A Monumental Loss: Here Are the Most Significant Cultural Heritage Sites That ISIS Has Destroyed to Date
Cultural heritage sites continue to be casualties of the ongoing Syrian Civil War.
From ancient Mesopotamia to the Roman Empire, Muslim and Ottoman conquests, the region around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers—today comprised largely of Syria and Iraq—is one of the oldest and most storied places in the world. For the past several years, it has been embroiled in an ongoing civil war that has been devastating for not only its countries’ people, but also the region’s cultural heritage.
“This destruction is almost unprecedented in recent history, and is particularly devastating for a region with extensive history that has impacted the world,” says Marina Gabriel, project coordinator and monitoring, reporting, and fact-finding coordinator at the American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives (ASOR CHI), an institute that tracks the destruction resulting from the Syrian conflict, as well as destruction taking place in ISIL-held areas of Iraq.
At the end of April, Iraqi forces retook the ancient city of Hatra in Iraq from ISIS militants. When the state’s antiquities department inspected the site, it found that the city, previously one of the country’s best-preserved archaeological sites, and one that had been damaged during ISIS’s first occupation in 2014, had luckily suffered less additional damage than estimated. But countless more cities across Syria and Iraq have suffered irreparable damage since the conflict began in 2010.
UNESCO considers the intentional destruction of cultural heritage a war crime, but ISIS has been known to ostentatiously do just that. The group considers representational art idolatrous, and as a result, works of art at museums, mosques, and churches have become targets of its hammers, axes, bulldozers, and bombs. The group also continues to destroy and loot archaeological sites, selling the objects on the black market to fund their activities—although researches have struggled to determine just how much money these sales generate.
The group has used social media to distribute propaganda videos of the malicious damage; however, Gabriel explains, these posts have lately become less devastating compared to earlier in the conflict, like the notorious, theatrical video of destruction of objects in the Mosul Museum that was released in early 2015. It appears that lately, ISIS has had less access to significant artifacts to flamboyantly destroy on camera.
“It’s not even clear where the artifacts are from,” Gabriel explains, referring to more recent propaganda videos. “It’s literally just one man smashing tiny pieces into tinier pieces. It’s clear that there’s a desperation now.”
According to RAND, the Islamic state’s territorial claims peaked in late 2014, and have been diminishing ever since. The majority of damage has come from warfare between armed groups, specifically in the form of aerial bombardment, Gabriel estimates.
As a result of it all, there is currently an increased global scramble to find ways to best protect cultural heritage in times of war. The International Alliance for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Zones of Conflict (ALIPH) was founded in March. The organization is led by France and the United Arab Emirates, and raised an initial $75.5 million to protect cultural heritage at risk. And on May 19, six countries signed a Council of Europe convention outlawing the “blood antiquities” trade, in response to the estimated $150 million raised by terrorist groups’ illegal looting.
As efforts continue to preserve what remains, we outline the most significant cultural heritage sites in the region that have been damaged or destroyed in Syria and Iraq.
Syria’s six certified cultural heritage sites have all been officially endangered since 2013, and all had been reported damaged as of March 2016, representing an obliteration of much of the region’s long, rich history. Besides those mentioned below, the ancient archaeological sites like the Ancient Roman capital Bosra, Assyrian Tell Sheikh Hamad, Ebla and Mari from the Bronze Age, Dura-Europos, home to the world’s best-preserved ancient Synagogue, the Crac des Chevaliers medieval castle complex, and the ancient cities in Northwestern Syria, between Aleppo and Idlib, have also been damaged and/or looted during the conflict.
Occupied by ISIS from July 2012 to December 2016
Aleppo was once the crossroads of major trade routes from the 2nd millennium, and before the war contained the remains of structures from many points in time, like its citadel from the 13th century, Great Mosque built in the 12th century, 6th century Christian churches, or Ottoman mosques and palaces. Its layers of architectural history go back to Greco-Roman times.
Rebel fighters first invaded the city, previously Syria’s largest, in 2012, and battles continued there until December 22, 2016. According to a satellite map by UNOSAT, 35,722 structures had been damaged in Aleppo as of September 2016. By UNESCO’s count, 30 percent of the historic Old City has been destroyed.
“The destruction of one of the greatest and more ancient cities in the world is a tragedy for all Syrians and for all humanity… To destroy Syria’s heritage is to kill the Syrian people a second time,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, in a statement regarding the assessment of damage in Aleppo.
Occupied by ISIS from March 2013 until today
A city 160 kilometers east of Aleppo, on the Euphrates river, Raqqa was the first provincial capital to be captured by ISIS, and, functioning as the group’s capital, is one of few cities still occupied.
According to an interactive map published by the New York Times in 2015, ISIS militants destroyed three historic shrines to Islamic figures at the Ammar bin Yasir Mosque, a Shiite pilgrimage site. There has been reported damage to the historic Old City, which was the Abbasid capital between the years 796 and 809, specifically in the area around the Raqqa Museum, which was dedicated to preserving Raqqa’s cultural heritage.
Gabriel explains that US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are currently surrounding the area, and more information about the current state of the city will be available once they gain access.
Occupied by ISIS from May 2015 to March 2016, and again from December 2016 to March 2017
ISIS has occupied Palmyra twice, and Syrian and Russian forces most recently reclaimed the city in March of this year. During its first occupation in 2015, militants destroyed the Al Lat Lion, a 2,000-year-old statue that once guarded an ancient temple dedicated to the pre-Islamic goddess Al Lat, and was a modern tourist favorite after its excavation in the 1970s, according to BBC.
The lion guarded the Palmyra Museum, and while most of the museum’s artifacts had been moved elsewhere in the country for safekeeping, ISIS defaced what remained. Objects from the museum have also shown up on the black market.
That same summer, ISIS bombed the Temples of Bel and Baalshamin, and nearby of ancient and medieval tombs. The group had intentions to destroy more cultural heritage, leading to the tragic execution of Khaled al-Asaad, the museum’s head of antiquities, who was killed when he refused to reveal the location of precious objects, and charged with “managing Palmyra’s collection of ‘idols.'”
In October, ISIS destroyed the city’s Monumental Arch. Other damage includes the Al Sultaniya Mosque and the Museum of Folk Arts, both destroyed by ISIS-planted bombs. Most recently, during ISIS’s second occupation of the city, the group destroyed the remains of the ancient Roman Tetraplion and part of a nearby Roman theater, sometime between December 2016 and February 2017.
In Iraq, three of four of registered cultural heritage sites are officially in danger. ISIS has systematically dug tunnels in Mosul and other heritage sites in search of antiquities to sell on the Internet and black market.
“Iraq is a cradle of our common civilization,” said Maria Böhmer, state minister of Germany’s foreign office, at a UNESCO general assembly meeting in 2015. “Its heritage has been entrusted to the care of all of mankind. The international community must do all it can to put an end to these war crimes.”
Occupied by ISIS from 2014 to 2017
The walled city, built in the 3rd century BC, withstood Roman invasions in the first century, but in 2014, ISIS first bulldozed the city, according to a UNESCO damage report. The terrorist group broadcast the destruction in propaganda videos, which showed the defamation of statues and friezes. The site also shows evidence of looting. Hatra was a center of trade on the Silk Road, and features a mix of Greco-Roman and eastern architecture.
During its second occupation, it was spared much further damage, but Gabriel explains that there is evidence the city was used as a military training site.
Occupied by ISIS from June 2014
The city, located on the Tigris river, is currently the site of an ongoing battle, with Iraqi forces driving out ISIS fighters. As of May 20, Iraqi forces had reportedly captured the majority of the city, while battle continues in some parts, according to the Independent.
When ISIS first captured Mosul, it burned down its historic library, and, despite citizens’ efforts to keep militants out with a human chain, destroyed and looted a tomb thought to belong to the biblical prophet Jonah (of “Jonah and the whale” fame), and leveled a mosque dedicated to him as well as a monastery dedicated to Saint George.
ISIS propaganda videos that surfaced in February 2015 showed the destruction of ancient artifacts at the Mosul Museum. While much of its collection had already been transferred outside the city, the building itself, and part of its collection, was severely damaged.
ISIS has dug looting tunnels underneath the city, and defaced a nearby cemetery. Gabriel explains that cemeteries may be looted for valuables, but that reports indicate ISIS may be forcing prisoners to smash graves as a sort of forced labor.
Occupied by ISIS from 2014 to November 2016
Nimrud, which lies 20 miles south of Mosul, was the royal capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire in the mid-800s BC, and remained the religious capital until the 7th century. The remains include a network of monumental royal buildings, which were once decorated with sculptures, reliefs, and glazed tiles, both religious and secular.
An estimated 80 percent of the site has been reduced to rubble, according to Qais Rasheed, Iraq’s Vice-Minister of Culture for Antiquities and Tourism Affairs. This includes the royal ziggurat, nearly 2,900 years old, which ISIS bulldozed and pushed into the Euphrates, after destroying the nearby palace of Ashurnasirpal II with sledgehammers, drills, and explosives in April 2015.
“In attacking the monuments of Nimrud, ISIL not only targeted ancient monuments that they construe as idolatrous, but also lashed out against modern notions of Iraqi identity that connect to the pre-Islamic past,” explained ASOR CHI’s director Michael Danti.
Occupied by ISIS from 2014
Once the largest city in the ancient world, Nineveh is a walled city just outside Mosul that contained the massive palace of Assyrian king Sennacherib. Rasheed estimates that 70 percent of what remains has been destroyed.
The Adad Gate and part of the city’s fortification wall were also destroyed, originally dating back more than 2,500 years. Despite being recently replicated in the 20th century, the gates remained symbols of the city’s history.
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