ISLAMIC STATE SEEKING TO DELETE ENTIRE CULTURES BY A LUCRATIVE TRADE OF ANCIENT CIIVILIATIONS ARTIFACTS
ERBIL, IRAQ — The so-called Islamic State’s “cultural cleansing” of minority groups uprooted from their northern Iraq homelands has led to fears that entire cultures from the cradle of civilization are under the biggest threat in recorded history, the United Nation’s top cultural official warns.
“It can be compared to the Nazi methods, and here I think it goes all across the board,” says Irina Bokova, director general of the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “Either they conform to their views of religion or belief or they have to disappear. I don’t remember anything like that in contemporary history.”
She says Interpol and antiquities authorities are taking steps to halt a lucrative trade in the smuggled artifacts of these ancient civilizations, which the Islamic State (IS) uses to help fund its operations.
“We know there is looting of many of the monuments," she says. "We have seen some of this happening. Maybe there is also others and that is why we are very much focusing on the curb of trafficking of illegal objects from Iraq."
Some officials estimate that IS derives income from the sale of more than $200 million a year in looted antiquities. The UNESCO director general thinks it could be even more.
Bokova says UNESCO has asked the UN Security Council for new controls on the sale of antiquities, similar to those imposed after the 2003 war in Iraq when there was widespread looting of museums and ongoing looting of archaeological sites. The UN agency is working with the international law enforcement organization Interpol, national customs authorities, museums, and major auction houses to try to stop looted items from being sold.
“For the first time you have cultural cleansing,” says Saad Eskander, head of Iraq’s national archives. “For the Yazidis, religion is oral, nothing is written. By destroying their places of worship … you are killing cultural memory. It is the same with the Christians – it really is a threat beyond belief.” The Yazidis, one of Iraq’s oldest religious minorities, were driven out of their lands in the north of Iraq as IS militants killed men and enslaved women from the secretive religion.
The towns in the Nineveh plains between Mosul and the Kurdish region of northern Iraq are also home to some of the earliest Christian communities – some built around the shrines of prophets. Christian leaders say the IS takeover of Mosul marks the first time in 1,600 years that there has been no mass held in the city.
“I think it’s a tragedy,” says Bokova. “This cradle of civilization that has contributed so much to all of humanity – there have been conflicts, there have been invasions, empires disappearing – and still that cultural diversity was kept into the 21st century. To see this disappearing, I think, is a tragedy for all of us.”