Cultural Site Destruction: ISIS’s Legacy

Culture, News Writing

Our collective, cultural history is slipping from our grasp and runs the risk of disappearing permanently, as modern wars bomb what remains of our heritage into pieces.

The Early Iron Age Temple at Tell Ain Dara suffered extensive damage between January 20 and January 22, 2018 due to a Turkish Air Force Strike, a side effect of the ongoing Syrian Civil War. The attacks destroyed the majority of the 3,000-year-old temple, built around 1300 B.C.E., leaving a cultural site of religious significance in shambles.

One of the most extensively excavated structures of its kind in Syria and located in the south of Afrin in Aleppo Governorate, the temple at Ain Dara was an important example of Syro-Hittite religious architecture. Previous to January 2018, it was one of the most well-preserved and intact temples of pre-monotheistic religion and a testament to Ba’al worship in the ancient Ugaritic tradition.

The loss of Ain Dara has been described as a “loss for humanity” by some religious studies researches and scholars in the United States.

“The site is a testament to human creativity, ingenuity, community, determination, and the vibrance and dedication of the religious imagination,” says Dr. Amy Balogh, a professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Denver.

Turkey and allied militias have stated the purpose of the attacks on Ain Dara was to extend Turkey’s buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border, which lies on Turkey’s southeastern border, in order to sever the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) access to the Turkish border northwest of Aleppo City.

“What’s strange about the Ain Dara situation is that…their official statement says that they did it as part of attempts to build a buffer and protect their border, yet the site is in the middle of a large agricultural area and its bombing has no effect whatsoever on a person’s ability to get into Turkey,” says Balogh. “The location of the drop directly in the middle of an archaeological site is unlikely to be a coincidence, but we’ll probably never hear the real story.”

This is not the first time historical sites or cultural artifacts have been destroyed in contemporary religiously-motivated violence, though any act of violence against archaeological sites is bewildering from the ideological standpoint that values the preservation of humanity’s history.

The New York Times has reported that the Islamic State has destroyed “scores of historic sites and monuments as part of a nihilistic campaign to eradicate remnants of cultures it considers anathema to its extremist vision of Islam.” However, the theological framework that underpins ISIS’s iconoclasm is viewed by its adherents as a form of creation, or construction of a new Islamic State, rather than nihilistic obliteration.

The Islamic State (ISIS) controls large portions of Syria, enforces looting and plundering of ancient sites to finance military operations, and targets well-known cultural sites in religiously-motivated attacks.

Heritage destruction of ancient sites in Syria (Palmyra, Mar Elian Monastery, Apamea, Dura-Europos, and Mari) and in Iraq (Hatra, Nineveh, Mosul Museum and Libraries, Nimrud, Khorsabad, Mar Benham Monastery, Mosque of the Prophet Yunus, and Imam Dur Mausoleum) are “much more than mere moments of barbarity, ignorance or propaganda devoid of political or religious justification” writes Benjamin Isakhan in an article titled, “Layers of religious and political iconoclasm under the Islamic State: symbolic sectarianism and pre-monotheistic iconoclasm,” published in the International Journal of Heritage Studies.

The iconoclasm and heritage destruction undertaken by ISIS is “not only very deliberate and carefully staged, but also justified via a series of very specific religious and political ideologies,” notes Isakhan.

According to Balogh, “by far, the most troubling example of ISIS’s destruction of antiquities is the 2015 destruction of Palmyra, a classic example of a Levantine Roman city.”

“When they took over the area, not only did ISIS destroy the site, they also captured its excavator – an 82-year-old man named Khaled Asaad who spent 50 years excavating and restoring Palmyra – executed him at the site, and hung his body from one of the Roman columns,” Balogh notes. “It still makes me nauseous, as it should. And all because in their minds he, as an archaeologist, was particularly guilty of promoting jahiliyya.”

ISIS’s motivation in destroying archaeological sites comes from the idea of jahiliyyah or “age of ignorance.” This traditional term is used to criticize un-Islamic ways of life that characterized pre-Islamic Arabia.

“The idea is that the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammed ushered in a new age of enlightenment and every way of life that came before is now obsolete,” says Balogh.

Fundamentalists today have re-purposed the term to refer to modernity as a ‘new jahiliyyah,’ and use this idea to justify holy war and the destruction of non-Islamic sites, especially pre-Islamic religious sites such as Ain Dara and Palmyra, Balogh adds.

Isakhan discusses the religio-political dimensions of ISIS’s iconoclasm, moving beyond the previous literatures’ focuses – on satellite imagery of archaeological looting, ISIS’s use of media to display dramatic spectacles to a horrified global audience, the ineffective governmental responses, or the targeting of sites as a broader campaign of ethnic cleansing, for instance.

Instead, Isakhan analyzes ISIS’s heritage destruction along two main axes: symbolic sectarianism and pre-monotheistic iconoclasm. Symbolic sectarianism refers to the attacks on sects within Islam, such as Shia and Sufi, that do not adhere to the Salafi and Wahhabi doctrine of the Islamic State. Pre-monotheistic iconoclasm refers to the destruction of sites and artifacts pre-dating monotheism that instead emphasized the polytheistic practices of ancient Mesopotamia or the Greco-Roman world.

“Essentially the more prominent and more ‘pagan,’ the better,” said Balogh in reference to ISIS’s decision-making of site destruction.

Most archaeological sites are not physically protected, at least not to any great extent, and certainly not in the midst of war, adds Balogh. Site destruction often corresponds with ISIS’s domination of a region.

Turkey places great emphasis on cultural heritage protection and preservation, though, according to Michael Danti, an archaeologist at the American Schools of Oriental Research.

ISIS has done considerable damage during a relatively small and short offensive in northwest Syria, but Danti is hopeful more efforts will be made to preserve history.

“We hope that more will be done to protect cultural heritage in this region given its importance to cultural identity, diversity, memory, and expression,” adds Danti in a National Geographic article published in January 2018.

The desire to protect and preserve cultural sites reflects the efforts made by various organizations and initiatives, such as UNESCO, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), Iraq Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiative.

Suzanne E. Bott, a scholar and author, has described the destruction of cultural heritage as war crimes and outlines efforts to assist with the protection and preservation of Iraq and Afghanistan’s historic sites and structures.

“The looting and willful destruction of historic structures and sites within Syria and Iraq by forces of the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or Daesh) have left the world in a state of disbelief and grief,” Bott writes in “Mapping the Heart of Mesopotamia: A Bittersweet Legacy in the Landscape of War.”

Though there are laws against the destruction of archaeological sites, how does one protect against bombs? In these moments of violence, modern audiences can glimpse the intersection of past and present as contemporary religious ideology fights with the ghosts of history.

It is profound that we must fight to preserve artifacts of our collective, cultural history, or that monuments of past ideologies pose threats to modern religious paradigms, notes Balogh.

“Without a blank check, there isn’t much that can be done to protect these archaeological sites, at least not until the area becomes stable again,” says Balogh.

“It will take trained conservationists decades to conserve what remains or restore what has been lost,” she adds.

Even just to bring in conservationists could be tricky, since most people with that training come from the West (particularly Europe) and would need substantial physical and financial security to accomplish such multi-year or even multi-decade projects, Balogh says.

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