Art, Antiquities & the War on ISIS
By Caroline Croasdaile
It was 2015. I was working in a public relations office in Washington D.C., surrounded by big-screen televisions that hung on almost every available wall surface, playing out a constant stream of public life and politics on mute. I experienced most news events during my years there in real-time, sitting in front of my computer clutching the day’s fourth cup of coffee, eyes wide. However, for some reason it was a different kind of punch to the gut when I looked up and saw ISIS militants taking sledgehammers to 3,000-year-old sculptures in the ancient cities of Iraq and toppling statues in museums. Seeing dump trucks fling around priceless cultural heritage like garbage made me want to throw up. All I can say is that I was disturbed by the permanence of what they were doing, and the unsettling understanding that once these pieces are gone, they’re gone. That’s it. With them is lost a source of cultural pride for the people of Iraq, a critical link to information about humanity’s past, and the physical realization of something beautiful that has withstood generations. All gone in a few hours of idiocy.
ISIS militants sledgehammering Assyrian bas relief sculptures in the ancient city of Nimrud, present-day Iraq.
The destruction and looting of art and artifacts in ISIS-occupied lands like Iraq and Syria is the greatest and most urgent cultural threat of our time. Less than 1% of pieces stolen from ancient towns across Iraq and Syria have been recovered, and five of the six UNESCO heritage sites in Syria are reported to have been seriously damaged. A little-recognized fact is that the looting of art and antiquities is the second-largest source of income for ISIS after oil, and that disrupting this flow of cash is a very serious goal of governments battling the Islamic state. In 2014 Iraqi officials claimed that ISIS profited as much as $32 million from the looting of a single area around al-Nabek, a Syrian city well-known for its historic sites.
In the face of this barbarism, however, there are people who are rebelling, and trying to find, hide and protect their art and heritage. Many are risking their very lives to do so. One such group is a small and motley band of academics whose mission it is to record and save what artifacts they can. Often compared to the ‘Monuments Men’ of World War II, they operate in secret, making their way into battle-torn key sites to document what is there and what is missing. They are trained to hide or bury precious items that remain at these sites, and record the GPS points so that they can be recovered later. They also pose as antique dealers in order to photograph and track looted goods that appear for sale on the black market. This work is extremely dangerous, and in an interview with the Wall Street Journal an anonymous archaeologist and member of the group was recorded saying, “The regime knows us and is looking for us because of work done to expose looting by Syrian government loyalists. Other groups could kill us if they knew what we were doing, so we move in the shadows.”
The human toll in the war against ISIS is felt sharply throughout the art and heritage community. Maamoun Abdulkarim, director of the National Museum of Damascus, Syria acknowledged that in his circle, 15 academics, archaeologists and museum guards have lost their lives. When the ancient city of Palmyra fell, Kahlid al-Asaad, 81-year-old archaeologist and head of antiquities chose to stand by the ancient city rather than flee, rather like the captain to a sinking ship. Kahlid declared, “I’m an old man, my life is in Palmyra, I live here and will finish my life here”. He was subsequently beheaded with a sword by terrorists in front of the museum after refusing to tell them where ancient artifacts were hidden.
ISIS and its brute squad of terrorists might work quickly to destroy art and the people who cherish it, but around the world art historians and scientists are working just as quickly to preserve it for future posterity by any means possible. Just days after ISIS ravaged the Mosul Museum in Iraq, PHD students studying digital heritage began a 3D reconstruction of artifacts that were destroyed using surviving photographs. The human-headed, winged Bull of Nimrud that was destroyed is also currently being recreated using 3D printers and robots for an exhibition at Rome’s Colosseum. It was commissioned to bring awareness and engagement in the issues surrounding ISIS-led cultural destruction. Additionally, social media has been atwitter with the efforts of a 17-year-old Nenous Thabit, a Christian Assyrian who is recreating the lost Syrian art of Nimrud in a symbolic gesture, and as a protest of ISIS’s destruction of his cultural heritage.
As the conflict in former Mesopotamia rages on, small victories have been won. Nimrud, the site of one of the ancient palaces of the Assyrian empire, and cultural purging target of ISIS was recaptured in November by Iraqi forces after a fierce battle. Earlier this year Palmyra was also won back from ISIS. These are both important steps toward protecting these cities and guarding against senseless ISIS iconoclasm. “This isn’t just about history. It’s about our future”, said the anonymous Syrian archaeologist interviewed by Wall Street Journal. “Saving our heritage is the only thing that can help us rebuild an inclusive Syria after the war.” Human life is of course the greatest casualty of the rise of ISIS, and nothing is more precious or irreplaceable. However, much like the treasures of the environment, we owe it to future generations to try to protect and conserve the culturally significant art that so many Syrians and Iraqis are proud of. It could and should survive us all.