviously not being used for military purposes.

Blue Shield logo, with the shield identifying the protected cultural heritage / photo Elcunliffe on Wikimedia Commons

In the second point of the same article it says:

Any shelter for movable cultural property, whatever its location, may also be placed under special protection, provided that it is so constructed that it is not likely to be damaged by bombing

In other words, any country can apply for special protection for a cultural property shelter that meets the conditions. Well, at present there are only 5 shelters registered in the International Register of Cultural Property under Special Protection, one German, three Dutch and the Vatican City (to these should be added the Mexican monumental complexes which are also registered, but are not shelters). There were a few more, such as the Altaussee salt mine in Austria, but they were cancelled at their own request.

The organization that, together with UNESCO, is in charge of the effective protection of these places has the name of a Marvel comic book: Blue Shield International, and the emblem of the blue shield adopted in the Hague Convention is the one that identifies the property to be protected. Blue Shield sees itself as the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross, and in fact functions in a similar way, with national committees coordinated in an international committee.

The 5 cultural shelters are:

Barbarastollen (Germany)

Also known as Oberrieder Stollen, it is located in an old silver mine near the town of Oberried, southwest of Baden-Württemberg. In its galleries, 400 meters deep, more than 900 million historical documents and photographs are stored on microfilm, which were started to be stored in 1975.

Containers in the Barbarastollen/ photo Joergens.mi on Wikimedia Commons

It is designed to withstand a nuclear attack, with the areas where the archives are stored encased in concrete and sealed with pressure doors. The documents are stored in more than 2,000 airtight stainless steel containers, which are kept at 10 degrees temperature and 35 percent humidity for four weeks before being sealed, ensuring that the film material will be preserved in good condition for at least 500 years.

Access to the galleries, which is considered the largest cultural archive in Europe, is protected by multiple alarm and security systems.

The oldest document in storage dates back to 794 and also contains Bach’s manuscripts, the construction plans for Cologne Cathedral, the certificate of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, and all the films produced in the German Democratic Republic.

Zab (Netherlands)

The Dutch city of Zandvoort, in addition to being one of the main beach resorts and having the most important car circuit in the country, is home to two cultural archives also under special protection, although this time they are not underground.

The first is Zab, which comprises about 150 square metres in a building located about 3.5 kilometres southeast of the town hall. Details of its exact location and contents are not public. The approximate location is 52°20’46.0 “N 4°33’46.0 “E.

Approximate location of Zab and Zod on Google Maps

Zod (Netherlands)

Zod’s refuge is located 125 meters southwest of the Zab, and also includes a 150 square meter space at ground level. Like the above, details of its location and contents are not public.

St. Pietersberg (Netherlands)

The St. Pietersberg shelter is located at Maastricht, in the south of the Netherlands and very close to the Belgian and German borders, on St. Peter’s hill south of the city.

It occupies part of the caves that the inhabitants of the area excavated centuries ago to extract marl for the construction of houses. Napoleon is said to have visited them at one time, and in the Second World War they served as a refuge for the population and many works of art. Today they are open to the public.

The exact location of the shelter inside the cave labyrinth and its contents are not public either.

Vatican City

St. Peter’s Square and Basilica of St. Peter in Vatican City / photo ansharphoto – Shutterstock

Vatican City probably has the largest concentration of cultural and artistic treasures in the smallest space in the world. From St. Peter’s Basilica itself to the Vatican Museums and its unique library and even the colonnade designed by Bernini.

This is why the entire territory of Vatican City, some 440,000 square meters, is considered a cultural archive of the utmost importance for mankind.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 31, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Los 5 refugios culturales del mundo bajo protección especial de Blue Shield y la UNESCO


International Register of Cultural Property under Special Protection (UNESCO) / Convención para la Protección de los Bienes Culturales en Caso de Conflicto Armado (Texto en español) / Blue Shield International (Web Oficial) / UNESCO Special Protection / Bundesamt für Bevölkerungsschutz und Katastrophenhilfe.

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