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Why the Islamic State's annihilation of ancient cultures matters

- May 29, 2015

Syrian citizens walk in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, in March 2014. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)
Since the Islamic State’s capture of the modern city of Tadmor in Syria and the adjoining UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra on May 20, the global cultural heritage community has raised the alarm regarding the possibility of yet more cultural atrocities. Some writers responded by sternly rebuking heritage experts for supposedly putting “ancient stones” ahead of human lives. I know of no members of the cultural heritage community who are so dissociated from reality.
[Islamic State militants seize Syrian city of Palmyra, threatening ancient ruins]
As an archaeologist, I lived in a small village in rural Syria off-and-on for 20 years and empathize with the Syrian people. Such close contact typifies cultural heritage management. There is no either-or choice between protecting human lives and rescuing cultural property during times of conflict. Islamic State militants systematically target both, and protecting one will help the other.
Profiteering off the sale of antiquities has been a major source of revenue for the Islamic State while the carefully staged destruction of monuments across northern Iraq and Syria has advanced their propaganda campaign. The rate and scale of destruction of cultural heritage in Syria’s conflict zone were already staggering before the Islamic State’s expansion in 2014. The situation has spiraled into the worst heritage crisis since World War II.
Since August 2014, I have been investigating the heritage situation in Syria and northern Iraq for the Cultural Heritage Initiatives. This program is supported by a cooperative agreement between the U.S. Department of State and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR). We have traced in real time both the human and the cultural costs of the devastation of Syria and Iraq by collecting in-country reports, analyzing high-resolution satellite imagery and gleaning all available data from the Internet and other media. Total damage for Syria numbers well above 1,000 incidents with the most frequently reported case being illegal excavations for antiquities. The highest-impact incidents are intentional destruction/damage, collateral combat damage and thefts and vandalism at cultural repositories such as museums and libraries. In terms of these high-impact crimes, the Islamic State stands out as the most egregious and brazen offender.
In this context, what makes Palmyra so special? Control of Palmyra gives the Islamic State a vast new region to pilfer, with an incredible number of world-renowned Greco-Roman monuments that they could deliberately destroy. The prodigious waters of Palmyra’s Efqa Oasis, and the surrounding vast palm groves, have supported settled life in this harsh swathe of the Syrian Desert for many thousands of years. Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Syria in 332 B.C., Palmyra flourished, thanks to caravan traffic linking the Mediterranean world to China. The ancient city was truly cosmopolitan with an urbanscape, monuments and art style manifesting a fusion of Greco-Roman, Syrian and Persian influences. Elaborately decorated colonnaded streets and monumental archways opened onto vast public buildings, including palatial residences, theaters, covered markets and an assortment of temples. The wealthy citizens built ornate tower tombs, as well as elaborately decorated subterranean family crypts replete with sculptures depicting those interred within. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., the city reached the zenith of its prosperity as an important Roman ally against Persia. For a short time, under its famous Queen Zenobia, Palmyra broke free from the Roman Empire and conquered territories stretching from modern Turkey to Egypt, but Emperor Aurelian swiftly crushed the daring rebellion.
Today, a nearby castle perched on a hill providing romantic vistas across the Greco-Roman ruins stands as a reminder of the area’s importance in Medieval Islamic times. For the modern Syrian nation, ancient Palmyra embodies the story of Syria – how a land linking east and west can achieve unity and prosperity by integrating ethnic and religious diversity. The ruins, like Syrian history, also serve as a poignant reminder of the perils of Syria’s geopolitical liminality.
Modern Tadmor boasted a pre-conflict population of over 50,000. Before Syria’s war erupted in 2011, most residents worked in tourism or the petroleum and gas industry. The city was also home to a strategic airfield and one of Syria’s most infamous prisons. After the outbreak of the war, the regime of Bashar al-Assad fortified Tadmor. This included creating military earthworks and roadways on Palmyra that disturbed archaeological deposits. The medieval castle was converted into a fortified watch post. Vandalism and looting accompanied the site’s militarization, and antiquities, such as funerary sculptures from tombs in the distinctive Palmyrene style, began to appear on the illicit antiquities market.  Clashes between the regime and opposition forces in the area starting in 2012 damaged the standing architecture.
The Islamic State quickly and easily defeated the Syrian regime in Tadmor in May and now controls its strategic airfield and the network of desert highways leading to Deir ez-Zor, Homs and Damascus. Many of Tadmor’s inhabitants were trapped there, reportedly without electricity and suffering from dire shortages of food and water. Tadmor also sheltered a large number of internally displaced persons who fled the main conflict zones in the Damascus-Aleppo corridor or the Euphrates Valley for the relative security of this remote location. Reports suggest that indiscriminate bombardments by the Assad regime are inflicting civilian casualties. There are rumors in Tadmor that regime militiamen, or shabiha, looted Palmyra in their final month there. Reports of Islamic State atrocities abound – including execution-style shootings in the Palmyra amphitheater – and the stage seems set for a horrific and drawn-out tragedy akin to Homs, Aleppo, Kobani and Mosul. According to local reports and the Department of Antiquities, the Islamic State has entered the Tadmor Museum and is already causing destruction and taking stock of the antiquities the Syrian regime was unable to evacuate.
The Islamic State’s intentions regarding cultural heritage are not in question. They intend to destroy Palmyra’s sculptures, if not the ruins, in the name of purging supposed idolatry, polytheism and heresy by whatever means necessary. Along the way, they are not averse to raking in large profits from the looting, trafficking and sale of cultural property – whether it is deemed idolatrous or not. In recent months ASOR has confirmed reports of Islamic State militants smashing sculptures in the Mosul Museum – contrary to rumors, most pieces were genuine ancient works – and destroying archaeological sites across northern Iraq.
With public attention focused on Palmyra, we would do well to take stock of the Islamic State’s total record of wanton annihilation. While the Islamic State’s destruction of sculptures in the Mosul Museum and monuments at the renowned sites of Nimrud, Nineveh and Hatra made international headlines, such war crimes directed at pre-Islamic heritage represent less than four percent of their intentional destruction. By far, the Islamic State and other Jihadi-Salafi groups prefer to target religious heritage. They have attacked hundreds of historic sites affiliated with Muslims (especially Shiites and Sufis), Yezidis, Christians and other communities. Attacks on sites with biblical associations, such as the Nebi Yunus (the Prophet Jonah) mosque complex in Mosul, and pre-Islamic heritage have received the majority of Western media attention. Nevertheless, the Islamic State and other militant organizations have deliberately destroyed or severely damaged hundreds of historic sites in a concerted campaign to proliferate the conflict and erase cultural diversity and modernity in northern Iraq and Syria. The current estimate on the Islamic State’s deliberate destruction and damage in Iraq’s Nineveh Province alone stands at around 200 incidents, and scores of other sites in Syria have been targeted. The Islamic State excels at producing sadistic Internet videos of its atrocities for its propaganda machine to convey its radical Jihadi-Salafi message to a global audience.
The capture of Tadmor and Palmyra has substantially upped the stakes in humanitarian, strategic and heritage terms. Thoughtful cultural protection is a natural extension of aiding Syria’s people – it does not conflict with it. The region’s cultural patrimony and heritage constitute the cornerstone of cultural identity and conceptions of community. Before the war, tourism was a mainstay of Tadmor’s economy, as it was for Syria as a whole. The cultural fabric of Tadmor’s community is jeopardized: Mosques, shrines, cemeteries, libraries, museums, schools and cultural centers are in peril. Our efforts to preserve and protect culture form an integral and inextricable part of conflict resolution, counterterrorism measures and humanitarian efforts. The Islamic State has set the stakes: We are fighting cultural cleansing and an insidious, destructive ideology on multiple fronts in an increasingly global theater. Anyone who questions the importance of protecting culture in the context of the current struggle for the future of the Middle East would do well to reflect on the great lengths to which the Islamic State is willing to go purge all traces of it. These are not just “old stones.”
Michael Danti is an assistant professor of archaeology at Boston University, a consulting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. He is the academic director of the ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives. The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein are those of the author and are not reflective of U.S. government policy.