In the world’s earliest known piece of creative writing, Ancient Sumerian king Gilgamesh famously set out on a quest to seek immortality so he could live forever like the gods of his day. His wish was fulfilled and he lives on today in literary form, thanks to the survival of the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh and other antiquities from his time. His civilization and many other ancient civilizations across present-day Syria and Iraq are today gravely threatened by war.
In late February, extremist group ISIS released a video portraying militants destroying ancient Assyrian artifacts from Mosul Museum – an act compared by many observers to the Taliban’s tragic 2001 destruction of giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan, and described by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova as a “war crime.”
According to Dr. Ahmad Lash, head of archaeological loan at Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, the scariest aspect of the video is that most of the artifacts that were destroyed were obvious replicas. “Mosul Museum is the second largest museum in Iraq, so that means it should be full of archaeological artifacts. We didn’t see anything inside the museum’s halls except the statues [that were destroyed in the video]. So the question is: were the archaeological artifacts gone?” Many priceless artifacts have in fact disappeared into the black market, as people living in war zones who are desperate for money sell anything they can find for “food and fuel.” Nobody is sure if the missing artifacts were sold into the illicit artifacts trade, looted, or transported at an earlier time to a safe location. They remain unaccounted for.
Such may have been the fate of countless artifacts at Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian archeological site outside Mosul that ISIS bulldozed early this month. “That’s the disaster,” says Dr. Lash, who is more concerned about the historical losses at Nimrud than at Mosul Museum – the site was known to contain countless treasures from the Assyrian Empire.
In February the UN Security Council adopted UNSCR 2199, which, amongst other things, condemns smuggling, trafficking, and sale of antiquities in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, according to Dr. Lash, Jordan does its part by protecting its borders from illicit trafficking of antiquities. Jordanian police seize items stolen from Iraq and Syria, and keep them in storage facilities, hoping to return them when conditions eventually become safe in their home countries – a chilling and overlooked aspect of war, which often puts rich histories and cultures on hold when it doesn’t simply wipe them out forever.
Communities in conflict zones are working to preserve local archaeological sites, according to UNESCO. One small village in Syria recently discovered a late Roman mosaic and cooperated with local authorities to transport it to safety in Damascus’ national museum to be restored. Many other communities also work together to guard known archaeological sites from looting. Guarding historical sites, according to Dr. Lash, provides a steady income to communities, discouraging looting of artifacts for easy money.
Additionally, Al Azhar, Egypt’s Islamic institute and a major authority in Sunni Islam, recently released a fatwa forbidding destruction of ancient artifacts in reaction to ISIS’s destruction of Mosul Museum and the Nimrud archaeological site. Such a proclamation carries heavy weight, not only because of the religious institution’s wide influence, but also because of ISIS’s faulty self-identification as Sunni Muslim.
However, the dangerous situation continues. “[Destruction of antiquities] is a dangerous thing for our history and for the next generation. Archaeology is like roots for a tree. For any nation – if they don’t have roots, they will not live,” according to Dr. Lash. “In the future we will speak about Persian civilization because it is protected, and about Hittite – or Turkish – civilization. But the Levant civilizations – they will disappear.”
Many in the region and around the world are left to wonder why ISIS aims to destroy the Middle East’s fascinatingly rich cultural heritage. The extremist group adheres to a strict, purist form of Sunni Islam, denouncing people of other religions and many fellow Muslims as heretics. In ISIS’s video of the Mosul Museum destruction, a militant claims to destroy the statues because they are idols. In Islam, to worship anything other than God is forbidden.
However, the vast majority of the world’s Muslims know that ISIS’s extreme version of Islam goes against the values laid out by their religion. The Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, preaches a clear message of peace and mercy. Indeed, two of the ninety-nine names of God in Islam – the Benevolent and the Merciful – appear at the beginning of every chapter of the Qur’an, a constant reminder of Islam’s peaceful values. Countless verses also praise the value of knowledge and wisdom, values that ISIS violates with its destruction of history.
Jordan’s Dr. Ahmad Lash laments that the “crisis [in Iraq and Syria] will destroy everything: the past and present – and we hope that they will not destroy the future.” Indeed, the Middle East’s rich cultural heritage dwells both within the present, in its diverse array of ethnic groups, and in the past, in its ancient history, which lives through remaining archaeological artifacts and historical knowledge. All of this is threatened by extremism.