Jenny Messenger reflects on the destruction of cultural heritage by ISIS and its political implications. 


The systematic destruction of ancient sites in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State (IS) has been well-documented in Western media (partly due to their calculated drive for publicity). Among the most recent acts of demolition has been the explosion of the Temple of Bel in Syria, which dates back to the 1st century AD. Considered a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Temple of Bel was captured by IS in May 2015. Before the conflict, Palmyra (the location of  the Temple of Baal) was a huge tourist attraction, drawing more than 150,000 visitors a year. Since IS occupied Mosul in June 2014, several mosques, shrines and churches have been destroyed. Additionally, thousands of books and manuscripts in the Mosul libraries have also been burned. These examples are only a few among the IS  program for cultural decimation.

As a Classicist, I find the outrage over destroyed artefacts understandable. It is heartbreaking to see a film of antiquity monuments being torn down when there is still so much to learn from them. IS extremists are trying to illustrate the ease at which they can sweep away history and install themselves as the only legitimate authority. This type of destruction targets what help bind a country together – a shared memory, history and heritage. IS says it is attacking these monuments because they are “un-Islamic”, representing idolatry and polytheistic religions that threaten the caliphate (a form of Islamic government) it seeks to install. IS also loots and sells these artefacts, simultaneously funding the organization and keeping IS in the news media.

However, the point IS is making has been made before (in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, for instance, and in northern Mali, during its occupation by militants in 2012). As a strategy, it doesn’t work. Local stonemasons have already rebuilt fourteen mausoleums destroyed by extremists in Timbuktu. Cultural heritage is about construction and creation, the belief that preserving the past leads to a richer present and future. IS’s policy of obliteration is testament to the importance of keeping ideas and opinions freely available, and the need to ensure accessibility and inclusivity of historical narratives. After all, IS cannot destroy everything. As Professor of Ancient Middle Eastern History at UCL, Eleanor Robson, argued in a piece for the Times Literary Supplement, the buildings of Nimrud in northern Iraq (bulldozed by IS earlier this year) have already been “destroyed and rebuilt at least twice before”, some ruins being seen as likely to salvage. The monuments and artefacts that are saved will provide a foundation on which the cultural identity of Syria and Iraq can be reconstructed, alongside what has already been documented and studied.

Ultimately, IS’s acts of destruction against ancient monuments are in no way comparable to their violence against people. The beheading of Syrian antiquities scholar Khaled al-Asaad in Palmyra in August is a case in point: destroy the buildings, but leave the people alive. Although the scale of destruction is still unclear, and the cataloguing of what is missing or lost will take time, it can be done. The West should help, although it is not an excuse to send precious artefacts to a place of safety, never to be returned. Predominantly, the cultural and academic communities in the universities, libraries and museums of Syria and Iraq, aided by international groups, are the key to the regeneration of both countries. Those who will rebuild the cultural identity of Iraq and Syria need to be alive to do so –once IS fails.


Jenny Messenger


Featured Image: Temple of Baal – Graham van der Wielen