A war on history: the destruction of archaeological sites by the Islamic State
Illustration credit: Emma Davies

Antiquities in the Middle East and North Africa are under threat. The intentional destruction of cultural heritage by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is fundamentally based on their extremist political and religious regime and ideals. These iconoclastic values have left the cultural landscape across many countries in the Middle East in danger of demolition.

The regional history of the Middle East is complex and vast. The multiplicity and diversity of cultures has left much of the region with a rich cultural landscape that reflects the complexity of its past civilisations.  Its multicultural past can be characterised by Roman conquests, complex Byzantine architecture, as well as the Islamic adaption of cities upon the Islamic domination in the seventh century AD.

ISIL’s political ideals are based on the values of Salafi jihadism, where they idealise the return to the pure form of religion. Their fundamentalist regime idealises the destruction of nationalism in order to promote their monotheistic values. The demolition of archaeological sites, thus, is formed from the belief that there is a need to destroy any other cultural affiliation that is not the idealised form of Sunni Islam.

The religious-based political ideology of the organisation strongly influences the reasons for the destruction of archaeological sites across the Middle East.

When analysing the Islamic State’s political and religious actions and motives, rarely does the destruction of cultural heritage get mentioned. Whilst perhaps not being as gruesome and relentless as other radical actions adopted by the Islamic State, it is nonetheless equally consequential.

The number of heritage sites located in the Middle East that are under threat from ISIL is extensive. One such site is the 3,300 year old Iraqi city of Nimrud, which was brought to rubble in 2015. Bulldozers and explosives were used to permanently destroy the ancient city, leaving it in an uncoverable condition.

Photographic content of this intentional destruction, including pictures and videos, is just one of ISIL’s political tactics. Their widespread social media coverage of the demolition of archaeological infrastructure compliments their campaign to extend their religious values to a wider audience. It also acts as a pressuring force, guaranteed to get an international political response due to the destruction of globally important cultural heritage sites.

The additional looting of archaeological sites rich with historical importance helps to finance the Islamic State’s campaigns. Helga Turku, an author specialising in international politics, tells Palgrave, that using archaeological material to finance extremist regimes is indeed “a weapon of war.” 

The political and economic tactics that have been adopted by the Islamic State are used to develop their extremist regime. One important example of an archaeological site being used and intentionally destroyed for ISIL’s political needs is Palmyra in Syria.

The site was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger in 2013. It was particularly following ISIL occupation in 2015, and then again in late 2016, that the Roman city suffered from looting and intentional destruction. The intentional destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin in 2015 is just one of the examples of irrecoverable archaeological infrastructure at Palmyra.

The importance of the cultural heritage site of Palmyra cannot be understated. Having initially been built as an important political and cultural Roman polis (city), it was eventually adapted after the Islamic consequent of Syria in the 7th century. This multicultural past is reflected in its archaeological remains.

“Palmyra belongs to the whole of humanity and to all Syrians. All Syrians, together, must be able to reclaim this heritage as a symbol of identity and dignity… The protection of heritage is inseparable from the protection of human lives, taking into account the wounds and sufferings of the population during the conflict underway.” Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, states. 

The Islamic State’s iconoclastic values, and the consequent destruction of much cultural heritage, forces an international response. Historic remains of past civilisations are vital for understanding the past. 

Irina Bokova additionally highlights that the Islamic State’s destruction of archaeological sites is a form of “cultural cleansing”. The intentional eradication of Roman cities across the Middle East not only destroys the cultural landscape, but the sense of belonging for those who inhabit the surrounding areas. 

The creation of belonging to a space and place is formed from a cultural understanding of the land inhabited. It is particularly heritage sites that become agents that can dictate the way that individuals relate to their land. This destruction of archaeological sites is intentionally carried out by ISIL to destroy this affiliation to the cultural past. 

Iconoclasm, the intentional destruction of artefacts or monuments for political or religious motives, is not a modern creation. The protestant reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries saw religious images under attack. We additionally saw political iconoclasm during the French Revolution, with the destruction of monarchic statues and monuments. Even in Britain today, iconoclastic actions, such as the destruction of statues during the George Floyd Protests, are sparked by the social and political understandings and ideals.

What is important to highlight is that the destruction of cultural heritage by ISIL is viewed as necessary and acceptable based on their extremist religious and political beliefs. The eradication of archaeology is therefore acceptable relative to their ideology and rationale.

Our rationale, however, idealises the preservation and conservation of archaeological sites, such as Nimrud and Palmyra. This is based on the belief that the human past should be understood and learnt from. UNESCO’s Unite4Heritage campaign is an example of how this belief is implemented.

These two contrasting values on cultural heritage highlight the diversity of global political views. Careful consideration should be taken when assessing the validity of extremist regimes. To neglect that there is religious and political rationale behind their extremist actions is to neglect that global political views are diverse and dependent on cultural beliefs.

Nevertheless, the intentional destruction of archaeological sites destroys not only the cultural landscape, but unique perspectives of the complex past. UNESCO battles not only the extreme ideology of the Islamic State, but the challenge of preserving, recording and rebuilding the multitude of sites located in the Middle East.

The future is unpredictable, and with the Islamic State’s goal to attack the identity of millions, it is not just the archaeological sites that are at risk of eradication. UNESCO’s goal to conserve the past is fundamental in order to battle and win the war on history.