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Cultural Destruction by Islamic State Continues with No End in Sight

by Hrag Vartanian on August 25, 2014

Reputedly the destruction of the 13th century tomb Sheikh Qadeeb al-Ban al-Mosuli, the Shi'ia ruler of Mosul.

Reputedly the destruction of the 13th-century tomb of Sheikh Qadeeb al-Ban al-Mosuli, the Shi’ia ruler of Mosul (images via gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com, gif by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

While the destruction in Gaza, the Ukraine, and other conflict zones may be as harrowing, the recent rise of the Islamic State (IS), formerly ISIS or ISIL, is particularly worrying to the art world since it is taking place in an area rich with important archeological sites. Stopping the devastating impact of IS on the people of the region is certainly people’s first priority, but it is also necessary to assess the cultural and historical impact on world heritage. Since our last report in early July, the destruction has not stopped. Here are some notable examples (in no particular order).

Aramaic Language on the Brink

A Bible written in Aramaic (via flickr.com/arnasia)

A Bible written in Aramaic (via flickr.com/arnasia)

Known as the language of Jesus because it was the lingua franca of the Roman province of Judea and neighboring regions, Aramaic is an endangered language that may disappear faster than anyone ever imagined because of IS offensives.

As Foreign Policy wrote earlier this month, “We may be watching the deliberate destruction of Aramaic, unfolding in real time.”

Last week, 50 Neo-Aramaic scholars from around the world wrote an open letter that begins:

A genocide was perpetrated 99 years ago upon the Christians of the Middle East, including the Aramaic-speaking Assyrians, Chaldeans and Aramaeans. Now we see history repeating itself.

As UNESCO has long known, not all cultural heritage is physical, but also comprised of intangible things like traditions and language. As linguist Ken Hale explained a few years ago, the destruction of a language is like “dropping a bomb on the Louvre” as an entire system of knowledge, behavior, and culture is lost forever.

The death of a linguistic tradition is something that should be mourned by the world.

$36 Million of Looted Artifacts

The tower on Iraq's 10,000 dinar note was rumored to be destroyed by the Islamic State until locals rallied to stop it. (via

The 12th-century leaning minaret of Mosul, which is featured on Iraq’s 10,000 dinar note, was rumored to be destroyed by the Islamic State until, as the New York Times reported, locals rallied to stop it. (via www.us-cash.info)

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has reputedly made at least $36 million from looted artifacts and antiquities over the last few years. While the amount may be slightly less than 2% of the organization’s $2 billion in assets, it is an astounding sum considering an organization like Hamas is believed to have only $70 million in the bank.

“They had taken $36m from al-Nabuk alone [an area in the Qalamoun mountains west of Damascus]. The antiquities there are up to 8,000 years old,” an intelligence official told the Guardian newspaper in June.

How ISIS was able to muster that amount from looted artifacts is mind-boggling considering, as Sam Hardy, research associate at the UCL Institute of Archaeology in London, wrote:

… looters earn less than 1% or 2%, and a chain of middlemen take more than 98% or 99% of the final sale price … So either ISIL alone are shifting unimaginable quantities of material — antiquities with a market value of up to $1.44b–$3.6b(3), or at least $81m–$800m(4), from al-Nabuk alone — or they are late middlemen (and the $36m is a larger proportion of the final sale price), or more mundane criminal activities form a larger proportion of the paramilitary group’s income.

Either way the numbers and volume are staggering.

Destruction of Iraq’s Christian Heritage

A Christian home in northern Iraq marked with ن  (via National Review)

A home in northern Iraq marked with ن to indicate it is a Christian home. (via National Review)

In early August, the city of Qaraqosh, southeast of Mosul, which is home to around 50,000 Christians, was invaded by ISIS. Other Christian towns near Mosul, including Tel Askof, Tel Keif, and Qaramless, were also emptied. Communities that predate the birth of Islam and have been living in the region of Iraq for almost 2,000 years are now uprooted, and many fear they will never return.

There used to be over 1.5 million Christian in Iraq, before the US-led invasion in 2003, and today estimates say that number has dipped below 200,000. Many media sources are even starting to toss around the “g” word, genocide.

IS has marked Iraqi Christian homes with the 14th letter of the Arabic alphabet, ن (pronounced “noon”), which stands for Nasara or Nazarenes, a pejorative Arabic word for Christians.

Destruction of the 13th-Century Mausoleum of Imam Yahya ibn al-Qasim

Christopher Jones, a doctoral student in Ancient History at Columbia University, has posted about the destruction of this architecturally significant brick tomb in Mosul on his personal blog.

According to Archnet, the mausoleum was built in 1239 CE and contains many artistic elements:

The interior walls are richly decorated with several brick geometric panels. A marble band, carved with flowers and leaves in high relief, wraps around the interior walls at eye level, with a ceramic inscription band on top. This elaborate carving contrasts with the flat terracotta panels located on the plain brick walls above. There is another inscriptive band below the dome muqarnas, which is derived from cross-shaped plan. The mihrab is situated at the southwest corner of the tomb because the building is not oriented towards Mecca.

You can see photos of the building before its destruction on Archnet.

Ethnic Cleansing of Iraq’s Yezidi Community

Iraqi refugee girl with her family at Newroz camp where they are being helped by the International Rescue Committee (via UK Dept. for Int'l Development's Flickrstream)

Iraqi refugee girl with her family at Newroz camp, where they are being helped by the International Rescue Committee (via UK Dept. for Int’l Development’s Flickrstream)

After millennia of persecution, some in the Yezidi community, often ignorantly dismissed as “satan worshippers” by neighboring groups, are now considering a permanent exodus from Iraq. One Yezidi American told Foreign Policy: “There is no way to live there anymore … I am 100 percent sure.”

There are roughly 500,000 Yezidis in Iraq, and while they are considered a part of the larger Kurdish community, their future is still up in the air.

When 80 Yezidis were massacred by IS, the world was horrified. Then tens of thousands of Yezidis were trapped on Mount Sinjar, and President Obama announced that the US would help them avoid massacre through food drops and air protection. Thankfully, some have found refuge in the Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq.

The Lost City of Nineveh

Outside of Mosul is the ancient city of Nineveh, which was once the largest city in the world and the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire. For millennia its riches were buried, until, in the 19th century, the site was excavated by European archeologists, who discovered large-scale sculptures and architecture.

Today, many of the works are major attractions in the museums of the world, including in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum and London’s British Museum, but there are still significant ruins and sculptures remaining at the Iraqi site.

With IS knocking on its door, the world may be poised to lose this important ruin. You can get a small sense of what is threatened by watching this grainy video from a 2008 visit by US soldiers, civilians, and UN representatives to the site.

*     *    *

The sad reality is that IS continues to devastate the region.

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  • Shawn Chapman

    “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Defeat Jihad”

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