The recent destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) shocked the world. The head of UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, described destruction at the heritage site of Nimrud as a “war crime.” Archaeologists at UBC and Simon Fraser University have also condemned the actions; their full statement can be found here.
Lisa Cooper, associate professor at UBC’s Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies, and colleague Lynn Welton, a post-doctoral fellow, have together worked for several decades in Iraq, Syria and Turkey as archaeologists.
In this Q&A, Cooper and Welton discuss the extent of the destruction, its impact and what can be done to stop it.
What has the world lost due to the destruction of Iraqi cultural heritage by ISIS?
Lisa: First, we want to stress that this is one aspect of a much bigger problem – the humanitarian crisis.
In terms of the destruction of cultural heritage, I would start with the events that took place recently. This included the willful destruction of objects at the Mosul Museum – including antiquities from sites such as Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra – as well as the demolition of an Assyrian winged bull sculpture at Nineveh.
These sites flourished in the early periods of Mesopotamia, one of the world’s cradles of civilization. Its societies and cultures are important testimonies to human ingenuity, creativity and endeavor. They’re a part of our shared past and cultural heritage. Their destruction is a loss for all of us, and a huge loss for the local Iraqi communities.
Other places have also been destroyed and looted. These include not just museums and libraries, but places of worship – mosques, shrines and churches. Some of these date back many centuries, some go back over a thousand years and play a huge role in the daily lives and communities of the Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Kurds. News of their destruction has been devastating.
Lynn: Although the most recent destructions have received the most publicity, this has been ongoing for many months. What we’ve heard about recently is just the culmination of a larger process. I think it’s going to be a long time before we really understand the full extent of the damage.
What is ISIS trying to achieve?
Lynn: Neither of us are experts on the political situation. However, I think it’s important to stress the propagandistic nature of these actions. On the one hand, ISIS wants to attract a sympathetic audience to gain new recruits; on the other, they want to provoke a reaction in the West.
Symbolically and literally, they are destroying the history of the region – as well as destroying visual symbols of cultural and religious diversity that have existed in this area for centuries. It’s a very powerful message that they’re sending.
This is also a mercenary and hypocritical tactic. At the same time they are destroying these archaeological materials, they’re also looting sites and selling antiquities to fund their operations. They are also profiting, both monetarily and in terms of propaganda value they achieve by dramatically destroying pieces they can’t move and sell.
What can be done to counter the destruction – and can Canada play a role?
Lynn: There’s little we can do within Iraq and Syria at the moment, given the situation on the ground. But we can certainly try to curtail the trafficking and selling of looted antiquities that are streaming out of the region. Anybody – any Canadian – who suspects that they are seeing trafficked antiquities should alert the authorities. We should be able to secure those antiquities and hold them at least until the time is safe to return them to their parent countries.
One of the most effective ways of fighting the looting and destruction is to reduce the market for antiquities. This can be done through legislation, but also through public awareness.
Lisa: I worked for almost a decade in the northeastern part of Syria, and then in the area of the Syrian Euphrates. You develop a very close relationship with the local people that you work with – a respect and affection.
We are deeply involved with these people through our archaeological projects, and we care a great deal about them. So we also encourage Canadians to reach out and support humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency). It’s another way we can help.
Lisa Cooper and Lynn Welton will speak at the UBC Archaeology Day Symposium on Saturday, March 21, entitled “Saving Endangered Cultural Heritage for our Common Future.” Keynote speaker Michael Danti of Boston University will discuss the cultural heritage crises in Syria and Northern Iraq. For more information, click here.