You’ve probably seen the reports of destruction coming out of the Middle East. You’ve certainly heard of ISIS and its reign of terror. The loss of life and the horrifying atrocities being committed against innocent people are splashed across every news network. But ISIS is doing more than taking individual lives. The group is bent on annihilating ancient culture and what it represents. This part of the news story may not have caught everyone’s eye, but it is a desperately important part of that story.
As Deborah Lehr of the Antiquities Coalition and The Capitol Archaeological Institute put it in a recent Newsweek article about Isis and its wave of terror, “It’s an eradication of culture…It’s a part of striking at those beliefs that differ from [ISIS’s] extremist view: views of tolerance, views of religious freedom, views of expression.”
ISIS has already destroyed several ancient sites including the 2,700 year old city of Khorsabad, a 2,000 year old site in Hatra and the 3,000 year old city of Nimrud (also once known as Kalhu). In both Iraq and Syria extremists have cavalierly bulldozed, desecrated and robbed such sites of their identity and ability to impart to us their secrets and knowledge. The loss is immeasurable.
It’s proved complicated at times to explain why the destruction and looting of ancient sites should provoke outrage and calls for intervention. When so many people are dying, it seems callous to many to think about what are essentially “things.” Even UNESCO was criticized for its efforts to encourage countries to set up measures protecting their antiquities. However, as Deborah Lehr says about the destruction in Iraq and Syria, “This isn’t a choice between people or stone. Culture is part of who these people are, and this, ironically, is the cradle of civilization.” Thankfully, the message seems to be reaching a wider audience now and more people are understanding the gravity of the situation.
We aren’t even going to attempt to tell the whole story in this one blog post. Instead, we’ve compiled a list of articles either written by or quoting experts in the field. These writings address general details about the destruction by Isis and measures being taken to combat the attacks.
This is happening right now. Every day we are losing a bit more of our shared past. Take a moment to read these articles and learn what you can do.
Details about the destruction:
- “Why ISIS Is Plundering the Ancient World”- Newsweek details Isis’ campaign and the ideology behind it.
- “Tracking a Trail of Historical Obliteration: ISIS Wipes Out Revered Ancient Sites”- CNN provides a list and descriptions of each of the major sites that have been attacked, including a slideshow of 19 monuments destroyed by war.
- “Here’s A Look at Some of the Ancient Sites Destroyed by ISIS and the Syrian Civil War”- The story in images by Buzzfeed. Not a scholarly article, but it provides stunning images of the destruction as well as pictures of the sites and antiquities when they were intact.
Attempts to stem the destruction:
- “ISIS Has Declared War on Cultural Heritage. Is There Anything We Can Do?”- Minneapolis Institute of Arts urges that we educate ourselves about true Islam and ISIS’ crimes against humanity.
- Project Mosul by AWOL (Ancient World Online) – They are looking for volunteers to help virtually restore the Mosul Museum by locating photos, processing data, contributing to the website and generally helping out with organizing the effort to identify the museum’s artifacts.
- How We Should Be Protecting the Middle East’s Antiquities– “As militants destroy ancient treasures in Iraq and Syria, Berlin museum director Markus Hilgert calls on the international community to share their know-how and change their view of socially acceptable art collections.” Staunching illicit trade cuts off the supply and demand chain being exploited by ISIS.
- In Syria, Archaeologists Risk Their Lives to Protect Ancient Heritage– a PBS Morning Edition story reports on the “cultural emergency” as described by Corine Wegener of the Smithsonian Institute and features the “Monuments Men” of Syria who are risking their lives to protect ancient sites.
- Syrian ‘Monuments Men’ Race to Protect Antiquities as Looting Bankrolls Terror– Another look by the Wall Street Journal at the men and women fighting to save history and the ingenious, if dangerous, methods they employ.
- Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage: Syrian Citizens Protect Their Cultural Heritage– UNESCO describes how ordinary citizens are mobilizing in the fight to protect their cultural heritage.
- Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage: Keeping Trace of Cultural Heritage– UNESCO recounts some of the ways in which digital media is being utilized to keep records of artifacts as a counter offense to the destruction and trafficking of Syrian cultural property.
- It’s Not Too Late to Save Syria’s Cultural Heritage– A fascinating article by Franklin Lamb, visiting professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University, recounting the assorted groups in Syria combatting cultural ruin, including “…students, officials, among them the Ministries of Culture and Tourism, the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) and even to some degree ‘repentant’ former rebels….”
- Stop Trafficking Cultural Heritage In Iraq And Syria– Ways you can help!
 Westcott, L. (2015, March 13). Why ISIS Is Plundering the Ancient World. Retrieved March 16, 2015.