Why Is ISIS Destroying Iraq's Historical Heritage?

No ethnic cleansing is complete without the removal of the historical roots from which a people emerged. In order to dictate the future, ISIS is destroying the past.

Aziz Abu Sarah
Aziz Abu Sarah
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The courtyard of the royal palace at the archaeological site of Hatra in northwest Iraq between Mosul and Samarra, where the Hellenistic and Roman architecture blend with eastern decorative features.
The courtyard of the royal palace at the archaeological site of Hatra in northwest Iraq between Mosul and Samarra, where the Hellenistic and Roman architecture blend with eastern decorative features.Credit: AFP
Aziz Abu Sarah
Aziz Abu Sarah

Stoning, beheading, rape and crucifixion: these are some of the terror tactics for which the Islamic State group has become infamous. Yet in the past few weeks, the group has expanded its sinister offensive to destroying religious archeological sites, Hatra, Niniveh and Nimrud.

This is not the first time since ISIS' advent in Iraq and Syria that it has attacked religious sites. Yet, its strikes on shrines, mosques and churches – and its targeted killing of religious leaders – were seen as part of the religious war it is waging on Shia and Sufi Muslims as well as non-Muslims. These attacks were to be expected, as part of the group's attempt to create a unitary religious state that adheres to its peculiar brand of Islam.

This is far from being the first time that an extremist group has targeted heritage sites. The Taliban destroyed Buddhist sites in Afghanistan, claiming they were idols being worshipped in violation of Sharia (Islamic law), and therefore must be destroyed. ISIS has explained that it destroys monuments to follow in the footsteps of the prophet Abraham. In the Quran, Abraham is known for destroying the idols worshiped by his tribe, being sentenced to death and then miraculously being saved by God for committing this righteous act.

An ISIS militant uses a power tool to destroy a winged-bull Assyrian protective deity at the Ninevah Museum in Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 26. 2015.Credit: AP

Yet, for ISIS, destroying Assyrian archaeology represents more than an attack on idolatry. In order to remain the only ruling religious body in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is going beyond ethnically and religiously cleansing the population to erasing any historical traces of the displaced people.

The archaeological sites it destroys are from the Babylonian, Persian and Roman Empires. These eras represent a pluralistic past that legitimizes the presence of Chaldeans, Yazidis and other minorities in the region, with whom ISIS does not share a human heritage. ISIS' interpretation of history maintains that there are two historical eras: Jahiliyah (the time of ignorance) and, the later era, Islam (the time of enlightenment). The presence of sites from the Babylonian, Persian and Roman Empires harks back to a golden age before Islam. ISIS is thus working to erase any trace of those eras, for it thinks it cannot control the future until it controls the past.

What ISIS is doing is not a new strategy; conquering dynasties throughout history have employed similar tactics. After conquering Korea in the 7th century, the Chinese Tang dynasty destroyed the native Paekche heritage. Similarly, nationalist Serbs targeted hundreds of Catholic and Muslim sites in Bosnia in the 20th Century. The Ferhad Pasha Mosque, built in 1583 and known as one of the most beautiful, historical mosques in Bosnia, for instance, was blown to pieces in 1993. As researcher András J. Riedlmayer writes, "[T]he destruction of houses of worship became one of the hallmarks of 'ethnic cleansing' in Bosnia."

Ethnic cleansing goes beyond destroying sites to redrawing maps and changing city names. ISIS is doing this too. It decided to change the name, for example, of the Syrian city Deir al-Zour. In Arabic, Deir means “monastery,” a reference to the city’s Christian heritage. ISIS renamed the town Wilayet al-Khair. Wilayet means “district,” and was the term used by the early Muslim dynasties. (Al-Khair means “goodness,” thus "District of Goodness.") This particular name change aimed to establish a new landscape, rewrite history, and establish ISIS as the legitimate heir of the first Caliphate.

Last summer, I met with a Syrian activist, “Ziyad,” whose work involves infiltrating militant-held areas in Syria to document artifacts, preserve sites, and stop the smuggling of archeological artifacts. Often, this involves convincing militants to spare archeological sites.

Describing one of his meetings with ISIS militants, he said the first thing he noticed was that the leader, Abu Ammar, who called himself an emir (prince), wasn't Syrian. As Ziyad relates, “When we tried to talk to him about preserving the archaeology, he laughed and explained that he saw no positive value in saving any cultural or historical sites. For him, it was more important to bring about Caliphate rule and implement Sharia law in Aleppo.”

On another occasion, I asked Ziyad why he fights so hard to save archeological sites, when thousands of people are dying. He explained, that “these sites, like the Citadel in Aleppo, represent our history. We can’t have a future if we don't have a past. Our children have to learn about the great civilizations we came from, in order to appreciate Syria’s diversity.”

Over time, I’ve become more convinced that Ziyad is right: We mourn the destruction of archaeological sites, and work to preserve them, because they are more than piles of rocks. They are a precious, timeless and yet fragile record of our past. They belong to all of humanity, representing our diversity and our shared history. When we lose them, we lose a part of who we are.

Aziz Abu Sarah is a cultural educator and an Entrepreneur. He is a National Geographic Explorer, a Ted Fellow and the Executive Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. He is also the Co-founder of MEJDI Tours.

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