Antiquities Lost, Casualties of War
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June Samaras
2014-10-06 01:22:05 UTC
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Antiquities Lost, Casualties of War
In Syria and Iraq, Trying to Protect a Heritage at Risk

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A Heritage at Risk

Yasser Tabbaa, a specialist on Islamic art and architecture, remembers
taking many trips to a 13th-century shrine dedicated to the Imam Awn
al-Din, in Mosul in northern Iraq. The building was one of the few to
survive Mongol invasion, never mind the destructive effects of weather and
time. And this shrine had a stunning vaulted ceiling, like a honeycomb.

“It is a beautiful pyramidal tower at the edge of the Tigris,” said Mr.
Tabbaa, who taught at New York University Abu Dhabi and lives in Ann Arbor,

His heart fell this summer, however, when he saw an online video of the
shrine exploding in a cloud of dust, blown up by the militant group the
Islamic State.

“It is just gone,” he said, his voice trailing off.

Tracking the cultural treasures of Syria and northern Iraq has become a
heartbreaking task for archaeologists and antiquity scholars. And the list
of destroyed, damaged or looted works has only grown longer as the Islamic
State, also known as ISIS, which seeks to create a caliphate, has pushed
into northern Iraq. Sunni extremists like the Islamic State and others are
deliberately wrecking shrines, statues, mosques, tombs and churches —
anything they regard as idolatry.

“This region has been the center of the world for every great empire
recorded in human history,” said Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament
and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. “We are talking
about successive generations of history all in one place, all being
destroyed at once.”

In a speech at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in late September, Secretary
of State John Kerry promised action. “Our heritage is literally in peril in
this moment, and we believe it is imperative that we act now,” he said. “We
do so knowing that our leadership, the leadership of the United States, can
make a difference.”

But over the last three years of war, international groups have come up
against the limits of their power and ability to intervene in a conflict
that has killed tens of thousands. In several cases, the security of many
antiquities has largely been left up to nearby residents, many of whom have
taken huge risks to defend their cultural patrimony. Beyond trying to
confirm the losses, antiquities guardians around the world are asking
themselves this question: Is it better to raise the alarm about what’s in
harm’s way — or keep quiet to avoid the militants’ gaze?

What’s Lost

The question of what has been destroyed has few complete, sure answers,
scholars say. The chaos of war has prevented a full accounting, and the
Islamic State often issues false reports to exaggerate its conquests, while
other groups may do so to draw international sympathy.

But the State Department and officials in the Syrian government are trying
to document the damage. And networks of scholars, from the West, Iraq and
Syria, have studied satellite photographs and kept in touch with museum
curators, archaeologists and others, by unreliable phone lines and email
messages. “I find it so upsetting that I don’t always open these because it
is too much,” said Sheila R. Canby, curator of the department of Islamic
art of the Metropolitan Museum.

The lost or damaged artifacts range from early-20th-century minarets to
millenniums-old treasures. For many experts, the biggest catastrophe is in
Aleppo, an ancient trading terminus and Syria’s largest city. Fire gutted
most of the central souk, a vast and vibrant labyrinth of 17th-century
shops, storehouses and ornate courtyards. It was the city’s commercial
heart, important for understanding how people have lived since medieval

Fighting between Syrian government and anti-government forces damaged the
Great Mosque in Aleppo, one of Syria’s oldest, burning its library
containing thousands of rare religious manuscripts. Its famous minaret,
which had stood for a thousand years, was toppled. Aleppo’s iconic citadel,
one of the world’s oldest castles and an excavation site, built on a
massive outcropping of rock, was also a target. It has been used by
government forces as a base and was hit by rockets. Western experts are
uncertain what has happened to a recently uncovered Bronze Age Neo-Hittite
temple there.

“In Aleppo, you had history in its context, with all of the complexities,”
said Charles E. Jones, a specialist on Middle East antiquities at Penn
State University, and one of several scholars trying to catalog the damage.

Some of the damage could be repaired, he said. Still, “it won’t be the
same,” he said. “Once you have blown down a building, it is blown down.”

Farther south, the war has damaged the Crac des Chevaliers, one of the
world’s largest and best-preserved Crusader castles, a wonder of medieval
engineering and a monument to the crossing currents of European and Islamic
civilizations. As in Aleppo’s old city, much of the damage has been caused
by the government’s decision to shell rebel positions, though repair work
has begun, experts say.

Some of the widespread looting of Syrian archaeological sites may have been
carried out or encouraged by the Islamic State or by broader criminal
networks, but both government forces and the militants appear to be

One of the most stripped places is Apamea in western Syria, which had been
one of the largest and best-preserved Roman and Byzantine sites in the
world, with a colonnaded street and famed mosaics. With all the looting
pits, it now looks like the surface of the moon, according to experts who
have viewed aerial images.

“It has taken them four or five months to strip Apamea,” said Emma
Cunliffe, a heritage consultant specializing in Syria. “There are lots of
looters with earth-moving machines.”

Even more serious, perhaps, is the looting at Dura-Europos in eastern
Syria. Founded on a plateau high above the Euphrates River, it was a
fortified outpost of the Roman empire, and has yielded a cross-cultural
trove of archaeological wealth, including a third-century synagogue and one
of the oldest examples of a Christian “house-church,” an early form of
church architecture.

As with many of Syria’s archaeological sites, much of Dura had barely been

But for all the looting damage, nothing scares scholars more than the
Islamic State militants. “The speed with which they are moving into Iraq is
really like the Mongols,” Ms. Canby of the Metropolitan Museum said. “It is

The Islamic State and other extremists are motivated by the idea of
punishing “shirk,” or idolatry. As a result, they have smashed Shia and
Sufi sites, statues of poets, Mesopotamian relics from Assyria and
Babylonia, and Sunni shrines that are outside the bounds of their narrow

The destruction is also useful propaganda, proving their power, advertising
their ideology and attracting international attention.

“ISIS uses heritage explicitly, tying it into history, providing a back
story for itself and showing it is part of this massive unstoppable force
to appeal to young fighters,” said Michael Danti, an archaeology professor
at Boston University and co-director of the American Schools of Oriental
Research Syrian Heritage Initiative, a project financed by the State
Department that monitors sites at risk.

In this ideological war, extremists have attacked churches in the ancient
Christian town of Maaloula, one of the last places where Aramaic, the
language of Jesus, is still spoken; and damaged artifacts in Raqqa, an
early Islamic city in northern Syria and an Islamic State stronghold, where
they wrecked a statue of an Assyrian lion from the eighth century B.C. They
have publicized the destruction in their own glossy magazine, Dabiq. Last
month, they destroyed an Armenian church in Deir al-Zour, a city in eastern

In and around Mosul in northern Iraq, the militants have destroyed scores
of smaller Sufi and Shia shrines, tombs, mosques and Ottoman period
buildings, said Lamia Al-Gailani Werr, an Iraqi archaeologist living in
London. As they have persecuted Christian and Yazidi communities, they have
removed a cross from the historic St. Ephrem’s Cathedral, destroyed a
statue of the Virgin Mary and prompted refugees to “carry with them
traditions and books we don’t know much about,” Mr. Jones of Penn State

What may be the most significant cultural casualty of its Iraqi campaign so
far is a mosque, destroyed in July, that held what was believed to be the
tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah, whose story is part of Christianity,
Islam and Judaism.

Jonah’s mosque, which had never properly been studied, had a medieval core
with additions through the centuries, Ms. Werr said. Its minaret, for
example, was built in 1924, she said. But the site, in the Nineveh section
of Mosul, sat on a high mound that includes the remains of a Christian
church and, beneath that, an Assyrian temple and palace.

“This was commonly venerated,” said Sam Hardy, an antiquities researcher in

What to Do?

As the experts peer at maps, they are concerned about what might be next,
but also disagree on how to handle it.

“The archaeologists there are begging us not to pinpoint anything,
especially ancient things,” said Ms. Werr, who said she was in regular
communication with local archaeologists and scholars in Iraq. “They don’t
want to attract the attention of ISIS.”

Objections from the West, these scholars say, may only fuel the group.

“It is like the Bamian Buddhas,” said May Shaer, who works for the United
Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Erbil, Iraq,
referring to the destruction of the statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban
in 2001. “There was so much international objection, and yet they were
deliberate and went to it — to show that they could do it.”

Other scholars, however, disagree.

“You are not telling them anything they don’t know already,” Mr. Tabbaa
said. “These sites are extremely well known and are under threat.”

There is also the question of what the world is willing to risk to save

International conventions, established since World War II, are meant to
help protect cultural heritage during violent conflicts.

But it’s hard to imagine that an international treaty would have an impact
in Syria and Iraq. The main treaty — the 1954 Hague Convention for the
Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict — is weakly
applied, with little financial backing, said Bonnie Burnham, president of
the World Monuments Fund. There are small programs: Unesco and the
Smithsonian and the Penn Cultural Heritage Center are training Syrian
museum curators and others to safeguard collections. The Syrian Heritage
Initiative plans to publish weekly reports and has a website to report
damage anonymously.

Steps have been taken to alert auction houses, other participants in the
art market and customs officials to trade in pillaged Syrian treasures,
including circulating a “red list” of typical objects.

But much of the responsibility is on the Iraqis and Syrians themselves.

In July in Mosul, citizens were worried that the Islamic State would follow
its destruction of Jonah’s shrine by blowing up another of the city’s
landmarks, a leaning minaret from the 12th century that is known locally as
al-Hadba’, or the “hunchback,” and is pictured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar bank

When the militants arrived, local people stood in their way, said Ms. Werr,
the archaeologist.

“The women in the neighborhood went and slept there,” she said. “They told
them, ‘If you want to blow it up, we are going with it.’ ” The militants

The dangers of standing up to the Islamic State are real.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, director general of antiquities and museums in
Damascus, said that he has lost three staff members: one in a sniper
attack, one in a bomb blast. Perhaps the most unsettling, he said, was the
beheading of Abdullah al-Hamaid, 34, a ranger who guarded several tells, or
archaeological mounds, and other heritage sites in Deir al-Zour.

“He was a good guard,” Professor Abdulkarim said by phone from Damascus.

The United States-led bombing campaign is a new threat. Major cultural
heritage groups, including the United States Committee for the Blue Shield,
have urged that any American military action take account of vulnerable
sites. A branch of the Pentagon called the Combatant Command Cultural
Heritage Action Group is training pilots and ground soldiers to protect
cultural property during military operations.

But many hope that the Islamic State rampage will slow as it comes under

“Right now ISIS has other things to do,” said Ms. Burnham of the World
Monuments Fund. “As these people are more and more under pressure, I hope
they will have other things to worry about.”

Anne Barnard and Tom Mashberg contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on October 5, 2014, on page AR1
of the New York edition with the headline: Antiquities Lost, Casualties of
War. Order Reprints|Today's Paper|Subscribe
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