ISIL lays waste to mankind’s heritage

ISIL's destruction of priceless world heritage sites are an assault on shared cultural memory

(File photo) Satellite images show, at left, the temple site in tact and, at right, the main structure of the temple as well as colonnades on the perimeter obliterated
(File photo) Satellite images show, at left, the temple site in tact and, at right, the main structure of the temple as well as colonnades on the perimeter obliterated

When Islamic State (ISIL) militants took over the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, some 400 civilians, including women and children, were killed within the first couple of weeks.

Notably, 25 soldiers were reportedly executed by child executioners against the backdrop of a Roman-era amphitheatre in the city.

Events like this are a reminder of how vast the human cost of the crisis in the Middle East is, as the Islamic extremists strive to achieve a ‘caliphate’ all over the region, using a slick PR campaign and establishing its Year Zero dominion by also targeting the ancient city and its world heritage, killing the cultural richness of the Venice of the sands.

“Palmyra is one of the most extensive and, up to a short time ago, well-preserved sites of the ancient Near East,” Anthony Frendo, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Malta told MaltaToday. In the past weeks, ISIL blew up the Temple of Baalshamin, and earlier last week, the famed Temple of Bel. 

“This is simply an outrageous act against those of us who still believe in humanity,” Frendo said.

ISIL says its destruction is intended at obliterating reminders of a polytheistic past, creating the proverbial clean slate, and in an ultimate show of their Jihadist principle, it also beheaded 82-year-old Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-As’ad, a man who dedicated four decades of his life to taking care of the ruins, only to have his body hung in the city for the public to view.

“Archaeology is one of the best means of memorabilia we can ever hope for,” Frendo said, stressing that it is the visible evidence of the cultural memory of various societies across time and space. 

But ISIL’s dramatic footage of its destruction also serves as a way of broadcasting its message widely, and potentially recruit new followers. Apart from that ISIL takes advantage of an international network of looters to trade thousands of archaeological artefacts across Iraq and Syria, to sell them for its own revenue.

Palmyra served as a crossroads for many different cultures, and its ruins are a strong testament to this: an oasis close to a mountainous passage in the heart of the Syrian desert, it was one of the most important stops for Silk Road merchants. 

“It is well known that to destroy the past is to put in danger also the present and the future,” Frendo said.

Indeed, the destruction of heritage sites and important cultural artefacts has been common practice for extremist groups wanting to make their mark throughout history. One of the most notable and perhaps familiar of these events was the reformation in 1640s Britain and the dissolution of the monasteries, which led to the ultimate ruin of many of the abbeys and monasteries housing some of the most important medieval art. An estimated 90% of medieval British art was completely destroyed during this period.

Other examples include the destruction of two giant Buddha sculptures (over 15 centuries old), overlooking the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan, which were blown up by the Taliban in March 2011, as well as the destruction of pagan temples in the Middle East, by early Christians around the fourth century AD. 

“All societies look for evidence of the past to better understand their current period and to hope for a better future on all levels,” Frendo said. 

Palmyra’s destroyed jewels

• The recently destroyed Temple of Baalshamin was dedicated to a Canaanite deity of the same name, and was built back in the 2nd century BC. The structure was eventually used as a church in the 5th century AD, during the advent of Christianity. It was one of the most complete structures of the ancient city.

• The Temple of Bel was described as “Palmyra’s most important site and one of the most important temples in the Middle East,” by Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim. Built in 32 BC, the temple was dedicated to the Mesapotamian god Bel, who was adored along with two other gods.

• Three tower tombs: The Jamblique, Elhbel and Kithot tombs built in AD83, AD103 and AD44 respectively.

Campaign of destruction

•    The Mar Elian Monastery near the town of al-Qaryatain, Syria, a Christian monastery captured in August, was dedicated to a 4th-century saint, and a noted pilgrimage site that was bulldozed to the ground.

•    Dura-Europos, a Greek settlement on the Euphrates not far from Syria’s border with Iraq, was one of ancient Rome’s easternmost outposts and housed the world’s oldest known Christian church, a beautifully decorated synagogue, and many other temples and Roman-era buildings. The site is believed to have been destroyed and looted, possibly generating thousands of dollars for the group.

•    Mari in Syria, flourished in the Bronze Age, between 3000 and 1600 B.C. where palaces, temples, and extensive archives written on clay tablets that shed light on the early days of civilization in the region. Reports suggest that the site, especially the royal palace, is being looted systematically.

•    Hatra (a UNESCO World Heritage site) in Iraq, was built in the third century B.C., as the capital of an independent kingdom on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. It presented a combination of Greek- and Roman-influenced architecture and Eastern features given its prominence as a trading centre on the Silk Road. It was used as an ammunition dump and training camp in 2014. A video released by ISIS in April 2015 showed fighters using sledgehammers and automatic weapons to destroy sculptures in several of the site’s largest buildings. 

•    Nineveh in Iraq, was one of the capitals of the ancient Assyrian empires, between 900 and 600 B.C. Many of the site’s sculptures housed in the Mosul Museum were damaged when ISIS took over Mosul in 2014.

•    The Mosul Museum, Libraries and Universities themselves were also looted and destroyed resulting in the stealing and disappearance of centuries-old manuscripts and books, until the University Library and other libraries were completely blown up.