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The Culture That is at the Mercy of the Islamic State

James Gordon

John Burger - published on 09/07/14

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.

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ArchaeologyIraqIslamist MilitantsSyria
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