In the last years, especially in the territories of Syria and Iraq under its control, ISIS perpetrated a systematic disruption of the cultural heritage, with the intention of erasing any trace of the pre-Islamic past. The outrageous disruption did not only occur by means of filmed and broadcasted demolitions and explosions for mediatic political propaganda, but also through thefts, spoliations, and illegal trafficking of cultural goods in the black market: one of the activities that give financial support to the ISIS.
The beginning of a new phase of disruption
On March 20th, 2001, two colossal Buddha statues, carved in the rock of the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan between the III and V century, which represented an exceptional testimony of the fusion of Hellenistic and Buddhist artistic traditions along the ancient Silk Road, were disrupted
and demolished by a Taliban attack. This event draws the start of a new phase of intense disruptive attacks to the cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, which took place with particular brutality until the end of the last ISIS Caliphate. This kind of disruptions do not include the huge damages inferred to the buildings involved in conflict areas like the Aleppo citadel, but the deliberate attacks to symbols of the pre-Islamic past and venerated monuments of the Shiite and Yazidi religious confessions. Since 2015, UNESCO condemned such attacks, considering the deliberate disruption of cultural heritage a proper war crime.
A new phase for an ancient practice
ISIS activities have been compared to practices that took place the Nazis, the Taliban, and the Byzantine Iconoclasm movements. Indeed, the disruption of art pieces or architectonic constructions is a very ancient practice, which took place along centuries and has often been justified with religious motives: from Troy, Dresden, Munich, and lastly Bamiyan and Palmyra.
The Arab world as well, has a really long history of disruption of its cultural heritage. For example, one of the worst events in Arab history is the invasion of 1258, when the Mongolian troops looted Baghdad and threw into the Tigris river thousands of books kept in the House of Wisdom, its Grand Library. The impact that the Siege of Baghdad had on the Arab world and its culture was maybe even worse than the Sack of Rome of 410 for the western world.
In any case, even when it is claimed as a fight against “profane” idolatry, truly, art disruption is often the expression of a fight for strictly political power. Even art and cultural disruption can be used as instrumentum regni.
Nevertheless, the devastations that took place in the most recent past, during the Syria, Iraq, and Yemen conflicts, cannot be compared to everything that happened in ancient times. UN declared half of the ancient city of Mosul, in Iraq, and a third of the ancient city of Alep is crumbling.
Hundreds of minarets, monuments and monasteries have been demolished. 22 out of the 38 humanitarian patrimonies considered in danger are located in the Middle East. In an article by the Economist, the researcher Micheal Danti of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), a center of studies that realizes periodical reports of the damages inflicted to cultural
patrimonies in the Middle East area, claimed that, at this time, the Middle East “is like Europe afterSecond World War” 1.
Undoubtedly, ISIS is one of the main responsible actors of these disruptions, and its fighters goproud of the role they had in the devastations. They filmed themselves while destroying statues and other artifacts with hammers, positioning explosive compounds to demolish ancient bows
other ruins. ISIS always responded to the accuses of disruption by proudly claiming responsibility for them.
ISIS always gave great prominence to the documentation through videos and the consequent disclosure on social media of the devastations accomplished, transforming the devastation of the antiquities itself in a show and means of propaganda. In February 2015 was published a video
showing the rooms of the Mosul Museum being destroyed with clubs by IS militants. Some ancient Assyrian relieves and the statues of the sovereigns of Hatra, an ancient city-state governed by Arab princes at the borders of the ancient Roman Empire, were brutally destroyed.
Between March and April of 2015 other videos of increasing violence were released, showing
several other archeological sites being torn down, including the IX century palace of Ashurbanipal II in the Assyrian capital of Nimrud, the walls of the other capital Nineveh and some other buildings of Hatra. Lastly, in August 2015, the city of Palmyra was destroyed. In this case, were only used explosives and the disruption was focused on funerary monuments and the
Temple of Bel, saving the ancient Roman Theatre, which was used in July as a scenario for the macabre show of execution of a group of soldiers loyal to the Assad regime.
The attacks continued in 2016, when in October the Nimrud ziggurat was razed to the ground with bulldozers and in January of 2017 Palmyra was the object of further damages and part of the Theatre and the Tetrapylon, an honorary bow erected by Diocletian, were destroyed.
What motivates ISIS
The video productions are often come with propaganda texts that have the role of exalting and motivating the acted devastations. In the first video published, which took place in the Mosul Museum, the narrator claimed: “These ruins that are behind me are idols and statues that people
of the past venerated instead of Allah. The Prophet Muhammad destroyed with bare hands the idols when he arrived in Mecca. He ordered us to tear down and destroy the idols and his companions did the same when they conquered these regions.”
Prohibiting images and condemning idolatry, therefore, are the theological justification that ISIS provides for its iconoclast campaign. However, the aim is much greater and ambitious: destroying idols, militants would repeat the deeds that ISIS itself and its extremist interpretation of the Qur’an allocate to the Prophet and the first Caliphs. Even if at that time the cults of ancient idols were still well alive, at least in the Arab peninsula, and today we can only talk about ruins and archeological sites, which have been lacking of believers for thousands of years, apparently doesn’t make the videos any less efficient. Indeed, the acts of demolition allow them to claim a return to the time of Hijra, which is essential for an organization that states of having founded the Caliphate again.
Besides this, there are also other reasons that have to be mentioned: demolishing ruins that can be easily attributed to the ancient populations of Romans, Assyrians, and Parthians allows them to pursue the totalitarian aim of completely erase any traces of a pre-Islamic past and the memory of the presence of any other religion in the regions under their control. Indeed, their acts of disruption proceed together with the persecutions of the believers of other religions or confessions, like Christians, Shiites and Yazidis. Furthermore, often the archeological sites that become the object of disruption have been rediscovered in the last two centuries by mostly occidental archeologists, considered guilty of bringing back idols that have been buried for millenniums. Often, these sites are also the ones that are most visited by the tourists, mostly occidental, who are a source of income for all the regimes which ISIS fights against.
So, in summary, what is proclaimed to be a fight against idolatry, actually conceals several other ideological and political contingent motives.
The devastation of the cultural heritage of the Middle East though, is not only happening by means of filmed and propagated demolitions, but also with thefts, spoliations, and illegal trafficking. In fact, these are some of the most important activities that contribute to the economic sustenance of ISIS itself, which on one hand publicly destroys archeological sites, claiming to be the protector of the Islamic orthodoxy, and on the other hand, secretly gives out illicit excavation permits to grave-robbers, in order to have a source of income.
Since the second Gulf War and the looting of the Baghdad Museum, the illegal trade of finds coming from the Middle East extremely increased. This kind of trade finds its costumers especially into collectors of occidental and Gulf countries, taking advantage of the legislations of countries that are traditionally poorly careful to the provenances of works of art, like the USA, Great Britain, or Switzerland. Satellite photographs demonstrated that before the public demolitions, entire areas of Palmyra had been devastated by several illegal excavators, which spoiled the assets also by mutilating statues of their head, which have a much better market and are lighter than the whole statue, therefore they are easier to sell and transport.
And yet, the whole truth is that ISIS is the only organization that proudly promulgates the devastations, but not the only player in the game. Russian, Americans, and all their local allies, caused the cultural heritage at least as much damages as ISIS militants did, probably more.
According to ASOR data, in the city of Mosul, ISIS was responsible for damaging 15 cultural sites. The American driven coalition, in order to conquer the city back, damaged 47 sites, 38 of which were completely torn down by the bombing. Russian airstrikes, supporting the Syrian president Bashar al Assad, damaged archeologic treasures like the pillar of Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder. Assad’s bombs destroyed buildings everywhere in Syria, and so did the rebels which were supported by the Occident. If ISIS is responsible for the damages of Palmyra, Assad and the rebels are responsible for the disruption of the ancient city of Aleppo.
Once again, in the history of the Middle East, the Occident is found at least in part responsible for such disgraceful events. The latest example of U.S. undeniable involvement in this issue is President Trump’s tweet dated January 4th, which threatened to destroy Iranian cultural heritage, in case Iran intended to seek revenge for the assassination of general Soleimani by the hand of the U.S., which took place on January 3rd. Indeed, Trump claimed that the U.S., and I quote: “targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level; important to Iran; the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD” 2. Obviously, this threat has been extremely condemned by both the international public opinion and the Archaeological Institute of America itself, since such an action would also be against the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.
What we can do
Cultural heritage represents the foundation of populations’ identity, and at the same time, it is a source of dialogue, coexistence and understanding between people, since cultural diversity represents an invaluable richness for the whole Humanity. It is our duty to protect and preserve, for present and future generations, all the cultural property that was able to get to this day. When cultural assets get damaged or destroyed, they have to be reconstructed accurately with respect to their original status, using the most contemporary and advanced techniques. Therefore, in 2015, UNESCO answered to the ISIS devastations promoting Unite4Heritage, a global movement that aims to preserve international cultural heritage and artistic diversities. Moreover, in 2016, Italy presented to the UN an Italian task force for the safeguard of cultural heritage, the “Caschi Blu della Cultura”. The task force is composed of archeologists, restorers, and scientific technicians, driven by the Carabinieri officers of the “Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale” unit, and is ready to rapidly intervene in order to protect monuments and archaeological sites at risk in case of conflict and situations of emergency.
And lastly, as an Italian, I was happy to find out that Iraq signed a bilateral agreement with Italy for the reconstruction of the Cultural assets destroyed by ISIS in Ebla, Nimrud, and Palmyra.
1. Danti, Michael D. " Ground-based observations of cultural heritage incidents in Syria and
Iraq." Near Eastern Archaeology 78, no. 3 (2015): 132-141.
2. Quntar, Salam Al, Katharyn Hanson, Brian I. Daniels, and Corine Wegener. " Responding to a cultural heritage crisis: the example of the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and
Iraq Project." Near Eastern Archaeology 78, no. 3 (2015): 154-160.
3. Bauer, Alexander A. " The destruction of heritage in Syria and Iraq and its implications."
International Journal of Cultural Property 22, no. 1 (2015): 1-6.
4. Clapperton, Matthew, David Martin Jones, and M. L. R. Smith. "Iconoclasm and strategic
thought: Islamic State and cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria." International Affairs 93,
no. 5 (2017): 1205-1231.
5. Bligh, Alexander. " Countering Illicit Traffic of Cultural Heritage in the Mediterranean
Region." International journal of intelligence and counterintelligence 23, no. 1 (2010):