ISIL terrorists have destroyed a number of shrines in Iraq and Syria — including Muslim holy sites — to eliminate what they view as heresy.
AFP/Getty Images // The Associated Press VIA social media ISIL terrorists have destroyed a number of shrines in Iraq and Syria — including Muslim holy sites — to eliminate what they view as heresy.
As ISIL terrorists use power drills, bulldozers and explosives to destroy the cultural and architectural heritage of ancient Mesopotamia — Christian, Muslim and pre-Abrahamic from the ancient Assyrian capital Nimrud to the tomb of the Biblical Jonah in Mosul — western curators hoping to preserve what is left are caught in a dilemma.
Some want to buy artifacts to protect and preserve them, such as James Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, the world’s wealthiest art institution, who has described the vandalism as “an argument for why portable works of art should be distributed throughout the world and not concentrated in one place.”
But others are loudly calling for an effective ban on trade in Assyrian antiquities and other relics from the war zone. They say the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is not simply eradicating the idolatry it denounces as heretical, but in fact is hypocritically selling what it can on a black market, and destroying everything else. In this view, buying artifacts to preserve them in Western galleries is tantamount to funding terrorism.
“If you’re doing that now with Assyrian artifacts, you’re paying (ISIL),” said Clemens Reichel, associate curator of near Eastern archaeology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, in a lecture this week that labelled the campaign of destruction “cultural genocide.” It was attended by many ethnic Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs, including one young man who, with tears in his eyes, asked in vain for current information on the mosque his grandfather built in the 1970s, and is buried in, which is now being used as an ISIL command post.
The targets of the vandalism include Shia shrines, a Christian monastery, and any relic that ISIL considers idolatrous, including prehistoric statues. Most destroyed sites are Islamic, which Reichel said is “one of the great perversities or paradoxes.”
In Syria, a large majority of artifacts from 34 museums have been secured, Reichel said. But it is open season on the ISIL-controlled Iraqi parts of ancient Mesopotamia, famous as the cradle of civilization, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The archeological heritage here traces back through the Muslim cultures of recent history to early Christians and the ancient polytheistic civilizations of Assyria.
The situation is so dire that western archeologists are even reluctant to express publicly concern for remaining sites for fear ISIL will take notice and destroy them too.
“They literally follow us on Twitter,” Reichel said.
Tombs are a particular target, such as the tomb of Seth, and the famous Tomb of the Girl in Mosul, dedicated to a girl who is said to have died of a broken heart. It was bulldozed last year. Even the tomb of Saddam Hussein, the dictator who was ousted by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and then hung by the country he once ruled, was destroyed last month in his birthplace Tikrit.
The campaign began in earnest with the fall of Mosul last summer, but recent weeks have seen the desecration ramp up dramatically. In February, the Mosul Museum was raided, and images broadcast of men destroying reliefs and statuary from Nineveh and Nimrud, capitals of ancient Assyria, and statues of kings and gods from Hatra dating to 300 B.C.
In March, the archeological sites themselves were targeted. In a video this week, ISIL men are seen destroying artifacts at Nimrud before a massive explosion destroyed the site entirely, more than three millennia after it was first established.
“This destruction, occurring at an unprecedented scale, represents an irreparable loss of cultural heritage — not only for Iraq but for all humanity,” the ROM said in a statement.
News reports have claimed some destroyed artifacts from museums were “fakes,” but Reichel pointed out they are in fact restored originals that can be seen in videos breaking along the seams of repaired cracks.
“What I find amazing is the level of documentation these videos contain,” Reichel said. “The level of video documentation is almost commendable at times.”
He called for prosecution of “cultural genocide” as a war crime. Genocide is a controversial term, and debates rage about its proper application everywhere from Turkey to Cambodia to Canada, but it is focused on human deaths. Reichel said destruction of culture “serves the same purpose.” In ISIL’s case, that purpose is to create a “tabula rasa,” Latin for blank slate, in which to establish its caliphate. He denied he was valuing archeology over human life. “We’re connecting it with the human tragedy,” he said.
Reichel dedicated his lecture to Donny George Youkhanna, the leading Iraqi archeologist who was instrumental in protecting and recovering artifacts from the Iraqi museum after it was looted following the U.S. invasion in 2003. Exiled for his own safety in 2006, he died of a heart attack in Toronto’s Pearson airport in 2011.
Despite all this, Reichel said he retains a certain optimism that the present will not entirely destroy the past. “This is not going to undo the understanding of ancient Assyria,” he said.