MOSCOW, September 19 (RIA Novosti) - This summer, the expansion of the self-proclaimed Islamic State has resulted in the uncontrolled plunder and destruction of thousands of priceless archeological and architectural treasures and artifacts representing millennia of history in northern Mesopotamia.
Cultural treasures from the Assyrian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Roman and other periods face plunder by local residents and criminal gangs, who have begun paying a tax of 10-50 percent to IS warlords for the right to remove artifacts from unprotected archeological sites and structures throughout IS-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq. The market for looted antiquities in ISIS-controlled areas has been estimated to be worth over one billion USD.
Moreover, IS militants have been systematically destroying Shiite tombs and mosques, Christian churches, shrines and pagan temples, which are considered by their puritanical Salafist ideology to be ‘idolatrous’ and ‘heretical’. Among the tombs destroyed is that of Jonah, the Biblical and Quranic prophet known for having been swallowed whole by a whale.
The barbarity of the plunder of palaces and archeological sites often comes down to its unorganized, chaotic nature, with everyone from local residents to gangs of bandits to IS militants looting museums and libraries, starting unsanctioned digs at archeological zones, and chipping off pieces of ancient structures and statutes to sell on the international black market. Archeologists and museum officials have been chased out of the artifact-rich areas, either by IS warlords or local gangs.
A group of concerned anthropologists and Middle East experts have noted in an op-ed for the New York Times that the IS has even begun licensing the use of heavy machinery and semi-professional dig crews, and stated that this indicated the involvement of serious international criminal syndicates.
The stolen artifacts are smuggled mostly through Syria’s porous border with Turkey, which is also used by radical jihadi groups to send fighters and weapons to the conflict zone.
About a third of Iraq’s 12,000 important cultural heritage sites are now feared to be under control of the Islamic State, while over 90 percent of Syria’s historical heritage zones border battlefields, including all six of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, the newspaper Al-Monitor.com has reported.
UNESCO has expressed great concern about the plunder of the region’s cultural wealth, established an emergency cultural heritage defense plan, and calling on art dealers and museums not to buy stolen artifacts.
The more the region’s heritage is destroyed, the more difficult it will be to reconcile and rebuild after the conflict. The Op-Ed in the New York Times concludes by saying that the country’s ancient cities, historic houses of worship, and centuries-old bazaars are the “heritage [that] will be critical in helping the people of Syria reconnect with the symbols that unite them across religious and political lines.” The same can be said about all of the territories presently under the control of IS.
Although Syria has been facing the Islamist threat to its culture for longer, Iraq too has been hard hit by the recent theft and destruction of its ancient cultural artifacts. The country is still reeling from the culturally devastating effects of the 2003 US invasion, which saw mass looting, the pillaging of the Iraq National Museum, fires in its National Library, the destruction of historical buildings by civil conflict, and the destruction of the site of the ancient city of Babylon after the US military decided to construct a base there.
The IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has been fighting the Syrian government since 2012. In June 2014, it launched an offensive in Iraq and seized vast areas in both countries, proclaiming an Islamic caliphate on the territories under its control.
On September 10, US President Barack Obama unveiled his strategy for defeating the Islamic State. The plan includes forming an international anti-IS coalition and authorizing US airstrikes against IS positions in Syria, while simultaneously continuing airstrikes in Iraq, which were launched by the country back in August. Russia has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his struggle to restore order in the country since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, despite the misplaced censure of several European countries and the United States.