Radical Islamists take hammer to Syrian artifacts

  • Written by:

By Ilan Ben Zion
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant fighters smash 3,000-year-old Assyrian statue in latest act of cultural genocide

Members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant smash an Assyrian statue. (photo courtesy of APSA/Abou Mouseb)
ighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,  a radical militia that controls a large swath of eastern Syria, confiscated and  destroyed illegally excavated antiquities from an ancient Mesopotamian site.

Get  The Times of Israel’s Daily Edition by email and never miss our top  stories   Free  Sign up!

In an act of cultural genocide strikingly similar to  the Taliban’s demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, the ISIL fighters appear  – in pictures recently uploaded by a group working to protect Syria’s rich  historical heritage — to smash a 3,000-year-old Neo-Assyrian statue  illegally removed from a nearby archaeological site. Another image shows a man  placing his foot — an act of disrespect in Arab culture — on the face of the  Assyrian statue before its destruction.

Last month, the Syrian antiquities authority said in a  statement that it had received notice that artifacts that “appear to be the result of an unauthorized  digging” had been plundered from Tell Ajaja, the ruins of the Assyrian  provincial capital Shadikanni on the Khabur River, a tributary of the Euphrates.

At least one of the items photographed and published  by the Association for the Preservation of Syrian  Archaeology appeared among those recently confiscated by ISIL.

The pictures, taken in Syria’s far eastern  Hasakeh Province, were also said to be of artifacts removed from Tell Ajaja. The  site lies approximately 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of the modern provincial  capital of Hasakeh and 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Iraqi border.

It was not immediately clear from the photographs  whether the statue that was smashed was genuine. A Tel Aviv  Assyriologist who preferred anonymity said that, based on the photos, the  statue appeared to be authentic, “although it could be a copy placed outside the  museum [in Hasakeh],” he added with due caution.

Members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant stand in front of an Assyrian statue before destroying it (photo courtesy of APSA/Abou Mouseb)Members of the Islamic State  of Iraq and the Levant stand in front of an Assyrian statue before destroying it  (photo courtesy of APSA/Abou Mouseb)

A member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant desecrates an Assyrian statue by putting his foot on its face before it's smashed (photo courtesy of APSA/Abou Mouseb)A member of the Islamic State  of Iraq and the Levant desecrates an Assyrian statue by putting his foot on its  face before it’s smashed (photo courtesy of APSA/Abou Mouseb)

Members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant smash an Assyrian statue (photo courtesy of APSA/Abou Mouseb)Members of the Islamic State  of Iraq and the Levant smash an Assyrian statue (photo courtesy of APSA/Abou  Mouseb)

Gaston Maspero, the 19th century French  archaeologist, wrote that in the ninth century BCE the palaces  of Shadikanni “were decorated  with winged bulls, lions, stelae, and bas reliefs carved in marble brought from  the hills of Singar.” Similar artifacts appear to be among those recently  plundered.

The looting and destruction of antiquities from Tell  Ajaja is part of a terrible tragedy that has befallen Syria’s ancient  heritage as the result of the three-year-old civil war ravaging the  country. The New York Times recently reported that illegal excavations  have accelerated and that the country’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites are now  listed as endangered. But Syria, which lies in the Fertile Crescent and  houses remains from over 5,000 years of human civilization, is riddled with  lesser-known archaeological sites — some of which haven’t been excavated because  they were, until  recently, entirely unknown.

The destruction of Assyrian antiquities was not the  first assault against Syrian archaeological treasures committed by ISIL. In  January 2014, the radical Islamist group blew up and destroyed a  sixth-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa, the Independent reported. The pristine Roman-style mosaic  had only been discovered in 2007. Syria analyst Aymenn al-Tamimi, one  of those who tweeted the images of ISIL smashing the idols in Hasakeh, also  shared a photo of the Islamists taking a bulldozer to a statue outside  a Raqqa museum. It’s not certain whether or not the lion statue was  authentic.

 

“You don’t need  an expert to tell you that it is terrible,  because every artifact contributes to our understanding of the past, the more so when it bears an  inscription,” Jack Sasson, professor of classics and Jewish studies at  Vanderbilt University, told The Times of Israel.

ISIL, also known as ISIS or by its Arabic  initials Daash, has taken control of a large portion of Syria,  from the Turkish and Iraqi borders in the east to as far west as the city  of Al Bab in Aleppo province.

A map of the Syrian civil war as of May 2014, with ISIL-controlled areas in black. (photo credit: CC BY-SA Wikimedia Commons)A map of the Syrian civil war  as of May 2014, with ISIL-controlled areas in dark brown. (photo credit: CC  BY-SA Wikimedia Commons)

“ISIS no longer exists in small cells that can be  neutralized by missiles or small groups of commandos.  It is now a real, if  nascent and unrecognized, state actor—more akin in organization and power to the  Taliban of the late 1990s than al-Qaeda,” security analysts Doug Ollivant and  Brian Fishman wrote Wednesday in the online foreign policy magazine War on the Rocks.

ISIS’s increasingly powerful hold over the eastern  half of Syria and the western provinces of Iraq may prove fatal for the  region’s already threatened archaeological remains.

Read more: Radical Islamists take hammer to Syrian artifacts | The Times of Israel http://www.timesofisrael.com/radical-islamists-take-hammer-to-syrian-artifacts/#ixzz32YMU3Z7G Follow us: @timesofisrael on Twitter | timesofisrael on Facebook