Ancient stone tablets, monasteries, chants: record of civilization may be disappearing.
The human toll, of course, is the most important concern: the killing of innocent people, the rape and enslavement of women, the brutal uprooting of a population whose ancestors have lived there for untold generations.
But the story of civilization that is recorded in everything from stone tablets and sculptures of winged lions to ancient monasteries and languages is also very much at risk as the Islamic State tries to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Already, the world has witnessed the blowing up of the Tomb of Jonah, a mosque where it was thought the prophet who had preached to the Ninevites and had spent time in the belly of a great fish was buried. Now, it’s thought, priceless archaeological artifacts may be sold off, further bankrolling an already well-off jihad.
An Amnesty International report this week detailed what it calls ethnic cleansing in Iraq. Besides killing Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities, the Islamic State is forcing those minorities to leave their homelands and apparently trying to make sure there is no trace of them.
“As part of its ethnic cleansing policy, the IS has also reinforced its message to ethnic and religious minorities that there is no place for them in Iraq by systematically destroying their places of worship and cultural heritage,” the report said. “Since taking control of Mosul on 10 June, the IS have systematically destroyed and damaged places of worship of non-Sunni Muslim communities. Among the first targets were Shi’a mosques blown up in Mosul and Tal ‘Afar in June; the same month, the Christian Tahira (Immaculate) Church in Mosul had a statue of the Virgin Mary removed from its roof. In July, the tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul was demolished and, in August, the Shi’a Imam Redha Maqam (a Shi’a shrine) near Bartalla, the Yezidi Three Sisters Temples in Bashiqa and Sheikh Mand Temple in Sinjar, and the Kakai Mazar Yad Gar and Sayed Hayyas Temples in al-Hamdaniya were all destroyed.”
“In Syria, thousands of Christians have been displaced during its three-year conflict,” said an AP story Friday. “Christian towns and villages have come under attack by jihadists, most recently the historic central town of Mahradeh. Islamic fighters in Syria rampaged through the ancient Christian town of Maaloula near Damascus earlier this year, destroying historic churches and icons.”
Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako wrote Thursday that the world’s silence on the situation “encourages ISIS…to move forward with its ferocious war against culture and diversity and threatening the intellectual and social security.”
The Patriarch has been sounding the alarm at least since June, when ISIS forces swept across the border with Syria and took over Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and began forcing Christians to convert or leave, or worse. The ongoing exodus of Christians from the Middle East, which was already well underway, “could wipe out its rich cultural heritage which has survived for centuries in this land,” he opined. “What will happen to very ancient churches and monasteries like the Church of Koche on the outskirts of Baghdad, Tahira, Mar Isaiyia, Miskenta, St Thomas, Marhudeini, the Monastery of St. Michael in Mosul and Kirkuk’s Red Church (all dating back to between the 5th and the 7th centuries AD)? What will happen to ancient manuscripts and a language—Aramaic—unknown to the rest of the world, if those who have always guaranteed its life and conservation disappear?”
He also feared “potential destruction if their integrity is compromised by military operations."
Even deeper than the Christian heritage in Iraq and Syria, as every schoolboy and girl has learned, the land in question is generally known as the cradle of civilization. Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers, the Fertile Crescent, is an area that’s littered with archeological sites.
“It’s a whole culture [at stake], because it’s the place where writing started, so it’s a place where writing, history, culture developed,” said Dominican Father Marcel Sigrist in a recent interview. He is an expert in Assyriology who directs the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem. “And so we have 5,000 years of writing—on every form—on clay tablets, on statues, on stone. All these things exist there, and we have now very undereducated people who are ready to destroy it.”
He said that under Saddam Hussein cultural antiquities had been preserved in museums, and many foreigners went to Iraq for exploration, “so it was thriving intellectually at the level of archeology, of history.”
Unfortunately, during the first Gulf War, the American forces did not protect museums, so they were looted.
“But they immediately began to rebuild because they know that the whole tourism depends on this,” Father Sigrist said.
Father Sigrist was in Kurdistan for an archeology conference just before ISIS swept into northern Iraq this spring, and found a sense among locals that they needed to save their culture.
But a troubling trend seems to have emerged. An article in Friday’s New York Times describes how the Islamic State is not only profiting from stolen antiquities but upsetting a delicate balance that could have implications for any post-conflict return to normalcy for ordinary people in Iraq and Syria.
It seems that ISIS, rather than looting and stealing precious cultural artifacts themselves, is adding to its coffers by allowing locals to dig for buried treasures and charging them a tax for anything they find. What the locals do with the finds after that is anyone’s guess.
“ISIS seems to be encouraging the clandestine export of archaeological finds, which is primarily centered on the border crossing from Syria into Turkey near Tel Abyad, an ISIS stronghold,” say the authors of the article, anthropologists Amr Al-Azm of Shawnee State University and Salam al-Kuntar of the University of Pennsylvania, and Brian I. Daniels, director of research and programs of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at U Penn Museum. “There is reason to suspect that ISIS has approved and encourages the trans-border antiquities trade. In institutionalizing this system, which provides ISIS with one of its many diversified income streams, ISIS has caused irreparable damage to Syria’s cultural heritage.”
The authors argue that stopping the illicit trade is imperative because it “jeopardizes the possibility of post-conflict stabilization and reconciliation. In Syria, cultural heritage is part of everyday life. Syrians live in ancient cities and neighborhoods, pray in historic mosques and churches and shop in centuries-old bazaars. If and when the fighting stops, this heritage will be critical in helping the people of Syria reconnect with the symbols that unite them across religious and political lines.”
Assyriologists, archaeologists and anthropologists are not the only people concerned with what may be lost in the Middle East as a result of the present terror. A punk rock drummer happens to be quite concerned as well. Jason Hamacher, formerly of the band Frodus, began traveling to Aleppo, Syria, in 2006 to photograph and document Syrian Orthodox monks singing a chant which has been their heritage for 1,800 years—and which has never been written down or recorded. It’s been passed down orally for as long as Christianity has flourished there. Terry Gross interviewed him about the project on Fresh Air.
With the war taking such a toll, how much longer that tradition will survive is anyone’s guess. As blogger Rod Dreher wrote, the music in Aleppo “has survived since the early Church, but now may die as a living, continuous tradition.”
One of the few priests who knew the entire corpus of this chant may now be gone. On one of his visits, Hamacher stayed with Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yuhanna Ibrahim. He was later kidnapped, along with Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazici, as they were coming back from a humanitarian aid run. That was in April 2013. Neither bishop has been heard from since.
Bishop Yuhanna’s voice, however, is preserved on one of Hamacher’s recordings.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.