Islamic State’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage and its Impact on Classical Studies

By Daniel Brady

In recent years, Islamic State have gained increased notoriety for abhorrent acts across the globe. More recently, a focus has emerged in regards to the deliberate destruction and theft of cultural heritage across Iraq, Syria and, in parts, Libya. Whilst recording these acts is difficult due to their occurrence within IS controlled areas, it is believed more than than 100 churches, monasteries and religious houses have been razed to the ground in Mosul and many Christian villages surrounding it, such as Qaraqosh and Bashiqa, since 2014. The scale of this heinous destruction is hard to monitor, although satellite images continue to track it on a vast scale.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has labelled these activities as “a form of cultural cleansing”, for many militants believe that Islam is the only religion and must be adopted by followers of all other faiths. Broadly speaking, one reason for this destruction is founded in the groups attack of polytheism and therefore their rejection of the worship of idols that these sites represent.

The destruction of these sites is not only for ideological purposes, but antiquities looted from sites are known to be financing IS’s activities. Despite the United Nations ban on the trade of many of these, it is well known that these artifacts have been smuggled and sold in underground antique markets, specifically found in Europe and North America.

Whilst the motives for these actions are a culmination of the latter, IS act in these ways to shock and draw the world’s attention to them in an attempt to demonstrate their power, and increase the influence of its caliphate.

Despite this, it is important to reflect on these global issues and attempt to come to terms with them by observing their impact on an academic level, a method which has helped form ideas in preserving and saving these pieces of history. The simplicity of visiting a site and taking in its physical presence and atmosphere is of paramount importance, therefore, whilst some may argue simply seeing images of the sites is enough, it is never comparable to actually absorbing a site or handling relics, in a tangible sense.

It is widely known that historians base much of their research through antiquarianism, or the study of artifacts, historic sites and physical evidence, therefore the destruction of these sites is, in one sense, slowing the progress of studying the history of Christianity and other religions these sites represent. The brutal murder of Khaled al-Asaad, a renown Syrian archeologist and the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, demonstrates the barbarity of IS and the determination they hold in crushing others beliefs; which should motivate the western world to fight in the preservation of what Al-Asaad worked for. What has been destroyed is not merely ancient ruins, but key in the fight against IS; they are a memory of the past and whilst they still exist they demonstrate that IS will never be in control.

Royal Holloway is home to a strong classical history department and therefore the study of ancient sites is crucial, an example being to aid the understanding of how civilisations worked and people lived.  This is reflected not just nationally but globally, and universities reliance on this form of study has an extremely influential effect. After the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra in August 2015, the Institute for Digital Archaeology, a joint venture between Harvard University and the University of Oxford, announced plans to establish a digital record of historical sites and artifacts threatened by IS. To accomplish this goal, the IDA, in collaboration with UNESCO, aim to deploy 5,000 3D cameras to partners in the Middle East, which will capture 3D scans of local ruins and relics.  It is believed that, should the artefacts be destroyed, the 3D imagery will be used to make exact replicas.

This preservation will have an extremely positive impact on the study of these historical sites as it will mean studies can continue, despite a sites destruction. That being said, technology cannot simply replace thousand-year-old pieces of history and only time will truly tell the damage done to the study of the past.  It is a brilliant and innovative solution to the issue, however it will never truly emulate the physicality of an object which holds thousands of years’ worth of history in the tiniest of cracks.

This destruction will continue until IS are halted, but until that point we can only hope, perhaps naively, that no further damage will be inflicted to these sites; not just for our sake, but for the sake of future generations who will never witness the work of their ancestors.


Daniel Brady


This article was published in our February 2016 issue.

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