Tracking the cultural treasures of Syria and northern Iraq has become a heartbreaking task for archaeologists and antiquity scholars. And the list of destroyed, damaged or looted works has only grown longer as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, which seeks to create a caliphate, has pushed into northern Iraq. Sunni extremists like the Islamic State and others are deliberately wrecking shrines, statues, mosques, tombs and churches — anything they regard as idolatry.
“This region has been the center of the world for every great empire recorded in human history,” said Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. “We are talking about successive generations of history all in one place, all being destroyed at once.” In a speech at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in late September, Secretary of State John Kerry promised action. “Our heritage is literally in peril in this moment, and we believe it is imperative that we act now,” he said. “We do so knowing that our leadership, the leadership of the United States, can make a difference.”
But over the last three years of war, international groups have come up against the limits of their power and ability to intervene in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands. In several cases, the security of many antiquities has largely been left up to nearby residents, many of whom have taken huge risks to defend their cultural patrimony. Beyond trying to confirm the losses, antiquities guardians around the world are asking themselves this question: Is it better to raise the alarm about what’s in harm’s way — or keep quiet to avoid the militants’ gaze?
The question of what has been destroyed has few complete, sure answers, scholars say. The chaos of war has prevented a full accounting, and the Islamic State often issues false reports to exaggerate its conquests, while other groups may do so to draw international sympathy. But the State Department and officials in the Syrian government are trying to document the damage. And networks of scholars, from the West, Iraq and Syria, have studied satellite photographs and kept in touch with museum curators, archaeologists and others, by unreliable phone lines and email messages. “I find it so upsetting that I don’t always open these because it is too much,” said Sheila R. Canby, curator of the department of Islamic art of the Metropolitan Museum.
For many experts, the biggest catastrophe is in Aleppo, an ancient trading terminus and Syria’s largest city. Fire gutted most of the central souk, a vast and vibrant labyrinth of 17th-century shops, storehouses and ornate courtyards. It was the city’s commercial heart, important for understanding how people have lived since medieval times.
Fighting between Syrian government and anti-government forces damaged the Great Mosque in Aleppo, one of Syria’s oldest, burning its library containing thousands of rare religious manuscripts. Its famous minaret, which had stood for a thousand years, was toppled. Aleppo’s iconic citadel, one of the world’s oldest castles and an excavation site, built on a massive outcropping of rock, was also a target. It has been used by government forces as a base and was hit by rockets. Western experts are uncertain what has happened to a recently uncovered Bronze Age Neo-Hittite temple there.
Farther south, the war has damaged the Crac des Chevaliers, one of the world’s largest and best-preserved Crusader castles, a wonder of medieval engineering and a monument to the crossing currents of European and Islamic civilizations. As in Aleppo’s old city, much of the damage has been caused by the government’s decision to shell rebel positions, though repair work has begun, experts say.
Some of the widespread looting of Syrian archaeological sites may have been carried out or encouraged by the Islamic State or by broader criminal networks, but both government forces and the militants appear to be benefiting.
One of the most stripped places is Apamea in western Syria, which had been one of the largest and best-preserved Roman and Byzantine sites in the world, with a colonnaded street and famed mosaics. With all the looting pits, it now looks like the surface of the moon, according to experts who have viewed aerial images.“It has taken them four or five months to strip Apamea,” said Emma Cunliffe, a heritage consultant specializing in Syria. “There are lots of looters with earth-moving machines.”
Even more serious, perhaps, is the looting at Dura-Europos in eastern Syria. Founded on a plateau high above the Euphrates River, it was a fortified outpost of the Roman empire, and has yielded a cross-cultural trove of archaeological wealth, including a third-century synagogue and one of the oldest examples of a Christian “house-church,” an early form of church architecture. As with many of Syria’s archaeological sites, much of Dura had barely been explored.
But for all the looting damage, nothing scares scholars more than the Islamic State militants. “The speed with which they are moving into Iraq is really like the Mongols,” Ms. Canby of the Metropolitan Museum said. “It is brutal.”The Islamic State and other extremists are motivated by the idea of punishing “shirk,” or idolatry. As a result, they have smashed Shia and Sufi sites, statues of poets, Mesopotamian relics from Assyria and Babylonia, and Sunni shrines that are outside the bounds of their narrow beliefs. The destruction is also useful propaganda, proving their power, advertising their ideology and attracting international attention.
“ISIS uses heritage explicitly, tying it into history, providing a back story for itself and showing it is part of this massive unstoppable force to appeal to young fighters,” said Michael Danti, an archaeology professor at Boston University and co-director of the American Schools of Oriental Research Syrian Heritage Initiative, a project financed by the State Department that monitors sites at risk.
In this ideological war, extremists have attacked churches in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, one of the last places where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken; and damaged artifacts in Raqqa, an early Islamic city in northern Syria and an Islamic State stronghold, where they wrecked a statue of an Assyrian lion from the eighth century B.C. They have publicized the destruction in their own glossy magazine, Dabiq. Last month, they destroyed an Armenian church in Deir al-Zour, a city in eastern Syria.
In and around Mosul in northern Iraq, the militants have destroyed scores of smaller Sufi and Shia shrines, tombs, mosques and Ottoman period buildings, said Lamia Al-Gailani Werr, an Iraqi archaeologist living in London. As they have persecuted Christian and Yazidi communities, they have removed a cross from the historic St. Ephrem’s Cathedral, destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary and prompted refugees to “carry with them traditions and books we don’t know much about,” Mr. Jones of Penn State said.
What may be the most significant cultural casualty of its Iraqi campaign so far is a mosque, destroyed in July, that held what was believed to be the tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah, whose story is part of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Jonah’s mosque, which had never properly been studied, had a medieval core with additions through the centuries, Ms. Werr said. Its minaret, for example, was built in 1924, she said. But the site, in the Nineveh section of Mosul, sat on a high mound that includes the remains of a Christian church and, beneath that, an Assyrian temple and palace.