Tag Archives: ISIS

Erasing history: why Islamic State is blowing up ancient artefacts

File 20170601 23531 1t4uqpi
Iraqi soldiers gather near the remains of wall panels and colossal statues of winged bulls that were destroyed by Islamic State militants in the Assyrian city of Nimrud, late last year.
Ari Jalal/Reuters

Benjamin Isakhan, Deakin University and Jose Antonio Gonzalez Zarandona, Deakin University

One of the many tragedies that have unfolded in the wake of the Islamic State (IS) is their smashing of statues and the destruction of ancient archaeological sites. Indeed, the rapid and terrifying advance of the IS has proved fatal for much invaluable heritage.

They toppled priceless statues at the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq. They used sledgehammers and power tools to deface giant winged-bull statues at Nineveh on the outskirts of Mosul. At Nimrud, IS detonated explosives, turning the site into a giant, brown, mushroom cloud. They used assault rifles and pickaxes to destroy invaluable carvings at Hatra; and at Palmyra in Syria they blew up the 2,000-year-old temples dedicated to the pagan gods Baal Shamin and Bel.

A damaged artefact at the Mosul museum, where Islamic State militants filmed themselves destroying priceless statues and sculptures in 2015.
Thaier Al-Sudani /Reuters

It’s difficult to interpret the unprecedented scale of this heritage destruction. The global media and politicians have tended to frame these events as random casualties of wanton terror or as moments of unrestrained barbarism.

UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director General Irina Bokova, for instance, reacted to the destruction of Nimrud by arguing that such attacks were underpinned by “propaganda and hatred”. There is, she said, “absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage”.

However, in an article published recently in the International Journal of Heritage Studies, we argue that the acts of heritage destruction undertaken by IS are much more than mere moments of propaganda devoid of political or religious justification.

We analysed two key IS media outlets: Dabiq, their glossy periodical online magazine, which is part manifesto, part call to arms, and part grisly newsletter; and the various slick propaganda films released by Al-Hayat.

We found that the heritage destruction wrought by IS was not only very deliberate and carefully staged, but underpinned by three specific and clearly articulated frameworks.


Firstly, the IS have gone to great theological (if selective) lengths to justify their iconoclasm. For example, an Al-Hayat film documenting the destruction at the Mosul Museum and Nineveh starts:

Oh Muslims, the remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshipped instead of Allah. The Assyrians, Akkadians, and others took for themselves gods of rain, of agriculture, and of war, and worshipped them along with Allah, and tried to appease them with all kinds of sacrifices… Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey, and we do not care [what people think], even if they are worth billions of dollars.

Jounalists walk near the remains of the Monumental Arch in the historic Syrian city of Palmyra in April last year.
Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

The destruction at Palmyra features in a double-page spread with 14 colour photographs in Dabiq. In the French edition, Dar-al-Islam, the text states:

Baal is a false divinity for which people sacrificed their children as indicated in the book of Jeremiah (Old Testament). But by the Grace of Allah, soldiers of the Caliphate destroyed it.


Secondly, the IS make frequent reference to key historical figures to justify their iconoclasm. These include the Prophet Abraham’s destruction of idols and the Prophet Muhammad’s iconoclasm at the Ka’ba, the centrepiece of Mecca’s mosque.

Palmyra’s Monumental Arch in 2010.
Sandra Auger/Reuters

In an Al-Hayat film documenting the destruction at the Mosul Museum and Nineveh, one militant states:

The Prophet Muhammad shattered the idols with his own honourable hands when he conquered Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues. This is what his companions did later on, when they conquered lands.

Similar homage is also paid throughout the magazine Dabiq to other, more contemporary, moments of iconoclasm perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists. These include the destruction of untold numbers of heritage sites by the Wahhabi sect across the Arabian peninsula from the mid-18th century; the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001; and the destruction of the al-‘Askari mosque by al-Qa’eda in Iraq in 2006.


Finally, and often overlooked, the IS have used political reasoning to justify the destruction. One Dabiq article states:

The kuffār [unbelievers] had unearthed these statues and ruins in recent generations and attempted to portray them as part of a cultural heritage and identity that the Muslims of Iraq should embrace and be proud of. Yet this opposes the guidance of Allah and His Messenger and only serves a nationalist agenda.

We can see two dimensions of the IS’s political iconoclasm here. First, it is an attack on “the kuffār”. These are presumably Westerners who, as part of the colonial period, drew the modern borders and created the contemporary states of the Middle East. They also excavated Mesopotamian archaeological sites and placed relics in public museums to be admired.

Second, the attacks on sites inscribed on UNESCOs World Heritage List (such as Hatra and Palmyra) are also an attack on the values such institutions promote: secular, liberal, humanist values that promote a recognition of the shared heritage of human civilization. This is in stark contrast to the IS who seek to create religious, historical and political homogeneity under the rule of a strict caliphate.

In March 2015 UNESCO’s Bokova issued a statement referring to the destruction of heritage sites at the hands of the IS as a “war crime”.

Hatra in 2002, before the carnage.
Suhaib Salem/Reuters

Knowing that UNESCO was powerless to stop them, the following month the IS released an Al-Hayat video filmed at the ancient city of Hatra. The film shows militants using sledgehammers and assault rifles to destroy priceless reliefs engraved into the walls of the fortress city. It also features a bold repost to Bokova:

Some of the infidel organisations say the destruction of these alleged artefacts is a war crime. We will destroy your artefacts and idols anywhere and Islamic State will rule your lands.

Such brash assertions made by IS clearly demonstrate that their heritage destruction cannot be dismissed as being simple propaganda.

Instead, as we have shown, the heritage destruction undertaken by the IS are not only very carefully planned and executed, but also couched within a broader religious, historical and political framework that seeks to justify their violent iconoclasm.

The ConversationUnderstanding the complex layers that drive such iconoclasm are a step towards developing better responses to the destruction of our shared cultural heritage.

Benjamin Isakhan, Associate Professor of Politics and Policy, Deakin University and Jose Antonio Gonzalez Zarandona, Associate Research Fellow, Heritage Destruction Specialist, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Against ISIS’ destruction of heritage, and for curators as the cure of souls

Jose Antonio Gonzalez Zarandona, Deakin University

Barely a week after ISIS beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, the Syrian expert who devoted his life to the study of Palmyra, the group is reported to have destroyed a nearly 2,000-year-old temple dedicated to Baalshamin, Semitic god of rain and fecundity.

The reason seems clear: it is part of a plan by ISIS to get rid of the so-called idols, destroy the past and erase history, by targeting the heritage of Iraq and Syria.

Following the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the unprecedented scale of heritage destruction currently undertaken by ISIS seeks to undermine the concept of heritage as professed by international organisations such as UNESCO, ICOMOS or ICCROM – that is, a Western concept very well grounded in our contemporary visual culture of the digital industrial age.

Khaled al-Asaad.
EPA PHOTO/Youssef Badawi

With the destruction of the Palmyra temple, ISIS, as has been shown through previous cases of iconoclasm, is sending a very clear message: territories under ISIS control need to be radically transformed, so Year Zero of their Caliphate can commence, and that entails the destruction of idols.

The question remains: what is an idol before the eyes of ISIS’ members? A straight answer is: everything that resembles the human form and that which is cherished by infidels in the West.

And the best medium to spread this war of images is, of course, the internet. As the German curator Peter Weibel eloquently put it in the book Ravaged. Art and Culture in Times of Conflict (2014), the reason behind these images is to show that a war is taking place, so we do not forget it.

But who is winning this war, one might ask. It seems whoever shows more violence. The ultimate reason to show these “spectacular” images of destruction is to assist ISIS in spreading fear and installing a permanent state of war in our minds.

In this sense, one of the most horrific images that ISIS has recently circulated is that of the beheaded body of Khaled al-Asaad, a scholar who was killed because he was fulfilling his duty as a curator and archaeologist.

Preserving heritage

By preserving the past, archaeologists working in extreme conditions in territories controlled by ISIS are taking the role of curator in its truest sense. The cultural cleansing that is currently taking place in Syria, demonstrates more than ever that the study of history, art and antiquity is a high-risk profession.

Iconoclasm, as we all know, means the breaking of images. In the 8th and 9th centuries the word was used in Byzantium in reference to the removal and destruction of icons: sacred images depicting Christian divinities.

During the Catholic Reformation in Switzerland, Germany and England during the 16th century, it was used to describe the destruction and fury that characterised the Protestants who pulled down from Christian churches the artefacts they considered blasphemous and caused idolatry.

Iconoclasts claimed that objects made of stone and wood could not represent the true essence of the divine, and they dulled the senses.

Iconoclasm and idolatry are two words that have been regularly used by the media and ISIS respectively, in reference to the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria.

As a result, the value of cultural heritage in these two countries has dramatically increased due to the threat that ISIS represents. Otherwise, how can we explain that in 2012 Iraqi forces were deployed to Syria, in order to protect the revered Sayyida Zainab mosque outside Damascus?

The reason given was to avoid sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni, as was the case in 2006 when the Samarra gold-dome mosque that contains the remains of two Shia Imams was targeted by Al-Qaeda, sinking Iraq into a civil war that lasted for two years.

And many of us will remember that in February 2015 Turkish soldiers crossed over to Syria to save the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the founding patriarch of the Ottoman Empire, in order to prevent their destruction by ISIS.

Turkish tanks return to Turkey from the tomb of Suleyman Shah, Kobane, Syria, February 21, 2015.
EPA/Mursel Coban/DEPO Photos

We may try to understand ISIS’ iconoclasm of cultural heritage as a replica of former models of ethnic cleansing and purification as those described in Byzantium and Northern Europe.

The archaeologist as a curator

One of the main differences between previous iconoclastic waves and our age is the figure of the curator. Think about the French archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir, who defended the monuments in 1793 at the Abbey of St Denis, when revolutionary forces stormed into the abbey and destroyed the tombs of French royalty.

Nowadays, we are faced with the figure of the archaeologist who is not only an expert on antiquity, but who is also a cultural expert and a manager in preserving the past. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, curator (from the Latin curator) has different meanings, but it originally meant “one who has the care or charge of a person or thing”.

In the case of Khaled al-Asaad, his role as an archaeologist entailed the study of the ancient city of Palmyra, occupied at different points of time by several cultures, regardless of who the owner of this heritage site was.

It is no secret that in some countries, the post of archaeologist carries a lot of political capital, and this translates into the power of consolidating knowledge, but also to control it, such as Zawi Hawass in Egypt or Eduardo Matos in Mexico.

In his role at the service of the State (the Baath Party), al-Asaad fulfilled the role of archaeologist, rather than that of a curator. Nonetheless, when ISIS captured the city he had tirelessly studied and took him hostage, al-Asaad was tortured and questioned about antiquities that he hid – a measure that prevented ISIS from looting and profiting as it had done with other artefacts.

In their ridiculous attempt to justify his death, ISIS accused al-Asaad of being an apostate, because he talked at “infidel conferences” and as a government employee, he served as “the director of idolatry”.

Working in extremely difficult conditions, al-Asaad took care of the city he loved. In charge of Palmyra, al-Asaad took his role of curator seriously until the end.

Another definition of the word curator describes it as someone “who has the cure of souls”. This is important to bear in mind in light of the tragic death of Khalid al-Asaad, who was beheaded by ISIS, his body hanged from a pole and a photograph taken to certify his death.

As someone with the ability to cure souls, al-Asaad tried to prevent the destruction of heritage, because he was convinced of the power of heritage to heal souls which are tormented by idols.

The Conversation

Jose Antonio Gonzalez Zarandona is Associate Research Fellow, Heritage Destruction Specialist at Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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ISIS Said to Destroy Ancient Temple in Palmyra

Syria: ISIS Kills Archaeologist

Syria: ISIS Destroys Ancient Sites

Iraq Says ISIS Militants ‘Bulldozed’ Ancient Site

ISIS Destroying History

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