No one can say for certain how many people have suffered and died in the Middle East in recent years because of foreign invasions and internal conflicts. Some observers count the fatalities in the hundreds of thousands; millions of people have been uprooted from their homes. And while the full scope of the humanitarian disaster may never be clear, the cultural toll is sometimes painfully evident.
The United Nations and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have been monitoring the condition of historic sites in Syria and Iraq via high-resolution satellite images. Late last year, the U.N. reported that 290 historic sites in Iraq and Syria have been disturbed, describing 24 as “destroyed” and 104 others as “severely damaged.” This is the cradle of civilization we’re talking about, settlements dating back thousands of years.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, and the Syrian Civil War has been a major perpetrator. For two years, rebels held the 11th century crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers, in a harsh echo of its original purpose. The forces of President Bashar al-Assad bombarded and recaptured the fortress last March. His forces have also shelled the ancient city of Palmyra, destroying portions of the Roman-era Temple of Bel and other monuments; the museum there has been pillaged.
Awful as they are, the architectural casualties of the Syrian Civil War seem incidental when compared to the systematic campaign of cultural vandalism committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The terror group and its like have used as justification for their actions an extremist interpretation of Sharia law that prohibits the worship of “false idols” and the depiction of people and animals in a religious context.
In February, ISIS uploaded a video to the Internet that had been shot in a museum in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The clip shows militants taking sledgehammers to statues from the Parthian Empire, which encompassed much of the Middle East from the third century B.C. to the third century A.D. Landmarks of the Muslim past have fared little better. During its iconoclastic bender in Mosul, ISIS also demolished mosques, shrines, and tombs as old as the seventh century.
ISIS has learned from the worst. Remember how, in 2001, the Taliban blew up the colossal sixth century Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan? Or how, in 2013, al-Qaeda torched a library of rare manuscripts in Timbuktu? The proclamations of religious orthodoxy are a fig leaf. When Islamist militants aren’t smashing antiquities for shock value, they’re selling them on the black market for cash. Among the archaeological sites ISIS has sacked and looted are Hellenistic cities Hatra and Dura-Europos as well as two successive capitals of Assyria, Khorsabad and Nimrud.
Reports of valor have emerged sporadically amid the insanity. Residents of Mosul banded together to stop ISIS from blowing up the 800-year-old leaning minaret at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri. And according to NPR, archaeologists and volunteers braved sniper fire to safeguard ancient mosaics in Maarrat al-Nu’man, a town in northwestern Syria. Such acts may be small victories in the face of overwhelming barbarity, but they are also signs that civilization can prevail.