Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 3rd July 2016

Latest updates:

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Mideast world heritage destroyed but not only by ISIS

Focus on ISIS turns attention from problem of looting occurring throughout region.


The Armenian church in Deir ez-Zor

The Armenian church in Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria, destroyed by ISIS.

London - The entire spectrum of human history is being systematically wiped out as the Islamic State (ISIS) wrecks the region’s rich cultural diversity, experts on policy and heritage said.

Their complaint came as the international community prepared to meet in Turkey on July 10th to review the conservation of properties listed as World Heritage Sites.

The cultural genocide, which provides a unique window into the dark and deadly ideology that drives ISIS, was reviewed at a discussion in London on heritage and theft in Syria and Iraq by three prominent academics.

Benjamin Isakhan, associate professor of Politics and Policy Studies and chief investigator on the Heritage Destruction in Iraq and Syria project at Deakin University, Australia, said the sites being attacked in the Middle East and North Africa span all of human history – from ancient Mesopotamia to Greek, Roman and Byzantine sites and important Islamic landmarks from the Abbasid caliphate and Ottoman empire.

“We are talking about the active targeting of those sites that belong to the region’s rich heritage, including Yazidi, Christian, Kurdish, Sufi and Turkmen and other ethno-religious minorities who have lived in the region for thousands of years contributing to the cultural mosaic that makes up the Middle East,” he said. “We also have wanton attacks on secular state institutions like museums, libraries and archives.

“In the frame of this monumental extent of heritage destruction the international community and the international media have struggled and fumbled in order to be able to react and the academic community is not much better and has not come up with a convincing way of interpreting what is going on.”

Isakhan drew attention to the ISIS capture of a string of Assyrian Christian villages along the Khabur river in northern Syria where all the key churches were burned. He said the Armenian church in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor, which housed the significant archives from the 1915 killing of 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey, was destroyed and in the village of Tal Nasri a church of the Virgin Mary was blown up. This occurred in February 2015 at the same time that the Mosul museum was destroyed.

Spectacular attacks against Shia heritage sites have been perpetrated, including the gold-domed Sayyida Zeinab mosque and shrine in Damascus and al-Qarni mosque and shrine in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

“These sites are very deliberately attacked as proxies for the fight against the government in Syria, the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the broader geopolitical struggle against Iran and other Shia entities such as Hezbollah and various Shia militias,” Isakhan said.

Sites seen as blasphemous, such as Nimrud, the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh and the Roman city of Palmyra in Syria, were not spared. Many are UNESCO World Heritage Sites predating Islam.

“ISIS will loot, sell and make significant profits of any artefact they can move,” Isakhan said. “Then they would destroy all the remains in the name of their severe religious doctrine. In these contradictions we find the cynical emptiness of their rhetoric and may point to the seeds of their undoing.”

Neil Brodie, an archaeologist who has spent 20 years researching illicit trade in antiquities, told the meeting that for more than 10 years “the archaeological heritage of the Middle East has been ransacked and looted and the antiquities sold in the markets of Europe and North America.”

“We have failed to tackle this problem in any effective way and now we are seeing the endgame of failing to get a grip on this problem ten years ago,” Brodie said. “The UN and UNESCO have not come up with any constructive response to what is happening.”

Brodie pointed out that archaeological sites in Iraq have been looted since the first Gulf war in 1990 and the theft intensified after the 2003 war. He said the focus on ISIS had turned attention from the problem of looting occurring throughout the region.

From 1991-98, Canadian Customs seized 54 large mosaics from Syria that were looted with the alleged connivance of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The greatest amount of looting in Syria was in sites in areas controlled by the Kurdish opposition.

“If you focus on ISIS you overlook a large part of the problem because everybody is looting,” Brodie said.

Professor Toby Dodge, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, noted that the massive destruction of heritage was happening against a background of state collapse, civil war, overt international intervention in Iraq, covert intervention in Syria and the rise of radical Islamism that has taken as one of its many targets antiquities and cultural symbolism.