War has always been hard on ancient treasures and sites. In the 14th century Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr destroyed the nose of sphinx because he was outraged that people were making offerings to it. (No, Napoleon didn’t order it shot off by cannon fire.) During World War II, American bombers dropped 1400 tons of bombs on Monte Casino, the place where St. Benedict built a monastery and established the Benedictine Order in the 6th century. It was rebuilt after the war and reconsecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
In the post-9/11 era, the Middle East has seen an accelerating destruction of its vast and precious cultural heritage. Some of this is done by both ordinary people and criminal gangs searching for items to sell. The illegal trade in antiquities is a vast international operation worth millions, although very little of that money trickles down to the poor Syrian digging holes for buried items to help feed his family. Most striking of all is the deliberate cleansing of pre-Islamic history at the hands of ISIS, which looks to emulate Mohammed by striking at idolatry wherever they find it. Their religious fervor does not, however, prevent them from also selling these same idols to help fuel their fight.
1. Bamiyan Buddhas, Afghanistan
The new era of archaeological annihilation was inaugurated on March 2, 2001, when the Taliban carefully planted dynamite around two 6th century statues of the Buddha carved into the sandstone cliffs of the Bamiyan Valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan. One statue was about 175 feet tall, while the other was 115 feet tall, making them the largest standing statues of the Buddha in the world. They had had been attacked and damaged for hundreds of years, but the Taliban’s action, done on the orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar, finished the job quite thoroughly thanks to modern explosives. All that remains are the niches where they once stood.
2. Mosul Museum (Iraq)
The museum of Mosel, the second largest in Iraq, has not had an easy time of it since the Second Gulf War. It was heavily looted during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and after a long and arduous process of reconstruction and recovery of the collection, it was preparing to open again in 2014. That was the same time ISIS arrived in Mosul. Museum staff worked quickly and were able to move some 1600 artifacts to the National Museum in Baghdad. That left about 300 items still in Mosul, and ISIS decided to take hammer and jackhammer to these and record their actions for posterity. Assyrian relics and monuments are particularly loathed by ISIS because these represent pre-Islamic “idolatry” that Mohammed himself inveighed against. One slightly hopeful note in this entire mess: some of the statues being destroyed by ISIS in the video are obviously made of plaster, meaning they are copies of items held by other museums. That would make sense since so many original pieces were already moved to Baghdad: they didn’t bother trying to save copies. ISIS also torched a library archive full of ancient manuscripts and books.
3. Nimrud (Iraq)
South of Mosul were the remains of Nimrud, a city built in the 13th century BC by Assyrian king Shalmaneser I, and used as a capital by Ashurnasirpal II 300 years later. Excavations begun in the 19th century recovered countless bas reliefs, colossal figures, statues, and other priceless artifacts and remains of buildings. The discoveries filled in vital gaps in history and language, and expanded our understanding of Biblical stories. After hammering apart statues at the Mosul Museum, ISIS did the same to Nimrod, adding bulldozers and explosives to their efforts and releasing heartbreaking video of three millennia of history vanishing.
4. Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad, Iraq)
This capital city of Assyrian king Sargon II was build around 700 BC to replace Nimrud. It didn’t remain the capital for long, but did leave behind several monumental treasures and countless artifacts. The city walls were 80 feet thick, with seven huge gates. The exact extent of the damage wrought by ISIS early in 2015 is still unknown, but Iraqi antiquity authorities say the site has been widely looted and the remains of the ancient walls demolished.
5. Hatra (Iraq)
South of Mosul, Hatra was founded by the 2nd century by the Seleucids, one of the Hellenistic dynasties that succeeded Alexander the Great. (They’re most famous to Jews and Catholics as the enemy in the Book of Maccabees.) It fell to the Parthians several centuries later and the remains provided excellent examples of Parthian and Greek architecture and artifacts. The contemporary ruins were quite spectacular, particularly since Saddam Hussein poured millions into restoration. Film fans might have recognized some of the locations from the opening scenes of The Exorcist. The site was used and preserved by both Christians and Muslims, until ISIS turned their picks and hammers on it in Spring 2015. ISIS video shows them demolishing beautiful carved faces, and even shooting them to pieces. Some of these appear to be plaster restorations, while others are genuine.
6. Nineveh (Mosul, Iraq)
One of the most ancient settled places in the world, Nineveh has been occupied for at least 8000 years, and rose to be a major religious and political center until waves of war and sackings took their toll. As the Neo-Assyrian empire declined, this magnificent city—the largest in the world at one time—was left vulnerable and attacks led it to be mostly abandoned in 612 BC. The city appears several times in the Bible, particularly in the Book of Jonah. Many of Nineveh’s artifacts were in the Mosul Museum, but the massive walls and gates, some of them meticulously excavated and reconstructed over decades, were too tempting a target for ISIS to ignore. The extent of the damage is uncertain, but the face of the right lamassu (a protective figure with a man’s face, animal body, and wings) at the Nergal Gate is shown having its face chiseled off in photos released by ISIS. At least one other the lamassu at Nineveh was shown being destroyed, so there’s little hope that any of these offending “idols” escaped unscathed.
7. Mosque of the Prophet Yunus (Tomb of Jonah, Mosul, Iraq)
There are several places that claim to be the tomb of the Prophet Jonah. One them was in Nineveh, the place that figured so centrally in his life. The site on a mound near the walls had a long history as a shrine, first Christian, then Muslim. A mosque replaced the church there, and a tomb said to hold the remains of the prophet was inside the mosque. It was the most important holy site in the area, and was revered by Muslims. ISIS allegedly desecrated the tomb before blowing up the entire mosque. This puzzled some westerners, but it fits in with the radical iconoclasticism of ISIS, who claim the location was not place of prayer, but of “apostasy.” Among the other Mosul mosques and shrines destroyed are The Mosque of the Prophet Jerjis (Saint George), tomb shrines for the biblical figures Seth (Adam and Eve’s third son) and the Prophet Daniel, the Mashad Yahya Abul Kassem shrine, and Hamou Qado Mosque. Whether or not Seth or Daniel or St. George actually were buried in these tombs is of secondary interest, since the sites themselves had ancient traditions and architecture.
8. Mar Behnam Monastery (Beth Khdeda, Iraq)
In the 4th century, the children of a minor king named Sinharib, who ruled Nineveh at the time, found a holy man named Mattai in a cave. The boy was named Behnam and the girl Sarah, and Mattai taught them about Christianity. Behnam said if Mattai could heal Sarah’s leprosy, they would convert. After the miracle was accomplished, many of the king’s party followed his children to the faith. This angered him, so he had Benham and Sarah put to death. Sinharib later repented and converted, and the tombs of his children became a locus of miracles. A monastery rose at the site, and was run by Syriac Catholics and others until ISIS arrived in 2015, stripped the crosses from the monastery, and cast out the monks. In March 2015 they blew up the tombs and other parts of the site.
The summer of 2015 brought a parade of horrors from beautiful Palmyra, the jewel of ancient Syria with its deep history and well-preserved ruins. The nightmare began by exacting a terrible human toll: leading Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad was tortured and beheaded by ISIS. al-Asaad had worked to explore and preserve Palmyra for 40 years. Reports vary as to whether the 82-year-old was killed for collaboration and idolatry (including appearances at archaeology conferences with infidels), or because he refused to disclose the location of treasure, which ISIS imagined he was hiding somewhere in the ruins.
9. Temple of Baalshamin (Palmyra, Syria)
An orgy of destruction followed the murder of al-Asaad. ISIS laced the Temple of Baalshamin with high explosives and then blew it into rubble in August of 2015. The temple was completed in 32 AD, and dedicated to an important Canaanite sky god. It was converted into a church in the 5th century and a mosque in the 12th century. It was uncovered in the 1950s and excavation, study, and restoration had been ongoing. The site was notable for its striking colonnades and its mixture of Roman, Syrian, and Egyptian architectural elements. Its destruction has been called a war crime by UNESCO.
10. Temple of Bel (Palmyra, Syria)
ISIS moved on from Baalshamin to a temple dedicated to the other supreme god of the Canaanites, Bel. Bel (sometimes Baal) simply means Lord, but was used for a major Mesopotamian god who was at the heart of Palmyran religious life. As with the Temple of Baalshamin, the Temple of Bel was a strikingly well-preserved fusion of Roman and Eastern architecture. The site was used for worship at least 3000 years ago, but the temple itself dates to around the same period as Baalshamin. It, too, retained beautiful columns, as well as an altar, statuary niches, an astrological bas relief, and a ramp for leading sacrificial animals. Initial reports and satellite images seem to indicate that it had been destroyed in the same way as Baalshamin, but some eyewitnesses are saying ISIS was unable to knock down the walls.
11. The Lion of Al-lāt (Palmyra, Syria)
Before they started bringing out the big explosives, ISIS warmed up by hammering the Lion of Al-lat apart. The lion had stood outside the Temple to Al-Lat, and dated from some time in the 1st Century. It was found in pieces by archaeologist in 1977, its stones having been reused to build a temple. The pieces were recovered and reassembled with new stone filling in that gaps. It was a lovely piece depicting Al-Lat with a gazelle between his forelegs to symbolize his protection of the innocent. ISIS destroyed it in July of 2015.
12. Mar Elian Church and Monastery (Homs, Syria)
St. Elian had refused to apostatize and was killed by his father in the 3rd century. The church and monastery of St. Elian grew up beginning in the 5th century around the site of the saint’s martyrdom. Fr. Jacques Mouraud, the abbot of St. Elian, was kidnapped in the area on May 21 and is still missing. He had worked since 1991 to rebuild and restore the site. In August, ISIS brought in the heavy machinery, knocked down the walls, and desecrated the tomb of St. Elian.
And The List Could Go On
The destruction of ancient treasures of the Middle East seems to be endless, and we could fill another list with things preserved for millennia only to be lost in seconds. Not all of it was at the hands of ISIS. The Baghdad Museum, Tell Umm al-Aqarib, and other sites were looted in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq. El Hibeh and Antinoupolis were looted following the Egyptian revolution. Apamea, Mari, and Dura-Europo were looted during the Syrian civil war, sometimes by gangs, sometimes by ISIS.
But, by far, most of the destruction is being wrought in the name of a radical attempt to erase the pre-Islamic history of the region. We can expect much more of this as desperation, instability, and zealotry lead people to pillage and destroy the past in an effort to control the future.
Thomas L. McDonald blogs about history, faith, and technology at GodandtheMachine.com.