ISIS Plundered, Destroyed Ancient Assyrian City in Syria, Liberators Find

Archaeologists find debris from two years of looting and destruction by ISIS, after 4,000-year old Tel Ajaja's recapture by Kurdish rebels.

Syria’s ancient cultural heritage is disappearing: Tel Ajaja and its irreplaceable Assyrian artifacts are the latest victims of the more than five-year civil war. The full extent of the damage done during ISIS' two-year control of the area is now clear, say archaeologists: some 40 percent of the 4000-year-old city known to history as Shadikanni was destroyed, the Gulf News reported.

The terrorist movement even systemically uncovered areas not yet excavated, finding irreplaceable artifacts that they either destroyed, or may have "saved" for sale on the black market, Syrian archaeologists told the website.

Tel Ajaja, located in the north-eastern province Hasakeh, was one of the main cities of the Assyrian Empire, which flourished in the first millennium BCE.

Other casualties of war

All of human history has passed through the Levant. Yet not all of the damage to the region's heritage has been wreaked by the Islamic State. Much of the birthplace of modern civilization and its archaeological clues lie in regions wracked by war.

Syria, one of the world’s richest archaeological areas, has been in the front line since civil war erupted in 2011. Ancient ruins of cities and fortresses from Assyrian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras are used as cannon mounts and weapon depots. 

ISIS however, similarly to the Taliban in Afghanistan before it, deliberately took aim at the local cultural heritage.

Its forces captured Tel Ajaja in 2014. What followed was two years of systematic pillaging and looting, and destruction, attested by photographs, of statues, cuneiform tablets treasures and buildings, before Kurdish rebels finally drove them off this February. Some 40% of the Assyrian site was destroyed, according to the report.

Photo taken on August 3, 2016 shows two fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-Arab alliance backed by the US fighting ISIS, standing at the Tal Ajaja archeological site in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province. The pits show digging, where ISIS stripped the site.
Ayham al-Mohammad , AFP

“The devastation in Syria and destruction of cultural heritage is tied to the systematic targeting of civilian populations in ways that are intended to eliminate any trace of their history. It is not just that we are losing heritage that we all share, but that we are seeing efforts to erase cultural identities as part of the conflict,” Dr. Brian I. Daniels, director of Penn Museum’s Cultural Heritage Center, told Haaretz.

When ISIS captured the oasis town of Palmyra in May 2016, they crushed a 15-ton lion statue and destroyed funeral portraits from Roman times. In August 2015, they blew up the temple to the Semitic god Baalshamin.

“Careful analysis of satellite images by the American Association for the Advancement of Science showed that five out of six World Heritage sites showed damage," Daniels says. "Tentative World Heritage sites have been damaged as well. By April 2014, 76% of the site of Dura-Europos inside the city walls had been looted.  Reports from colleagues inside the country have indicated that the damage is extensive and widespread and touches every part of the country."

However, ISIS' intentions go beyond erasing cultural heritage. The origin of looted artifacts is difficult to pin down, but clearly, sites it controls are being massively looted and artifacts are being trafficked in the black market.

Blood antiquities

The age-old objects that ISIS is digging up and selling are what the experts have dubbed "blood antiquities" because they are being sold to finance war – to buy weapons, or to finance terrorism.

According to UNESCO, the plundering has reached "an industrial scale." Satellite images of the 5000-year-old Bronze Age city of Mari revealed 1,286 pits dug by looters.

In an even worse state was the Roman border cities of Dura-Europos, where experts counted 3750 holes, some dug so near to one another that they merged.

But then, ISIS does not bear sole responsibility for the devastation of cultural heritage in Syria. When the 800-year-old medieval fortress Krak des Chevaliers, one of the world's best preserved Crusader fortresses, was captured by Syrian rebels in 2012, the Syrian regime bombed the Crusader chapel into dust before regaining control in 2014.

The Temple of Bel in Dura-Europos, a Roman outpost and World Heritage site, before ISIS.
Heretiq, Wikimedia Commons

Archaeological heroes

Some archaeologists inside Syria are taking heroic action to protect what they can of the remaining cultural heritage.

“The Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq (SHOSI) Project has been working to provide Syrian museum curators, conservators, and civil society activists with the resources that they need to protect key heritage sites," Daniels told Haaretz. "Much of this work is not public for reasons of security, but one effort that is well known is the effort to sandbag the immoveable mosaics at the Ma'arra Mosaic Museum.”

In June 2015, the museum, in the northern Syrian town of Maaret al-Numan, was badly damaged by a barrel bomb dropped by the Assad regime. The mosaic collection was largely secured by the sandbagging project.