Will Islamists wipe out record of country's long and rich history?
The destruction of cultural artifacts reportedly being conducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is just the latest challenge archaeologists, historians and the guardians of culture have faced for many years.
“It’s very disheartening, but unfortunately it’s not new news,” said Mark Giszczak, assistant professor of Sacred Scripture at the Augustine Institute in Denver.
A German-based website reporting on developments in Iraq said recently that ISIS has begun removing ancient statues and shrines in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which is in the country’s traditionally Christian area.
“Article 13 of the [Mosul] city charter that ISIS distributed to locals says that false idols will need to be destroyed,” Niqash reported. “Members of the group destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Chaldean Church of the Immaculate.”
Their targets also include holy places of Shi’a Islam, as well.
What worries historians is the threat to artifacts excavated from ancient Assyrian kingdoms.
“The sites around Mosul are some of the very first sites that were excavated in the history of archaeology, back in 1840,” Giszczak said. “The Assyrian kings or emperors reigned from that area.”
But the work of archaeologists has been threatened before, whether it’s from the political scene or even the weather. “A lot of these ancient reliefs are made of ancient limestone,” Giszczak said. “When it rained, the reliefs were destroyed before they could draw them.”
Local populations, too, not understanding the value of archaeological work, also posed a threat. People would take the wood supporting precious objects because wood is scarce in the region, and the objects would fall and get smashed to pieces. In one case, objects were stolen and ground down so residents could use the material in construction.
Even as late as 2003, as U.S. troops were invading Iraq, looters made off with what they could from the Mosul Museum.
That museum reportedly is now occupied by forces loyal to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State. Christopher Dickey, foreign editor for The Daily Beast, wrote of a meeting he had with the director of the Iraqi National Museum, Qais Hussein Rashid. Rashid was in visited Paris last week pleading for international help.
If the Islamic State could find buyers on the black market for some of the artifacts from the museum and elsewhere, Dickey suggested, they could continue to fund their military takeover of Iraq and Syria.
But Eleanor Robson, chair of the Council of The British Institute for the Study of Iraq at The British Academy, cautions that “there’s a lot of rumour-mongering and fear at the moment, with people conflating what ISIS might do to cultural heritage in the Mosul region with what they actually have done.”
“It’s very difficult to make direct contact with colleagues in Mosul at the moment but the latest news from my best contact there, this morning, is that Mosul Museum and the archaeological sites are all still intact,” she said in an email today. “Some churches have had their crosses removed, and some modern statues of medieval cultural figures have been taken down. The main targets so far have been Shi’a shrines and mosques.”
Commented Jennifer S. Bryson, director of the Islam and Civil Society Project of the Witherspoon Institute, “Religious and historical cultural sites have tremendous symbolic power. Militants in conflicts involving religious and ethnic group identities know they can leverage the symbolic power of such sites to whip up support for their side and provoke those they view as opponents.”
With the U.S. unwilling to send troops back into Iraq, there’s concern that ISIS may do what weather, climate, local political conditions, local populations and foreign looters have failed to accomplish.
“These things are significant to all of humanity because Mesopotamia is the cradle of civilization,” Giszczak said. “There are things that are irreplaceable and priceless. Once they’re gone they’re gone.”
John Burger is News Editor for Aleteia.org’s English edition.