Islamic State Drives Last Archaeologists out of Middle East

Teams are fleeing danger in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Important archaeological sites in Iraqi Kurdistan are under threat as the Islamic State (IS) advances, the Art Newspaper has reported. The group, formerly known as ISIS and ISIL has made it increasingly dangerous for archaeologists to work in the region that has been fraught by growing tension and war in Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extent, Lebanon.

This month, a team of one of the last remaining archaeologists from Italy abandoned an excavation site in Irbil and traveled to safety in Turkey. Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, an expert on Assyrian archeology at the University of Udine, who led the team had initially evaluated the security risk as “quite normal.” However after the advance of IS and subsequent US air strikes he chose to withdraw.

Bonacossi has over 25 years experience in the region and told the Art Newspaper “The general political situation in the Near East is tricky and so difficult it will shape quite profoundly the future development of archeology.” He adds that “the classical centers of the Near East are now out of the game. You can’t work in Lebanon, Syria – the Iraqi part of Mesopotamia is getting more difficult. You can’t work in Yemen. The options are not so many.”

The Syrian government estimates that the region’s unrest has driven between 120 and 150 foreign archaeological groups out of the region. Christa Longhini of the Va’Foscari University of Venice was invited to excavate in Mosul before IS advanced. Sharing her concerns, she explained “We didn’t want to talk of archeology with all the refugees. It’s immoral. How can you speak about the culture of the Assyrian period when people are dying?”

The few remaining stable areas of the Middle East such as Jordan are now being crowded by archaeologists, Longhini explains. By her estimation, working in Egypt remains a risky proposition, while working Libya is impossible. Alastair Northedge, professor of Islamic art and archeology at the University of Paris added: “Everybody descended on Kurdistan because it was a way of doing Iraq which was peaceful, but it turned out that it wasn’t quite as peaceful as we thought.”

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