First Published in E-International Relations
The widespread and ongoing devastation by ISIS of ancient sites in Iraq and Syria, annihilating the historical legacy of ancient civilizations like Babylon and Assyria, has aroused anger and alarm among archaeologists and politicians in those countries. Particularly the West is deeply concerned about this destruction in the Middle East. ISIS activists have already destroyed archaeological sites, statues, shrines and antiquities in dozens of locations, among them the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Kalakh in Iraq (Tel Nimrud), and Hatra, an ancient city in northern Iraq. Last August, ISIS blew up the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra (today the town of Tadmur), a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important archaeological sites in Syria.
This deep global concern about the fate of the antiquities is fueled by the propaganda network of ISIS itself, which periodically releases documentations of the systematic destructions. Mamun ‘Abd al-Karim, the director of the Syrian Department of Museums and Antiquities, puts horrifyingly that: “The cultural legacy of Palmyra is in dire straits […];”and that , “the national museum in Palmyra has been converted into a jail and a sharia court.” In his view, the international community is not doing enough to help save the antiquities, forgetting that they not only represent the historical legacy of Syria, but also of all humanity.
The destruction of historical monuments, however, is not a new phenomenon in human history. In the 12th century, the Mongols, under the command of Hulagu Khan, razed the palaces, institutions and monuments of Baghdad. Its libraries were reduced to ashes, most prominently Dar al-Hikma, which had housed valuable manuscripts of Arabic translations of Greek works. In the year 2001, the then-leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mullah Omar, instructed his followers to destroy every statue in the country, among them were the two of Buddha, dating back to the 3rd and 5th centuries CE. In this respect, ISIS is no different from modern conquerors that preceded it; nevertheless, the media response to the current destruction of antiquities is far more extensive.
Why, then, is ISIS not only conducting the systematic destruction of antiquities, but widely advertising the fact as well? What does it hope to achieve with this strategy?
Several interrelated reasons can be identified:
ISIS reaps political dividends from the mere fact of the obsessive concern and anxiety in the West over the destruction of antiquities in Syria and Iraq. The debate has allowed it to establish itself in the global consciousness as an organization that is faithful to the principles of Islam. It is viewed as an organization that does not hesitate to take up arms against its enemies, and thus has become a magnet for many young Muslims. The media spectacle of the destruction of antiquities by ISIS makes a mockery of the Iraqi and Syrian regimes, which are shown as impotent to confront it. Western nations are ridiculed as well: they raise a media storm over the issue of antiquities, but their voices are scarcely heard when it comes to the persecution and massacre of minorities, like the Yazidi in northern Iraq. Beyond that, it is worth reiterating, ISIS has successfully leveraged the lucrative antiquities trade into a source for financing its activities.