By Rachel An
ISIS has destroyed Jonah’s Mosque and St. Elijah’s Tomb. They have set fire to Al-Madina Souq, a functioning medieval covered market, and bombed Crac de Chavelier, an intact crusader’s castle from the 11th century. They have attacked Maaloula, one of the only three villages where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. By April 2014, 76% of Dura-Europos, an archaeologically important cultural crossroads city, had been looted, and a few years later, it was demolished.
Director of programs and partnerships at the International Council of Museums has called this, “the largest-scale mass destruction of cultural heritage since the Second World War.”
ISIS has many motives. Their fundamentalist version of Wahabbi doctrine calls for a religious purging of anything outside their narrow ideology, even including Muslim structures that are seen as idolatrous or innovative within Islam. Besides the obvious propagandistic value, destroying cultural heritage sites and structures also gives ISIS control over defining “Syrian culture” by allowing them to erase its religiously diverse and cosmopolitan past.
But interestingly, although ISIS destroys monuments, it saves smaller artifacts. Despite the ideological inconsistency of allowing these heretical items to be saved, ISIS’s short-term focus on cleansing only the territory it holds allows for this to be neglected. Taking advantage of existing black market routes, these “blood artifacts” have become one of ISIS’s largest revenue sources, just behind oil and taxation.
Just earlier this month, with rare unanimous consent, the US Senate voted to ban all imports of Syrian art and antiquities. The US makes up 43% of the global art market, and this ban fulfills a commitment made to the United Nations Security Council’s efforts to halt the flow of blood antiquities.
The ongoing mass destruction and exportation of important pieces of Syrian history will leave lasting effects even after the fall of ISIS. Syria’s function as an intersection of various cultures and breeding ground for many religions gave it a special historical significance — but one that might soon be erased.
Rachel An is a freshman in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tags: Issue IV