Historical artifacts and archeological sites dating back to Mesopotamia and the Roman Empire, spanning the region around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, are being systematically destroyed by ISIS. ISIS considers works of art depicting the human form and other objects to be idolatrous. Therefore, museums and other buildings used for religious purposes are raided with any representational art within being smashed and destroyed. ISIS is also known to raid and loot archeological sites to sell stolen art objects on the black market to fund its operations.
Damage to antiquities has been reported as far back as 2010 when the Syrian conflict began. As ISIS grew in numbers more UNESCO cultural heritage sites were destroyed, and others became threatened. Syria has documented the damage by ISIS to six cultural heritage sites since 2013. Four other sites located in the region have been damaged since 2014. Many of the antiquities that are destroyed are prominently featured in ISIS propaganda videos which document the destruction to enhance the image of ISIS throughout the area. Other valuable works are spirited away to black markets in the region with the money paid by collectors being utilized to fund ISIS operations.
The international community is scrambling to find ways to protect these cultural heritage sites, so the vanishing historical artifacts can be preserved. The historical artifacts and cultural heritage are invaluable to researchers when learning about the localities and their histories throughout the region. As ISIS sets out to erase history in its attempt to stamp out what it sees as idolatry, valuable glimpses to the past are forever lost.
UNESCO considers the intentional destruction of cultural heritage a war crime. However, not much is being done to protect these valuable cultural heritage sites.
Most Americans are unaware of what is happening to valuable works of art in the Middle East at the hands of ISIS. Past actions of ISIS portend what could happen in other parts of the world to valuable works of art and cultural antiquities as other militant groups rise to threaten these valuable items which enable us a glimpse of what our world had been like in the past. As the threat of anti-western militancy gains a foothold up in Europe, sites such as the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican with its vast collection of art and history, and the great museums such as the Louvre, London’s National Gallery or the Acropolis Museum in Greece could come under threat of destruction.
Most news reports documenting the destruction of cultural heritage sites by ISIS originate from 2015 and early 2016, when CBS (relying on an AP report), CNN, National Geographic, and Time covered the topic. A more recent account was published by the Smithsonian in February, 2017.
Alyssa Buffenstein, “A Monumental Loss: Here Are the Most Significant Cultural Heritage Sites That ISIS Has Destroyed to Date,” News.artnet.com, May 30, 2017, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/isis-cultural-heritage-sites-destroyed-950060.
Benjamin Isakhan and Jose Antonio Gonzalez Zarandona, “Erasing History: Why Islamic State is Blowing Up Ancient Artefacts,” The Conversation, June 4, 2017, http://theconversation.com/erasing-history-why-islamic-state-is-blowing-up-ancient-artefacts-78667.
Student Researchers: Randal Williams and Stephanie Rickher (Diablo Valley College)
Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)