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History in the Crosshairs

News & Features | April 27, 2015

ISIS has a new target of destruction: history itself. After gaining worldwide infamy for kidnappings, beheadings, and bombings, ISIS members have recently bulldozed and jackhammered several ancient pre-Islamic sites in Iraq that date as far back as the 8th century BCE. These sites include the Mosque of the Prophet Younis, the ancient city of Nimrud, and the ancient city of Khorsabad. The group also raided the Sufi shrines and tombs in Syria and took sledgehammers to objects and freestanding statues situated in the Mosul Museum of Iraq. A video uploaded by the group to Twitter and other social media showed the smashing and tearing apart of ancient Near Eastern history at the Mosul Museum.

If these actions continue, the world may only know the culture, art, and people of the ancient Middle East through old photographs of monuments or other secondary means. It is an injustice that the only objects that may survive ISIS’s sweep of Iraq and Syria are those objects safeguarded in museums abroad, estranged and displaced from their original homes. ISIS’s violence against the past threatens not only scholarship in the field of pre-Islamic art and architecture, but also human knowledge and memory of the traditions and values of peoples long gone. No group should possess the power to dictate what future generations may know about world history.

Targeted sites contain some of the few, precious remains of pre-Islamic cultures. The Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Khorsabad contained statues and the remains of architecture distinct to that culture. A notable loss was that of four lamassu, winged stone creatures that guarded the gates to the city. Nimrud was the capital of the Assyrian empire, established over 3,000 years ago. The Sufi Shrines and Tombs are, as suggested by their name, associated with the Sufi sect of Islam, a sect that ISIS does not recognize as legitimate and deems blasphemous. The Mosul Museum held a vast collection of ancient Assyrian artifacts, many previously gathered by archaeologists at Nimrud, until ISIS invaded the space and shattered the objects. Five life-sized statues of Hatra kings—kings of the ancient city, Hatra, in Iraq—were jackhammered at the museum. These were the first of this family of statues to be destroyed, and only 22 of these statues now remain. Finally, ISIS has threatened, via video message, to destroy the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire that was inhabited by Babylonians, Persians, Chaldeans, and other peoples throughout history.

This tendency of powerful terrorist groups to destroy art during times of war can be traced through history. “Nazi Plunder” refers to the organized theft of art from occupied European nations—in 1939, one member of the SS burned 1,004 paintings and sculptures and 3,825 drawings and prints deemed unsellable by the Nazis. In 2003, during the Iraq War, The Mosul Museum lost over 8,000 objects when armed mobs looted and pillaged the space.

The destruction of past or present regimes’ ancient material culture seems to represent a triumph for some groups in power. Objects and monuments reveal a great deal about a given culture’s interactions with other cultures, religious ideas, favored modes of dress, and much more. Erasing evidence of another culture’s existence is a quick, violent, and irreversible method of politically silencing or even obliterating others. Nazis burned art publically and ISIS shares videos of destroying relics of bygone civilizations: these demonstrations become immediately visible to the public eye, and the world watches as knowledge crumbles into irretrievable pieces.

Members of ISIS belong to the Sunni sect of Islam, and destruction has been predominantly perpetrated upon holy sites of the Shia sect. However, several Sunni mosques at Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian city situated in Iraq, have also been leveled to the ground. These incongruities seem to represent ISIS’s disregard and disrespect for all past visual expressions, even those in line with the group’s beliefs. Perhaps through these performances of unchecked brute power, ISIS means to communicate its ability to wipe out any remnant of the past. Maybe the ideologies behind the art ISIS destroys doesn’t matter, but instead the group solely seeks to demonstrate to the world how it can destroy identity, past or present.

Along with the footage that ISIS released of members throwing and vigorously hammering away at not only priceless but also vulnerable items of the pre-Islamic past, a faceless voice stated, “The remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshipped instead of Allah… Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols and remains, it is easy for us to obey.”

In response to this statement and these destructive actions, Peter Welby of Newsweek wrote that it’s easy for viewers worldwide to reduce ISIS to a “death cult,” but that this oversimplification is dangerous because it fails to acknowledge the ideologies and justifications behind the group’s violence. (s) We must understand from where their “violent literalism in their understanding scripture,” as Welby posed it, comes, or else erroneously reduce these events to mindless acts of terrorism. ISIS’s actions are intentional and indelible acts motivated by religious fanaticism and extremism.

Without such an understanding, world leaders, art historians, and museum curators run the risk of getting lost in their own anger and outrage. People watch what they rightly perceive as crimes against humanity. These artifacts belong to no one and every one; they belong to world heritage. After the bulldozing of Nimrud, the Iraq Ministry of Tourism released a statement condemning the group: “ISIS continues to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity.” In addition, the director of UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, Irina Bokova described the recent destruction as crimes of war. Such visceral responses are natural, expected, and just.

From this widespread outrage, a debate about the repatriation of objects to Syria and Iraq has emerged in the art worlds of the United States and European nations. Directors, curators, and trustees from museums including the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, and the British Museum in London, to name a few, have spoken publically about their hesitation to return objects to these zones of conflict. (s) President of the J. Paul Getty Trust, James Cuno, said, “I think that we have a stake in the world culture, everyone does, and that stake is to preserve it for the future.” Others, including Tess Davis, a lawyer and consultant of the Antiquities Coalition, an organization that favors repatriation, stated that the objects now under threat have been under threat for their entire lifetimes and have seen all kinds of regimes fall and rise. Another proponent of repatriation, professor of anthropology at Queens College, Alexander A. Bauer, worries that Western retention of Middle Eastern objects parallels the colonialism of the nineteenth century. On the one hand, it seems careless to send important objects back to lands where they may soon be deliberately demolished; on the other, foreign nations should not hold the cultural heritage of others’ hostage indefinitely. It is not the role of the onlooker to decide when Iraq or Syria may have their rightful works of art returned to them. Western curators and museum trustees should not play the roles of righteous protectors of works that ought to be in their original situations—it seems that the Iraqi and Syrian archaeologists, art historians, government leaders ought to be allowed to make the judgment whether objects return home or remain abroad. These objects do indeed belong to world history, but also to the distinct cultural history of the Middle East.

Tufts Associate Professor of Armenian Art and Architecture Christina Maranci believes that these objects belong to world heritage, and that a system of loans and exchanges would be ideal. Maranci, however, stated that there is no question of whether the destruction occurring today will have a negative effect upon global knowledge and understanding of pre-Islamic cultures.

“Whether it’s standing monuments or archaeological sites or objects, if you only know them by old photographs or transcribed inscriptions, you will never completely know them,” she said in an interview with the Tufts Observer. “That loss has repercussions for the field, which has repercussions for the secondary scholarship, which has repercussions for teaching, which has repercussions, ultimately, for the way the public knows a tradition or a period. There’s no way you can get that back.”

It’s easy to sit halfway around the world, so far from the sounds of smashing pottery and stone, and not consider the implications of these crimes against long-gone societies. ISIS could succeed in defining which cultures survive the test of time, which cultures are studied, which cultures are known. The scholarship and study of Middle Eastern and Armenian visual heritage, as Maranci explained, is already minimal—there are too few advocates of this cultural heritage to save these vulnerable monuments and objects on their own. Perhaps this lack of academic attention, in comparison with academic attention given to European art, for example, makes it easier for us to turn a blind eye to this destruction and ignore the ideological motivations behind it.

Ironically, ISIS’s destruction of these monuments and objects is drawing attention to their fragile place in history. Maranci emphasized that global awareness of the delicacy of this history is the key to any kind of progress or change.

“The more these ancient Near Eastern cultures can be understood and celebrated, the better. But, obviously, it doesn’t bring back a statue that’s been destroyed or a site that’s been looted. But it’s something,” Maranci said.

Art tells us, as human beings, about who we used to be and where we come from. Human roots, ancient religions, ideals, values, and regimes lie within sculptures, inscriptions, wall paintings, and the stone blocks of buildings. Art links us to those people who lived thousands of years ago. Without these physical ties, we may become divorced and alienated from our ancient counterparts. ISIS threatens to wipe out all recollection of a time dominated by non-Islamic societies. Only time will tell how completely ISIS annihilates world heritage. But, if the group’s machine-like efficiency is sustained, a child born today may only know the past of the Middle East in the form of a pulverized pile of rock.

Image by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.