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Historic tragedy

As ISIS destroys or pillages the artifacts of Iraq and Syria, archaeologists find local heroes determined to protect the past

Historic tragedy

ISIS militants bulldozed a monument called “The Girl’s Tomb” in Mosul last summer. (Militant website/AP)

Militant website/AP

In February, militants destroyed antiquities inside the Nineveh museum.


ISIS militants blew up the tomb of Jonah in Mosul last summer.

Herve Bar/AFP/Getty Images

A Syrian rebel fighter inspects artifacts at the Alma Arra museum in Maarat al-Numan.

Photo by Chadwick Trentham

Bob Mullins

The Islamic State (ISIS) is destroying not only human lives but also Middle Eastern culture, including sites rich with biblical history. Since December, Iraqi sources have reported ISIS militants destroying libraries in Mosul, an Iraqi city with a large scholarly community including the University of Mosul.

The militants pluck out approved Islamic texts and burn the rest of a collection, including 20th-century Iraqi newspapers and maps from the Ottoman era. In some cases they cart away ancient manuscripts that might draw money on the black market.

Drawing attention worldwide, ISIS in late February released a video showing its fighters smashing ancient sculptures going back to 900 B.C. in the museum of Mosul and in the historic Ninevah site in central Mosul.

A heartbroken archaeologist (who works in Iraq and isn’t identified for security reasons) identified items ISIS destroyed in the video, including alabaster winged bulls that flanked the doorways of palaces under Assyrian kings like Sennacherib in the 7th century B.C.—among the oldest such artifacts anywhere.

In Syria, Aleppo’s once well-preserved third- and fourth-century churches are being “ground to dust,” according to Michael Danti, a Boston University archaeologist who has worked in Syria for 20 years.

ISIS has a history of similar destruction in Iraq—blowing up ancient churches, shrines, and tombs that conflict with its ideology. This past summer the group blew up the purported tomb of Jonah in Mosul, once a church and then a mosque. The terrorist group invited a crowd to watch the destruction of the tomb, and broadcast images of the destroyed tomb.

When ISIS isn’t carrying out what academics call “deliberate performative destruction,” it is looting archaeological sites. The group sells lucrative ancient treasures on the black market to fund its operations. Satellite images show a “moonscape” on archaeological sites, holes where looters have burrowed.

“The Islamic State is trying to stamp out cultural diversity,” said Danti.

Looting and destruction are common in any war, but Danti sees the cultural devastation as a widening strategy from Islamists. The Taliban first employed the tactic in Afghanistan, and it is now spreading out from the Islamic State to other militant groups.

Iraqi and Syrian archaeologists as well as their lay neighbors are fighting back to save their culture in the small ways they can. Locals have sandbagged museums vulnerable to bombs and gunfire, wrapped and stored artifacts, and smuggled items to safety when possible. Often at significant peril they sneak to sites to document destruction for other archaeologists.

Archaeologists—thanks to funding from secular institutions like the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Pennsylvania, and the U.S. State Department among others—have been training Iraqis and Syrians in undisclosed locations about how to gather information at archaeological sites and protect items. Christian colleges have not been involved in this effort (see sidebar).

Using these local intelligence operations, archaeologists who have had to abandon their digs amid the violence are keeping careful, public records so that work may begin again if peace returns. This is Iraqis’ and Syrians’ future not only culturally, but economically in tourism revenue.

 ‘The Islamic State is trying to stamp out cultural diversity.’

—Michael Danti

In June ISIS shut down the prestigious archaeology department at the University of Mosul when it conquered the city, ousting hundreds of archaeology students. ISIS views studying ancient cultural heritage, not only biblical history, as a threat. “Anything pre-Islamic is out,” said Danti.

Erbil, a relatively secure city in northern Iraq, had one of the only remaining institutions to train archaeologists in the country, the 6-year-old Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage. The institute is Iraqi-run, though foreign academics sometimes conduct training there.

AS ISIS BEGAN RAPIDLY ADVANCING toward Erbil last summer, Katharyn Hanson—an archaeologist with the University of Pennsylvania—was teaching a course to Iraqi archaeologists there.

By the beginning of August, with ISIS on Erbil’s doorstep, Hanson and her Iraqi students didn’t sleep, watching the news to see whether they would have to leave. The next day Hanson asked her groggy students if they wanted to hear her “boring” lecture on GPS technology under the circumstances.

“They said, ‘We want that now,’” she recounted. “ISIS was 20 miles away and I lectured on GPS units.” She added: “I will never have students this dedicated.”

American archaeologists can’t reveal much about those they work with on the ground in Iraq and Syria, because those individuals are risking their lives by continuing archaeological work and gathering intelligence.

“The [Islamist] groups would kill these people,” said Danti, who helps lead The American Schools of Oriental Research, the leading group documenting destruction of archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria. “I will make myself sick about these people, but what else are they going to do? … They fight [ISIS] in the way they know best.”

The governments of Syria and Iraq still have their own functioning antiquities departments working to protect sites in sections of the countries they control. UNESCO is supposed to oversee official “world heritage sites” like Aleppo, and Interpol oversees trafficking of looted objects, but both “move at a very slow pace,” said Syrian archaeologist Amr Al-Azm. In the urgency of war, locals must do the work of protecting their own heritage.

Al-Azm, now based in the United States, formerly worked at Syria’s Department of Antiquities. During the last decade much of his work in Syria focused on protecting objects and museums, at first in case the fighting in Iraq spilled over into Syria and then when Syria itself descended into civil war. A decade ago the department began digitizing artifacts, but it made small progress by the time the civil war broke out in Syria.

Al-Azm worked in earlier days with the Maarat al-Numan museum in northwestern Syria, which houses one of the largest collections of ancient mosaics in the world. As militants bore down on Maarat al-Numan, locals sandbagged the museum, protecting it against nearby blasts from the conflict, from both rebels and government forces. Bombings left cracks in the walls, and though the museum has had items stolen, its mosaics remain largely intact, thanks to the work of the locals. It remains under constant threat.

In another instance one of Al-Azm’s Syrian contacts discovered a historic building had a hole in its roof. The contact needed to repair the hole because the building was made of traditional materials that would have crumbled in the rain. But the roof was in the line of fire, so the local had to figure out a way to repair the roof from the inside.

Such small successes happen regularly, even if the Islamists’ destruction outpaces the cultural rescues. In northern Iraq this past summer, Christians fleeing ISIS took books and centuries-old archives with them. Around the same time, two monks in Erbil digitized ancient manuscripts in case Islamists destroyed the originals.

“The father or mother try to save the first thing—the children,” Father Najeeb Michaeel, one of the monks, told NPR. “So these books [are] my children.”

The American Schools of Oriental Research produces a weekly, 70-plus-page report on destruction and damage, intelligence that comes from satellite images, news reports, and archaeologists on the ground.

Bob Mullins, an archaeologist at the evangelical Azusa Pacific University who works in the Middle East, said he reads the report every week. He regularly says, “Oh no,” to himself as he sees a familiar site wiped out.

Al-Azm said sources on the ground are essential because Syria has thousands of archaeological sites, and monitoring satellite imagery for all of the sites is impossible. Archaeologists have formed teams that keep an eye on sites and report threats. Al-Azm has a team of three men who regularly report to him on destruction in Aleppo, for example.

“It’s worthwhile enough that they put their lives in danger,” Al-Azm said.

Archaeologists also keep sources to inform them when ancient treasures appear on the black market. While for ISIS the destruction of sites is for religious reasons, the looting is economic. Revenue from antiquities looting is becoming a more significant funding stream for ISIS, many Middle East experts believe, though they aren’t sure how big the cash flow is. Some Iraqis and Syrians also loot archaeological digs to feed their families.

According to Danti, looting is a major form of employment for those living under ISIS.

Danti’s sources in southern Turkey say cigarette vendors on the street have pictures of stolen antiquities on their phones. If someone is interested in an artifact, the vendors will put the customer in touch with a higher-level dealer. The looted artifacts likely won’t appear on the legitimate market for years, as major auction houses like Christie’s in New York have a relatively strict vetting process for artifacts. But items find their way onto the market in other ways.

“Reporting that week after week, it makes you feel helpless,” said Danti. “It’s a tremendous loss for so many people.”

But Al-Azm added: “The work goes on.”

Narrow digging

A number of American Christian colleges have archaeology programs, but few do work in the Middle East outside of Israel. Digs relating to biblical history—from the Old Testament world to the early church—are all over Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Part of Christian colleges’ absence from those sites is a lack of funding.

“[Israel] catches the imagination of people,” said Bob Mullins, an archaeologist at Azusa Pacific University, who has a dig in northern Israel, near the border with Lebanon. “Certain donors, they are going to be more drawn to support a site in Israel than elsewhere. It’s not easy to get money, even in Israel.” Mullins’ team economizes by doing four-week digs, instead of the usual six weeks.

The reluctance to do digs outside of Israel is rooted in a general biblical illiteracy, Mullins says, which extends to some of his students, who have little knowledge of anything in the Bible happening outside of Israel.

“They’ve heard of Assyria and Babylon, but they don’t understand that this is ancient Iraq,” he said. “Christians tend to be familiar with the New Testament. I try to show ... how the New Testament builds on the foundation of the Old Testament. It’s a real challenge.”

Another reason for the lack of Christian college presence in the Middle East is safety, he said. Christian colleges often bring students to work on sites. Last year a rocket from Lebanon landed near Mullins’ dig, injuring no one. The site has never had any threats otherwise, and Israeli army contacts have assured Mullins that they would share any intelligence about threats.

Last summer in a similar incident, Wheaton College evacuated its dig in Ashkelon, Israel. But that evacuation also came from an abundance of caution. Israel has a record for the best security for archaeological digs of any country in the Middle East. —E.B.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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  • Narissara
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:52 pm

    Hans, unfortunately, this is so.  Even people who are in submission to Christ struggle constantly against their sinful nature.  Paul describes his struggles in Romans 7:15-23, but then goes on in verses 24-25 to praise God for Jesus' deliverance.  And thank God that's available to all of us! 

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:52 pm

    Well, I think an honest assessment of human nature would indicate that people are more frequently spiteful than they are idealists. When it comes right down to it, it's not that hard to convince a bunch of young men that there's a religious reason to destroy stuff. Guys often don't need much convincing to get them on board with destroying things in general. So it's pretty easy to imagine how a leader gets a crowd going and urges them to knock the heads of statues in churches--hey, sounds like fun! Is that really religious fervor? To some degree yes, but in many ways, probably not. It's just people being stupid. I think that helps to explain ISIS too. Some elements of it are fervently religious, but it is also a giant Hobbesian state of nature free-for-all of violence and destruction just because no one is stopping them.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:52 pm

    By the way, not having seen it, what Cromwell's men did sounds not so much like overzealous iconoclasm as it does ordinary spite. 

  • Narissara
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:52 pm

    By going after sites that figure so prominently in the Old Testament, like Jonah's tomb, they're indirectly targeting Christianity as well as Judaism.  But I see your point about destroying their own heritage, too.  I suppose in a way we can be grateful for their hypocrisy and need for cash since it might help ensure some of those artifacts survive. 

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:52 pm

    I am drawing on my own experience in visiting European churches, so this would include decorated altar screens, as well as statues adorning the interior and exterior of church buildings. Certainly some of the destroyed artwork was used as part of Catholic worship, but the destruction was fairly indiscriminate in that regard. You can, for example, find graffiti inside King's College Chapel in Cambridge from when Cromwell's men used it as a stable.For the most part, though, ISIS is not destroying Christian heritage. They are destroying their own heritage. We forget that because we hear things like "the tomb of Jonah is destroyed" and we think that they are going after Christian sites. In reality, they are pushing their own iconoclastic version of Islam, which means that they are attacking and destroying artifacts associated with other less iconoclastic versions of Islam, especially Shia groups, who venerate various holy sites in Islam. This is not an attempt to re-write Christian history so much as it is an attempt to promote their own ascetic version of their religion. Similar destruction has already taken place in Saudi Arabia by the authorities there who have been destroying sites in an attempt to quell idolatry. Ironically, and with a requisite touch of hypocrisy, ISIS is also looting ancient sites (and their own local museums) and selling the artifacts on the black market to make money to fund their war. So they are ideologues when it is convenient.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:52 pm

    Hans, you don't give any examples of the kinds of artifacts in the Catholic churches were destroyed, but I suspect a good many of them were works of art commissioned by the Catholic church itself for its own edification and which had become objects of worship.  Still a loss, but not on the same plane as what ISIS is doing.  The actions of the ancient Israelites might be a bit more akin to what ISIS is doing, since God wanted all traces of these false gods removed.  Otherwise, they would have been a constant source of temptation for them.  With ISIS, there's more to it than that.  It's destroying artifacts and sites that point to people and places in the Bible that help authenticate it, in an attempt to re-write history.  Moreover, Islam has a long history of anti-intellectualism.  For example, the Arabs were the world's premier mathematicians and engineers until the 6th or 7th century when Islam destroyed that civilization -- so much so that, if it had continued, Americans would be sending their children to school in the Middle East to learn those fields instead of the other way around. 

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:52 pm

    I find this issue fascinating as a student of the ancient Near East and of the Bible. We rightly sense the great cultural loss at the destruction of these historic artifacts, and it kills me to see that kind of senseless destruction. At the same time, I can't help but be reminded that ISIS's actions in this particular area are part of a very long tradition of iconoclasm that has manifested itself in our own religious history. After all, the ancient Israelites were instructed to destroy the ancient cult sites of the Canaanites and others (not to mention slaughtering whole tribes down to the last infant, but that is another story). It is also present in our own Christian tradition and especially in early Protestantism, where rowdy followers seemed to take great delight in smashing priceless artifacts in the Catholic churches. What a tragic loss.

  • Steve SoCal
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 12:52 pm

    I hope the Islamist outrages against cultural heritage as they destroy archaeological sites and museum artifacts will help to dampen the recent pressure on western museums to return ancient items to their countries of origin.  The fact is that if many of these items were not excavated and brought to the west, they would not be adequately protected and displayed, as they are now, and available for the world to visit and study into the future.