In the mid-13th century, a Mongol invasion
cut a wide swath of cultural ruin through
the Middle East, including the destruction
of the great library of Baghdad. It took the region
centuries to recover. Today, many Iraqi and Syrian
archaeologists evoke this infamous chapter in
medieval history to convey some sense of the
devastation wrought by the so-called Islamic State
(ISIL), along with the continued brutality of more
than four years of civil war in Syria.
While all the key belligerents in the conflict regularly
commit cultural property crimes, ISIL stands out as
the most brazen and egregious. Its militants expanded
the targeting of cultural heritage in 2015 to ratchet up
sectarian tensions, fund terrorism and promote their
ISIL mainly targets Muslim architecture and
monuments for destruction, and it sells looted
antiquities and other portable cultural property for
funding. Only occasionally do fighters destroy pre-
Islamic material for the cameras: In the first months
of 2015, ISIL militants overran the Mosul Museum,
smashing many of the collection’s artifacts, and
took bulldozers and sledgehammers to Iraq’s fabled
first millennium B.C. cities of Nineveh, Nimrud and
Hatra, a UNESCO World Heritage site. In April,
UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova accused ISIL of war crimes for these and other acts of
destruction. The extremists continued their campaign
in August with the destruction of important sites
in the ancient desert oasis city of Palmyra, another
World Heritage site.
Some might ask, “Why should we fret about ‘old
stones and bones’ amid the human suffering of this
conflict?” We do not face either-or decisions between
saving lives or culture: The two are inextricably linked.
By protecting heritage, we defend cultural identity.
Radical extremists understand the power of heritage
— they fear and loathe it, hence their obsession with
pulverizing symbols of resistance and diversity.
At the same time, cultural property protection
undercuts terrorist financing. Beneath its thin
ideological veneer, ISIL operates as an organized
crime enterprise. As with other transnational criminal
groups, antiquities crime provides a reliable and
lucrative source of revenue and means of money
laundering. While ISIL talks of destroying “ancient
idols,” in truth many of these artifacts are pouring
out of the conflict zone for sale on the black market.
ISIL is adept at fusing global jihad, cultural
cleansing and cultural property crime. Left
unchecked, radical extremists will eradicate the
evidence of more than 10,000 years of human
achievement in Syria and Iraq, and the problem
is spreading. With each looted archaeological site,
robbed museum, exploded monument or burned
archive, we lose data on the world’s earliest-known
agriculture, settled communities, organized religions,
state-level polities, writing systems and great empires.
Extremists are also stealing the future by destroying
cultural assets vital to the tourist sector and by
degrading educational and cultural infrastructure.
Syrian and Iraqi cultural heritage experts continue
to risk their lives daily to document war crimes and to
save our shared cultural patrimony. In August, ISIL
militants beheaded archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad,
who served as Palmyra’s chief of antiquities for half
a century. Asaad had helped move many artifacts to
safety before ISIL seized control of the site in May.
According to media reports, he was killed because he
refused to divulge their location.
From verifying reports of destruction with satellite
imagery to monitoring the illegal antiquities market,
more than 45 international organizations are involved
in the effort to preserve the rich legacy of this region,
the Cradle of Civilization. As the poet John Donne
observed, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every
man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Michael Danti is the academic director of the American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives.