ISIS and the Decimation of a Culture

In the foreword to Catastrophe: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq's Past, Gil J. Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, writes that "when we think of the awful consequences of war, the deaths of the soldiers and civilians always remind us that futures have been destroyed[.]  But war in the third millennium AD has brought us an entirely new and different horror – the destruction of an entire past."

In 2003, the world's attention was focused on the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad.  The 15,000 stolen artifacts had, for the most part, been "scientifically excavated and carefully recorded and identified by trained professional archaeologists and museum staff."  Thus, there existed the scientific knowledge of their archaeological context, or a means to reconstruct "how an ancient civilization developed and functioned." 

Archaeological context refers to the "immediate material surrounding an artifact such as gravel, clay, or sand; its provenience or horizontal and vertical position within the material; and its association with other artifacts."  But once an artifact is ripped from the ground by looters and/or terrorists, context and association with other artifacts is irretrievably lost.  In essence, the wholesale destruction of the artifacts being stolen or totally demolished results in a "creeping annihilation of an entire culture."

As a result of the looting of the Iraqi National Museum, a web-accessible database was established to document the destruction and theft of the artifacts.  The database is accessible here.  Though "as many as 5,000 objects were reported to have been recovered[,]" other pieces will "remain difficult if not impossible to recover."

Fast-forward to ISIS, that "JV" organization that Obama so nonchalantly dismissed.  How is it being financed?  What does an Islamic caliphate have to do with the wholesale destruction of historical and cultural artifacts?  And are we seeing an instant replay of Nazi looting of museums less than a hundred years later vis-à-vis Islamic jihadists?

According to the Guardian, in June 2014, the seizure of 160 computer flash sticks that "included names and noms de guerre of all foreign fighters, senior leaders and their code words, initials of sources inside ministries and full accounts of the group's finances" was a key discovery into the workings of ISIS."  Amazingly, in a mere three days, "ISIS [had] seized control of Mosul and Tikrit."  Before Mosul, ISIS cash and assets were $875M.  After ISIS robbed banks and looted military supplies, total cash and assets rose to $1.5B.

ISIS's massive cash flow comes from the "oilfields of eastern Syria which it had captured in 2012, the smuggling of raw materials pillaged from the crumbling state, as well as priceless antiquities from archaeological digs."

In essence, "Syria's Cultural Artifacts are Blood Diamonds for ISIS."  In fact, "looted antiquities from museums and archaeological sites are being traded much like blood diamonds, providing ISIS with millions of dollars in funding to train and arm its fighters, supplementing its even greater income from selling oil and robbing banks." 

Consequently, the wholesale destruction of Syria's cultural heritage is not merely a casualty of war, but a deliberate target by ISIS in an attempt to shore up finances.

But where do these antiquities go?  Apparently "Roman mosaics, Palmyrene statues, ancient jewelry, medieval manuscripts, and prehistoric religious artifacts are among the stolen treasures that have been trading on the Syrian black market, finding their way into the homes of private collectors in the Middle East, Europe, and North America."  One is hard-pressed not to find sickening similarities to the Nazi looting of antiquities – many of whose whereabouts, to this day, remain unknown. 

Be it Nazi fascism or Islamic jihadism, the monomania to destroy cultures and to eradicate the past is part of their destructive impulses.  The deliberate spoliation is also "fueled by sectarian religious hatred"; hence, by "destroying shrines, tombs, churches, and mosques, ISIS is escalating the historic divisions" among various groups.  But while the plundering of antiquities is not unusual in conflict zones, there is this added component.  In essence, this war on Syria's cultural heritage is being done "in order to stoke sectarian hatred" between the Sunni Islamists known as  Wahhabists and the Shiites.  Wahhabis view the practice of visiting sacred tombs as idolatry and take it "upon themselves to destroy tombs whenever possible."

ISIS sees wealth and opportunity in Christian churches as well.  Before turning them into torture chambers for brutalizing people, ISIS loots the churches of artifacts to sell on the black market.  Entire murals have been ripped from the churches.  Since ISIS militants consider certain groups "infidels without human rights," they see their actions as completely compatible with their belief system.  Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice asserts that "ISIS is composed of religiously motivated psychopaths."

Having claimed nearly 200,000 lives over the past three years, ISIS is not about to stop its carnage.  Christian C. Sahner notes that "ISIS derives a steady income from stolen antiquities, especially the taxes it imposes on looters and smugglers operating inside its territory."  The money from the stolen antiquities goes "to pay for bullets, terrorist training and other war-related expenses."  ISIS now "controls hundreds of square miles of territory stretching from Syria's Mediterranean Coast to areas south of Baghdad.  This land is rich with archaeological sites and countless relics, some dating back 8,000 years."

Tell Brak, one of the world's first cities, was discovered by the British archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1937.  Sadly, the famous "eye idol" figurines, believed to be over 5,000 years old, have now "been added to the International Council of Museums Emergency Red List of Syrian cultural objects that are in danger of being damaged, looted and illicitly trafficked, along with reliefs from  Palmyra, a bronze lamp from the Damascus region and gold jewelry from Alepppo." 

In November 2014, the head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, spoke out against the "barbaric" destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage, saying that the Islamic State (ISIS) are "seeking to 'delete' entire civilisations [sic] and comparing them to the Nazis."  Abdulamir al-Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist, asserts that "ISIS is destructive on an unprecedented scale, because it is not just destroying human lives today.  [It is] the destruction of humankind back to the beginning of humankind."

Denis MacEoin writes that "[p]hysical destruction in the Islamic realms has now reached proportions of the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century."  At this Gatestone Institute article, MacEoin documents how "[i]n the tenth century, Islam abandoned reason and rational pursuits in favor of revelation and revealed law that could not be challenged."  And "Islam has remained frozen ever since."  Thus, the fanaticism and madness of the religion of peace have destroyed statues of Arab musicians, poets, and historians; architectural sites of importance to Jews and Christians; and a memorial to the 1.5 million slaughtered in the Armenian genocide in Turkey.  Those liberal Muslims who favor change dare not speak out for fear of being executed.

Reading this list makes one weep at the carnage, wherein "the heritage of centuries has been wiped out in little more than a year" since "eventually the need to wipe out all traces of unbelief becomes more or less obsessive."  Recall that in 2001 the Afghan Taliban, encouraged by al-Qaeda, bombed the towering Buddhas of Bamiyan.  Western leaders wrung their hands but took no substantive action.  A few months later, the jihadists attacked the World Trade Center.

In July 2014, "Iraqi antiquities officials called on the Obama administration to save Nineveh."  The director of the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities beseeched "Americans and Europeans – especially Americans – to understand the gravity of the situation" and "to put pressure on the governments of their countries to intervene militarily."  In an article by Mary Chastain dated January 2015, one learns that "booby traps have been set along the walls of Nineveh," which walls are attributed to King Sennacherib, who rebuilt the city beginning in 704 B.C.

As the West dithers, the "destruction of historical patrimony in Syria is a metaphor for the brutality of the civil war as a whole."  This brutality will not remain in the Middle East, as the intentions of ISIS and all Islamic jihadists to destroy the West have repeatedly been stated.  After all, the infidel and his or her culture, be it Christian, Yazidi, Bahá'í or Jewish, must be totally annihilated as "cultural cleansing" continues.

Eileen can be reached at

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