Islamic State Hates World History
As war grinds on, the extremist group decimates ancient sites
Syrian archaeologist Khaled Asaad made the study, preservation and excavation of the ancient sites in his hometown of Palmyra his life’s work. He spent years as the city’s antiquities director, and was highly regarded internationally for his research.
Seated in the deserts east of Damascus, the ancient city thrived for centuries as a home to grand temples and monuments. It became part of the Roman Empire and an important trading post for merchants on the Silk Road. But during the rule of Queen Zenobia, Palmyra rebelled against Rome.
Zenobia failed, Roman armies re-conquered and sacked the city in 273 A.D. But the desert climate helped preserve its temples, and by the 20th century the city had emerged as one of the world’s most important archaeological treasures.
In May 2015, Islamic State militants seized Palmyra. Initially, the group claimed it would not harm the ancient city. But on Aug. 18, the militants publicly executed Asaad after he refused to divulge information about where his colleagues had hidden relics for safekeeping.
Video emerged of Asaad’s headless, mutilated corpse hanging from a column in one of Palmyra’s squares. He was 83 years old.
Not long after murdering Asaad, Islamic State released photos showing the 1,900-year-old Temple of Baalshamin — dedicated to a Phoenician storm god — being blown up. It was once one of the city’s most well-preserved sites. Now it lies in rubble.
The militants also destroyed the nearby Mar Elian Monastery in the Syrian town of Al Qaryatayn. Dedicated to a fourth century saint, it was an important pilgrimage site and reportedly sheltered hundreds of Syrian Christians until Islamic State bulldozers smashed it.
The group has destroyed thousands of temples, churches and shrines and shattered irreplaceable artifacts in its bloody march across the cradle of civilization. As the war kills hundreds of thousands of people — and displaces millions more — the world’s first known traces of human society have become battlegrounds for the many regional factions.
But why does Islamic State do it? Further, we need to understand that the destruction of these landmarks and artifacts has profound political and social implications for the future of the Middle East — and for the entire world.
“He had been taking care of those ruins at Palmyra for 50 years,” said David Lesch, a prominent Middle East historian who regarded Asaad as a friend. “He lived ate and breathed the ruins at Palmyra.”
Few Americans know Syria and its people as well as Lesch. He has traveled to the country many times, interviewed Pres. Bashar Al Assad and wrote a biography, The New Lion of Damascus.
“After that, at his request he wanted to keep meeting with me because at the time U.S.-Syria relations were at a low point,” Lesch recalled. “I became something of an unofficial liaison between the two countries.”
But the the civil war changed everything. Though Lesch has been to Damascus several times since the fighting began, he has not seen nor heard from the Syrian president since 2009.
Instead, Lesch — who is a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio — has devoted his efforts to the Syria Research Project. The project brings together Trinity, Harvard University and Conflict Dynamics International. He’s been in talks with the regime members, opposition groups, the United Nations and Western governments to try to resolve the conflict. “As impossible as the task may be,” he said.
Lesch said many people have asked him why Asaad chose to stay in Palmyra, even though he knew Islamic State would almost certainly kill him.
“I think he was hoping against that, with him there he could protect it,” Lesch said. He added that he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the militants didn’t destroy the ancient temple until after they killed the elderly archaeologist.
Lesch recalled Asaad as a “kind and gentle soul,” who once gave his family a personal tour of the Palmyra ruins. To Lesch, though it was tragic, it was unsurprising that his friend was willing to die in an attempt to preserve Syria’s past.
The history of Mesopotamia holds a special place in the hearts of historians and archaeologists around the world. Christopher Jones, a historian who specializes in Assyrian history, has extensively documented Islamic State’s destruction of historic sites in Syria and Iraq on his blog Gates of Nineveh.
“The ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia represent some of mankind’s earliest experiments in writing, government, administration, city life, agriculture and engineering,” Jones explained. “We can better understand these things today by studying them where they originated for the first time.”
He said that Syria and Iraq’s history is important not just to natives of the region, but played an important role in the development of Western society. “Western cultural and intellectual heritage is indebted to the Greek and Roman world, but much more is indebted to Christianity and Judaism, both of which originate in the ancient Near East.”
But for Islamic State, any viewpoint inconsistent with the Caliphate’s decrees is a threat to its supreme authority — and must be destroyed.
“The region is so rich in all sorts of pre-Judeo-Christian and pre-Islamic belief systems and some of the most wonderful archaeological sites in the world, where we’ve learned a great deal about these prior civilizations,” Lesch explained. “But it’s an anathema to Islamic State’s ideology.”
Erasing all enemies
Islamic State developed a unique reputation for brutality even when it was still a relatively small — albeit highly formidable — rebel group. The jihadis often fought with moderate rebel factions of the Free Syrian Army, and gleefully posted videos of themselves torturing and executing both regime soldiers and FSA members.
Early on, destruction of cultural sites and genocidal cleansing campaigns became one of Islamic State’s hallmarks.
In particular, Islamic State murdered Christian priests in Syria. The group razed churches, many of them ancient places of worship that had stood for centuries. Syria and Iraq are home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, some which still speak Aramaic — the language of Jesus.
But when the group seized Mosul in June 2014, Iraq’s second largest and most diverse major city, the extent of its aims became clear. Militants quickly began destroying the city’s shrines and holy sites belonging to Christians, Yezidis and Muslims.
By July 2014, Iraqi media reported that militants had ransacked the tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah — known as Yunis in Islam. The same month Islamic State destroyed the Mosque of the Prophet Yunis after declaring that the mosque “had become a place for apostasy, not prayer.”
In August 2014, the cultural destruction accelerated. Islamic State swept into Assyrian Christian communities and into the Yezidi heartland.
The Yezidis practice a pre-Abrahamic faith partially linked to Zoroastrianism, and have been accused by some Christians and Muslims in the region of being devil worshipers. Islamic State has made the eradication of Yezidi people — as well as the rape of Yezidi girls and women — a central pillar of its campaign in Iraq.
Refugees fled to the Yezidis’ holy Mount Sinjar, where armed men took up positions and defended their ancient shrines. The mountain is the site of many of the religion’s holiest shrines and temples. Even when Kurdish fighters opened a land route for refugees to escape to Syria, many Yezidis refused to abandon the mountain. They were willing to die to protect their history.
Jones explained that Iraqis and Syrians have a deep connection to the land’s history, but especially to sites that connect with a specific group’s own ethnic, religious or tribal history. Minority groups who have struggled for recognition see these locations as emblematic of their identities.
“The Assyrians are the most invested of all, but also at present are the least powerful and least able to protect their interests,” Jones said. “For them it is much more personal.”
In March 2015, Islamic State destroyed the ancient Assyrian capital of Khorsabad, a few miles from Mosul. The palace there was built between 717 and 706 B.C. by Assyria’s King Sargon II. Its well known for its surprisingly well-preserved reliefs and depictions of Assyrian victories and royal processions, which many archaeologists believe still bear traces of the original paint.
By April 2015, Islamic State smashed the Assyrian city of Nimrud. Founded 3,200 years ago, it was the Assyrians’ first capital, and is a symbol of the ancient empire’s wealth and power. Like the Yezidis, Assyrians have formed militias of their own and vowed to retake their homelands.
Islamic State’s reasons for wiping out the region’s history is partly ideological, deriving from the group’s highly literal interpretation of the Koran. Worshiping at the shrines is apostasy, and “purifying” the shrines by destroying them is a step toward purifying the word.
It’s also partly strategic. Eliminating a group’s history will — in theory — weaken their resolve to fight for their ancestral homes. It’s a means to demoralize their opponents, and to remove every trace of their cultural legacies.
Only one path
Ironically, many — if not most — of Islamic State’s historical targets have been significant to Islamic history. In October 2014, the group destroyed the Imam Dur Mausoleum near the city of Samarra, widely considered one of the best examples of medieval Islamic architecture and decoration.
“Contained in their ideology is a rationale that if you are not practicing Islam in the way they believe it should be practiced you are in fact not a Muslim,” Lesch explained.
Islamic State’s penalties for apostasy range from public humiliation and torture to death. In particular, Islamic State regards Shia Muslims as apostates who must be exterminated. The sectarian war with Shias is its highest priority, more so than fighting Israel and America.
Which means that the end-point of Islamic State’s war, if it succeeds, is the deaths of hundreds of millions of people.
“The continued existence of Shia Islam undercuts ISIS’ claim to be the restored Rashidun Caliphate representing all Muslims,” Jones explained. “To them, this needs to be destroyed.”
When the militants seized Palmyra, they destroyed the tomb of Mohammed Bin Ali, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin Imam Ali, and a site revered by Shia. They also destroyed the tomb of Nizar Abu Bahaaeddine, a Sufi Muslim scholar.
Though the Sunni hardline group is particularly fixated on wiping out Shia Muslims as well as practitioners of Sufi mysticism, Islamic State has not hesitated to slaughter fellow Sunnis. The group has killed dozens of Sunni clerics who refused to preach its gospel of hate.
Islamic State views Muslims who refuse to conform to its ideology as its most potent existential threat. While information out of Islamic State controlled areas is vague, the group appears to have suppressed Sunni-lead uprisings in the cities of Raqqa and Mosul with ruthless efficiency, including carrying out mass public executions to instill fear and complicity.
In February 2015, Islamic State rigged explosives to Mosul’s central public library, a landmark built in 1921. It was destroyed along with thousands of manuscripts and instruments used by ancient Arab scientists. The book burning coincided with the release of the video showing fighters rampaging through the Mosul museum.
“If they can erase all evidence of interpretations of Islam other than their own, they can create a world where their interpretation of Islam is the only one that anyone can know about,” Jones explained.
“Movements like this, like the Islamic State, are not unknown in Islamic history,” Lesch said. “There have been prior movements such as this but are fortunately few and far between and are very much a minority of Muslims.”
But previous movements did not have Islamic State’s military hardware. They also didn’t have the media tools — or savvy — that the extremists use to project their message and inspire recruits.
Symbols of power
Lesch said the reasoning behind Islamic State’s campaign against history is twofold. First and foremost, it’s a part of its core mission to establish a single doctrine for people to live under. “Secondly, it’s for show,” Lesch added. “They’re a propaganda machine … anytime they want to get in the news they destroy a site or behead someone.”
Islamic State has made the destruction of sites into major symbolic statements, but it’s not the first group to use them to further an agenda. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein spent lavishly restoring Iraq’s ancient cities. Hatra in particular became a pet project for him.
He infamously had his initials carved into Hatra’s stones. Though the ambitious restoration was never fully completed, some Iraqis have claimed he intended for every brick in the city to bear his name. The project was a symbolic statement that it was his destiny to lead Iraq.
“Saddam rebuilt Babylon and Hatra and had giant wall murals made showing himself riding in a chariot dressed as an Assyrian king from Ashurbanipal’s royal lion hunt reliefs,” Jones said. “By doing so he portrayed himself as heir to a legacy of the glorious past, and one that pre-dated Islam and Christianity.”
In some cases, the Iraqi regime used the sites to rally conflicting religious groups under one banner. “Ba’athists in Iraq and Syria both used archaeology as a tool to promote a secular national identity,” Jones explained.
Saddam and the Assad family also used them as a way to entice foreign investors, tourists and foreign dignitaries. Both regimes built lavish hotels near the sites. Lesch said Syria in particular used the ruins to sell itself to tourists as a “crossroad of civilizations.”
But during the Cold War, Syria aligned itself with the Soviet Union and became locked in a stand-off with Israel. For decades, the ancient sites struggled to attract anyone but the most dedicated history buffs. “I used to go to Palmyra and I’d be the only person there,” Lesch recalled. “Which was great for me, but terrible for their tourism industry.”
During the late 1990s, the Syrian sites and particularly Palmyra found new popularity. Lesch explained that with the Cold War over and talk of a potential Syria-Israel peace deal, foreign executives began touring the country. Many Syrians hoped that they could bring in foreign companies and investment, mimicking the success of the Jordanian tourist industry and its own emphasis on ancient sites.
Unsurprisingly, recent events have pretty much halted foreign tourism and investment completely.
Lesch recently returned from a trip to Europe where he met with several Western officials and fellow Syria experts to discuss the conflict. He said that Palmyra’s destruction was a major topic of conversation, and many still have questions about the circumstances leading to it.
“Most everybody, in fact not most, everybody believes the anti-ISIS coalition knew ISIS was on the move toward Palmyra,” Lesch recalled.
He argued that saving the ancient city would not have been a difficult thing to do, and that international forces had ample time to respond.
“It’s totally open desert, we have drones there, we have surveillance, we have Special Forces on the ground, we have contacts and networks — not great but we’ve built them up,” he explained. “Everyone was astonished that we didn’t take action, that we could not have hit the convoy heading toward Palmyra.”
“There’s all sorts of ideas about why that happened, from incompetence to a strategic decision to allow it to happen to punish the Assad regime,” he said.
Islamic State’s seizure of Palmyra was a humiliating blow to the Assad regime. Though the coalition is fighting Islamic State, the U.S. government is still firmly aligned against the Iranian-backed government in Damascus and wants to see Assad step down or forced out.
“That’s just speculation,” Lesch clarified. “But no one I talked to believed that U.S. military command didn’t see this coming.”
He added that if there’s any truth to the notion that coalition commanders intentionally allowed the historic city to fall, it would be “incredibly Machiavellian” and deeply troubling.
Lesch said it’s emotionally hard for him whenever he hears of newly destroyed historic sites. “I get this terrible feeling in my stomach, it just really hurts deeply,” he said. “It’s the physical manifestation of the destruction of a country.”
As someone who’s traveled to Syria for years, and made many friends there, he said it’s heartbreaking to witness. It’s also been incredibly disheartening for many Syrians to see their history destroyed.
“It makes them think that they’re losing more and more of their country,” Lesch said. “[Seeing Islamic State] blowing up the markers of Syria that were known throughout the world makes them think it will be a lot harder to put Syria back together again.”
But ultimately, though tragic, the destruction of the tombs of long dead men pales in comparison to the current slaughter of men, women and children in the middle of the world’s most complicated war. “Most Syrians who are suffering under this conflict are more worried about getting food for the next day or getting their families out,” Lesch said.
“I’ve seen enough videos and images of atrocities while researching this material to last a lifetime,” Jones added. “By comparison, I am rather emotionally unmoved when I see inanimate objects being destroyed.”
Some commentators have suggested that the destruction of ancient sites pivotal to the birth of Western civilization could finally push he international community to get serious about ending the war. Lesch is skeptical.
“If the death of 250,000 Syrians and the displacement of half the country hasn’t galvanized a response, I doubt the destruction of a couple historic buildings at Palmyra is going to do anything,” Lesch said.
Though the destruction of Palmyra led to a brief media flurry, the spread of photos of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying on a Turkish beach have taken center stage. Now the world’s attention is on Syrian refugees, with many demanding the West help them while others view them with suspicion.
Many political leaders in the West insist that defeating Islamic State is the key to solving the crisis. But Jones suggested it could be far more complicated than that. “I believe the major regional players view ISIS as weak and are already positioning themselves for what comes after ISIS,” he explained.
“What worries me is the possibility of a major multi-faceted regional war for control of Iraq and Syria after ISIS is gone, similar to the Congo War of the late 1990s.”
If that happens, the region’s historic sites will continue to face looting and destruction. In addition to Islamic State, bandits and other militant groups have raided sites to profit off the black market antiquities trade. Further war will no doubt lead to more displacement, death and human suffering.