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Erasing history: why Islamic State is blowing up ancient artefacts

One of the many tragedies that have unfolded in the wake of the Islamic State (IS) is their smashing of statues and the destruction of ancient archaeological sites. Indeed, the rapid and terrifying advance of the IS has proved fatal for much invaluable heritage.

They toppled priceless statues at the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq. They used sledgehammers and power tools to deface giant winged-bull statues at Nineveh on the outskirts of Mosul. At Nimrud, IS detonated explosives, turning the site into a giant, brown, mushroom cloud. They used assault rifles and pickaxes to destroy invaluable carvings at Hatra; and at Palmyra in Syria they blew up the 2,000-year-old temples dedicated to the pagan gods Baal Shamin and Bel.

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It’s difficult to interpret the unprecedented scale of this heritage destruction. The global media and politicians have tended to frame these events as random casualties of wanton terror or as moments of unrestrained barbarism.

UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director General Irina Bokova, for instance, reacted to the destruction of Nimrud by arguing that such attacks were underpinned by “propaganda and hatred”. There is, she said, “absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage”.

However, in an article published recently in the International Journal of Heritage Studies, we argue that the acts of heritage destruction undertaken by IS are much more than mere moments of propaganda devoid of political or religious justification.

We analysed two key IS media outlets: Dabiq, their glossy periodical online magazine, which is part manifesto, part call to arms, and part grisly newsletter; and the various slick propaganda films released by Al-Hayat.

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We found that the heritage destruction wrought by IS was not only very deliberate and carefully staged, but underpinned by three specific and clearly articulated frameworks.

Theological

Firstly, the IS have gone to great theological (if selective) lengths to justify their iconoclasm. For example, an Al-Hayat film documenting the destruction at the Mosul Museum and Nineveh starts:

Oh Muslims, the remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshipped instead of Allah. The Assyrians, Akkadians, and others took for themselves gods of rain, of agriculture, and of war, and worshipped them along with Allah, and tried to appease them with all kinds of sacrifices… Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey, and we do not care [what people think], even if they are worth billions of dollars.

The destruction at Palmyra features in a double-page spread with 14 colour photographs in Dabiq. In the French edition, Dar-al-Islam, the text states:

Baal is a false divinity for which people sacrificed their children as indicated in the book of Jeremiah (Old Testament). But by the Grace of Allah, soldiers of the Caliphate destroyed it.

Historical

Secondly, the IS make frequent reference to key historical figures to justify their iconoclasm. These include the Prophet Abraham’s destruction of idols and the Prophet Muhammad’s iconoclasm at the Ka’ba, the centrepiece of Mecca’s mosque.

In an Al-Hayat film documenting the destruction at the Mosul Museum and Nineveh, one militant states:

The Prophet Muhammad shattered the idols with his own honourable hands when he conquered Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues. This is what his companions did later on, when they conquered lands.

Similar homage is also paid throughout the magazine Dabiq to other, more contemporary, moments of iconoclasm perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists. These include the destruction of untold numbers of heritage sites by the Wahhabi sect across the Arabian peninsula from the mid-18th century; the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001; and the destruction of the al-‘Askari mosque by al-Qa’eda in Iraq in 2006.

Political

Finally, and often overlooked, the IS have used political reasoning to justify the destruction. One Dabiq article states:

The kuffār [unbelievers] had unearthed these statues and ruins in recent generations and attempted to portray them as part of a cultural heritage and identity that the Muslims of Iraq should embrace and be proud of. Yet this opposes the guidance of Allah and His Messenger and only serves a nationalist agenda.

We can see two dimensions of the IS’s political iconoclasm here. First, it is an attack on “the kuffār”. These are presumably Westerners who, as part of the colonial period, drew the modern borders and created the contemporary states of the Middle East. They also excavated Mesopotamian archaeological sites and placed relics in public museums to be admired.

Second, the attacks on sites inscribed on UNESCOs World Heritage List (such as Hatra and Palmyra) are also an attack on the values such institutions promote: secular, liberal, humanist values that promote a recognition of the shared heritage of human civilization. This is in stark contrast to the IS who seek to create religious, historical and political homogeneity under the rule of a strict caliphate.

In March 2015 UNESCO’s Bokova issued a statement referring to the destruction of heritage sites at the hands of the IS as a “war crime”.

Al-Hayat video filmed at the ancient city of Hatra. The film shows militants using sledgehammers and assault rifles to destroy priceless reliefs engraved into the walls of the fortress city. It also features a bold repost to Bokova:

Some of the infidel organisations say the destruction of these alleged artefacts is a war crime. We will destroy your artefacts and idols anywhere and Islamic State will rule your lands.

Such brash assertions made by IS clearly demonstrate that their heritage destruction cannot be dismissed as being simple propaganda.

Instead, as we have shown, the heritage destruction undertaken by the IS are not only very carefully planned and executed, but also couched within a broader religious, historical and political framework that seeks to justify their violent iconoclasm.

Understanding the complex layers that drive such iconoclasm are a step towards developing better responses to the destruction of our shared cultural heritage.

Written by

Associate Professor of Politics and Policy, Deakin University

Associate Research Fellow, Heritage Destruction Specialist, Deakin University

The Conversation

The Conversation

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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