Monday, 6 October 2014

The effect of the conflict in Iraq and Syria on cultural heritage

The actions of IS have received a lot of media attention lately, the world watching in horror as hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq and Syria are displaced or killed and their homes destroyed by the extremist Islamic group. In this post, I sum up recent events and address some of the issues relating to the protection of cultural heritage in the context of war.

Who are IS?

They are an extremist group, also known as ISIS or ISIL (which stands for ‘Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’, the last word being the translation of the Arabic for ‘the Levant’ or ‘Syria’), originally an al-Qa’ida group in Iraq (called ‘al-Qa’ida in Iraq’, AQI, or ‘Islamic State in Iraq’, ISI). The group became involved in the Syrian civil war, and split from al-Qa’ida in February 2014 (1) over differences in ideology and strategy (2). IS, which follows hard-line Sunni Islamic teachings, aims to found a conservative Islamic state: a caliphate, ruled by a supposed descendent of the prophet Mohammad, the Iraqi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In June 2014, IS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city; IS’s wealth was estimated to have risen to $2 billion with this capture, which included banks and military supplies (3).

What damage has been caused?

Hundreds of thousands of people have had to flee their homes; thousands have been killed or injured, tortured or raped. In addition to the loss of life and cost to human welfare, the cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq has suffered irreparably. In some cases, this has been collateral damage, but in others, the destruction of cultural heritage was the specific aim of attacks.

Christopher Jones, author of the blog ‘Gates of Nineveh’, explains that ‘theologically, the interpretation of Islam followed by ISIS bans depictions of human beings [as] idolatry’ (4). Non-Sunni objects and sites of worship, and depictions of humans or deities are therefore at risk of destruction from IS. Christian churches have been destroyed, including a church in Maalula which claimed to be the oldest Christian church in the world, predating the 325 a.d. Council of Nicaea (4i). Sites that are considered religious by the Shia branch of Islam, which IS opposes, are also being targeted. The shrine containing the tomb of Jonah in Mosul, which had sections dated to the medieval period and had been built on top of remains of a Christian church, itself built on top of an Assyrian temple and palace, has been razed. Even some Sunni religious buildings have been targeted, where Sunnis were worshipping the tombs of Islamic holy men, a practice regarded as idolatrous by IS (5)

[The shrine containing the tomb of Jonah, before and after. Image from:]

But theology is not their only motive for destruction: the 8th century B.C. Arslan Tash lion in Raqqa, shattered into pieces, was not a religious statue. The medieval market of Al-Madina in Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been burnt down; the Museum of Mosul was also attacked by IS (6). The destruction is therefore also politically and ideologically motivated, representing a desire to erase the history and culture of their opponents, and to demonstrate supremacy over them by destroying their livelihood. IS have published images and videos of about 50% of the sites they have destroyed, on websites and social media (4)

[The Raqqa lion being destroyed by IS. Images from: http//]

Looting of archaeological sites has also been rife: Apamea in western Syria, once ‘one of the largest and best-preserved Roman and Byzantine sites in the world’ and boasting mosaics and a colonnaded street, has been looted so dramatically that aerial images of the site resemble photos of the surface of the moon (7).


[Aerial photos of Apamea in July 2011 and in April 2012. Images from]

Likewise, the Roman-era site at Dura-Europos has suffered irreparable damage by looting. Dura-Europos previously ‘stood out for its remarkable preservation’ and was a symbol ‘of the country's diverse, tolerant past’, where Christians, Jews and Romans had lived side by side (7b); now it has been destroyed as a result of the actions of an extremist group.

Damage to cultural heritage is a common occurrence in times of conflict, and one need only look back to the U.S. invasion of Iraq for a recent example of such damage: in 2003 the Baghdad Museum was looted, and a military base was built on the ancient archaeological site of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, archaeological fragments serving to fill sandbags (8). However, the damage taking place now is the most ‘sustained, extensive and methodical’ yet seen in the region.

What other sites are at risk?

The Kurdish capital, Erbil, which was previously thought so safe that US embassy personnel were moved there from Baghdad (9) and which has served as ‘an enclave for persecuted religious and ethnic groups’(10), is expected to be the next target of IS (11). Erbil also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited sites, having first been settled about 8,000 years ago (10, 12). Archaeological excavations of the site are difficult due to its continuing habitation, but had started last year. If the site is destroyed by IS, the loss of knowledge would be disastrous. 

[The ancient citadel of Erbil. Image from:]

Thousands of known archaeological sites (to say nothing of archaeological sites that have not been discovered and recorded by archaeologists) currently lie within the area that has been taken over by IS (10i, 10ii). Among these sites are Nineveh, Kalhu, Dur Sharrukin and Ashur, which each once served as the capital of the Assyrian empire. Already, relief sculptures from the 9th century palace of king Ashurnasirpal at Kalhu (ancient name ‘Nimrud’) are reported to have been cut with chainsaws to be exported and sold (10ii).

Why should we care about the damage to cultural heritage when people are being killed?

Firstly, because the two crimes are linked.

IS is killing its opponents and destroying sites which conflict with its interpretation of Islam (13). IS is effectively attempting a genocide of the Shia branch of Islam, and to eradicate any trace of other faiths from Iraq and Syria: non-Sunni inhabitants of Iraq and Syria have been and are being treated with horrifying violence.

Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer who coined the term ‘genocide’, argued that it involves the ‘destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves’ (14). These ‘essential foundations’ include cultural sites, objects, and practices. The ‘destruction of human communities is incomplete without cultural violence’ (15). Without their cultural heritage, which represents their history, ‘social groups are atomised into disaffected, soulless individuals’ (15) without a connection to their past (16).

The genocide of Turkish Armenians is a recent example of the murder and deportation of an ethnic group and the destruction of its cultural heritage, in this instance at the hands of the Turkish government (note that IS have also destroyed an Armenian genocide memorial in Syria, 17).

By erasing ‘entire chapters of the country’s past’, IS can hope to ‘radically reshap[e] its future’ (16). The destruction of the cultural heritage of non-Sunni groups therefore goes hand in hand with the violence directed against people. The cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria ‘is not a casualty of war, but a direct target of the ongoing attacks’ by IS (18).

Secondly, because the sale of looted artefacts is funding IS.

Earlier this month, UNESCO confirmed that profits from artefacts looted from Syrian and Iraqi archaeological sites are serving to fund IS (6). ‘The most prized commodities on the black market include Roman mosaics, Palmyrene statues, ancient jewelry, medieval manuscripts and prehistoric religious artifacts, which are slowly making their way into private collections across the Middle East, Europe and North America’ (17).

Aerial images of ‘pockmarked’ archaeological sites demonstrate the occurrence of ‘organised, almost industrial-scale looting’: IS has been ‘allowing and indeed profiting directly from the looting and sale of antiquities’ (13). Though the income from this may not be as great as that from seizures of banks or sales of oil, it still amounts to millions of dollars per year.

The International Council of Museums has published a Red List of the sorts of artefacts that might be illegally exported from Syria and Iraq (20), in order to inform border control officers and anyone buying archaeological artefacts. Any objects in those categories that appear on the market without a provenance must be presumed looted: an archaeological artefact from a legal excavation would have accompanying paperwork stating its findspot and its export documentation.

The difficulty is the Roman artefacts being looted from Syrian and Iraqi sites such as Dura-Europos cannot easily be distinguished from Roman artefacts from anywhere else in the Roman Empire, and it is therefore possible to export them illegally without detection, especially by producing fake documentation regarding their origins (20i).

The link between the sale of looted artefacts and crimes against humanity provides an imperative for the study of the illicit trade in antiquities and the prosecution of those who engage in it (21).

Thirdly, because the destruction of cultural heritage represents an irreparable loss of knowledge for the whole world.

The area in which the conflict is taking place is referred to as the ‘cradle of civilisation’, where archaeologists have found the earliest evidence for features that continue to be vital aspects of modern life around the world: the domestication of plants and animals, the development of writing, and the building of cities.

The Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, Palmyrenes, Sassanians, Umayyads, Ottomans and others all left traces of their culture in Iraq and/or Syria.

And there is so much still to discover about these cultures: many sites have only been surveyed, not excavated, and many remain to be discovered; moreover, the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria ‘varies from region to region, period to period’ (10ii). Each hole in the ground dug by a looter represents irreparable loss of knowledge, whose significance can never be assessed.

After the shrine of Jonah was razed, looters are thought to have dug into the archaeological remains lying under it, which archaeologists had not been able to excavate and document due to the religious structure built on top (7c). Now they never will.

Fourthly, because the destruction of cultural heritage will have a lasting effect on the rebuilding of Syria and Iraq after the conflict.

Just today (4th October), the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, emphasized the role of culture: ‘cultural vitality is synonymous with innovation and diversity. Culture creates jobs, generates revenues and stimulates creativity. It is a multifaceted vector of values and identity. Moreover, culture is a lever that promotes social inclusion and dialogue’ (22).

The loss of cultural heritage will be a lasting legacy of IS actions in Syria and Iraq.

Cultural heritage, and in particular the archaeological record, is ‘one of the few glues that hold [together] multi-ethnic societies’: in a post-conflict context, the conservation of archaeological sites and research into the past of the land will serve to unite the people (23).

Moreover, cultural heritage sites are an ‘economic asset’, and cultural tourism was a vital part of the economy of Syria and Iraq before the conflict (23i). Once the conflict is over (and based on the assumption that IS will be defeated), Iraq and Syria will want to rebuild their economy by encouraging tourists to visit its many beautiful and ancient secular and religious sites.

Even once peace and stability return, it will take a long time before tourists feel that it is safe to visit Syria and Iraq. As a result, those who rely on tourism, such as tour guides and restaurant owners, will continue to suffer from lowered incomes, and therefore looting is likely to carry on even once conflict has ended. Action needs to be taken to ensure that people are able to feed their families without destroying their cultural heritage. Several projects (23ii) are already under way: teaching women to knit, sew and weave so that they can produce and sell items such as clothing, carpets and blankets; educating women and training them to become teachers; and more.

In the words of World Monuments Fund President Bonnie Burnham: ‘People in places under siege care no less about their heritage than we do as we watch with concern from the outside. But conflict brings destruction, often on a massive scale, and people caught in these circumstances are both immediately affected and powerless to intervene’ (23iii)

Archaeological sites and buildings of cultural significance must be protected in order to rebuild the economies of Syria and Iraq. ‘Saving Syria’s heritage is not just a nod to the past. It is about building the country’s future’ (23iv)

How is Iraqi and Syrian cultural heritage currently being protected?

Firstly, legal frameworks are in place.

The cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq is protected by national and international laws, including the Hague Convention of 1954 (amended in 1999) and the UNESCO Convention of 1970 (20).

The Hague Convention ‘provides protection for cultural heritage in international law, prohibiting looting, theft, [and] vandalism’ of cultural heritage (24) both movable and immovable and calling on parties to undertake, “if necessary”, to “put a stop to” such acts and to refrain from using cultural property “for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage” during armed conflict and ‘from directing any act of hostility against such property’ (25). The Hague Convention prohibits the export of cultural property from occupied territories (24).

The art lawyer Patty Gerstenblith notes that the usefulness of the Hague Convention is limited by the fact that a waiver of these obligations is available where “military necessity imperatively requires such a waiver” (25). Nonetheless, the Hague Convention has already proved useful: in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars, Serb leaders were convicted by the International Criminal Court for targeting cultural monuments as part of their ethnic cleansing (25). The Hague Convention is considered customary international law and “will therefore bind not just states but non-state actors such as rebel factions or secessionist groups,” according to legal expert Zoe Howe (25i). IS can therefore be brought to justice.

However, the Hague Convention is not ratified by the United Kingdom, which is the most significant international power that has not yet signed it (the US having signed the accord in 2009). This failure has recently been decried, and it is hoped that the UK will ratify the convention soon (26).

The 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property states that “the export and transfer of ownership of cultural property under compulsion arising directly or indirectly from the occupation of a country by a foreign power shall be regarded as illicit”. Its 127 state parties, which include the United States, United Kingdom, France, Switzerland and Germany, ‘undertake, at the request of the State Party of origin, to take appropriate steps to recover and return any such imported cultural property. However, ‘this important provision covers only stolen inventoried objects (objects issuing from an illicit excavation or stolen from a private home are excluded)’ (26i).

Objects from illicit excavations are protected under the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, which specifies that ‘illegally excavated objects are considered to be stolen (and thus fall under the body of law dealing with stolen objects)’ (26ii). However, the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention has not been ratified by Syria and Iraq, leaving their archaeological sites at risk and jeopardizing the nations’ ability to recover archaeological artefacts from abroad after the conflict.

Secondly, archaeologists and others are doing what they can to help.

Foreign archaeologists, though unable to work on the ground (27), are documenting damage to cultural heritage sites from abroad using satellite images and have set up a website where damage to cultural heritage sites can be reported anonymously (28). Keeping track of the damage gives hope that ‘artefacts that are lost or damaged may someday be found again or repaired and restored’ (4), will enable conservation work to start promptly when it is safe to do so and will help settle any legal issues that are likely to arise in the future (13).

In addition, organizations including the University of Pennsylvania's Cultural Heritage Center, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and Heritage for Peace, a network of volunteers and activists based in Spain, have been holding workshops [in Turkey] to train Syrian archaeologists, curators, and activists in first aid for objects and sites (27i).

Mosaics can be protected by hiding them under plastic sheets that are then covered in sand and then with concrete. During the Lebanese civil war (1975-1991), employees of the Beirut National Museum protected a Roman sarcophagus in its central hall by building a concrete box around it (27ii). In Aleppo, work is taking place to protect the city’s Umayyad mosque: ‘locals have dismantled and moved the 12th-century mihrab to safety; dragged stones from the fallen minaret to a safe site, so that it may one day be reconstructed; bricked up the shrine to Zachariah; and sandbagged, cemented and bricked up the 14th-century sundial’ (27iii).

Such work is hugely dangerous: “We're talking about how you secure objects and collections when things are falling apart around you. It's kind of a grim business” (27iv).

Further steps

In August this year, the UK adopted a resolution prohibiting the import of artefacts from Syria (29). This is a laudable act, and one which must be imitated throughout the world.

In 2003, the Museum of Baghdad was looted. In the aftermath, unprovenienced Mesopotamian antiquities of precisely the type that was kept in the Museum of Baghdad began to appear on the antiquities market, including at reputable auction houses. The UN subsequently banned the trade in unprovenienced Iraqi artefacts.

Doing the same for Syrian artefacts would make it harder to sell stolen artefacts, put an end to IS sales of artefacts for cash and weapons, and may protect archaeological sites from looting. You can sign a petition for UN to ban the trade in Syrian antiquities here:

Human lives are the priority in this conflict, but the cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq must also be protected.


7b. Simon James of the University of Leicester.
14. R. Lemkin, 1944. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.
18. C. Sahner in
19. A. Bowman. ‘Transnational Crimes Against Culture: Looting at Archaeological Sites and the ''Grey'' Market in Antiquities Blythe’, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, published online 7 May 2008.
23i. John Russell, a State Department consultant
23ii. e.g. and
25. P. Gerstenblith, 2009. ‘Archaeology in the Context of War: Legal Frameworks for Protecting Cultural Heritage during Armed Conflict’. Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress.
27i. Emma Cunliffe,
27iv. Brian Daniels, University of Pennsylvania.
29. and

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