I’ve had tens of chances to visit Palmyra over the course of my life, but, being a local citizen, never did as I took its existence for granted. Today, the danger hovering around the ancient city is tragic even to foreigners. In fact, the legacy of architectural and artistic treasures in the Levant is facing an unprecedented peril. All regard for cultural values or heritage is laid down. A chaotic decimation of world history is prevailing.
Located on an articular crossroad in the middle of the ancient Silk Road, the city of Palmyra is home to some of the world’s most veteran ancient ruins; Greco-Roman fundamentals, influenced by the latter Persian and Arabic architects. The city is one of the jewels of ancient architecture, seized now by the Islamic State ’IS’; a newly formed so-called “state” recruiting its members from extremists from all over the world. Ultimately, this state comprises the worst danger on the city ever since the Roman war on it in the second century A.D.
Although IS is barely one year old, and although its members barely count in comparison to actual states’ armies, the leverage IS has, acknowledged now ahead of other terrorist organization in the world, is the draining ongoing war in Syria, and the sectarian tension in Iraq. Such circumstances have helped it loot the bank of Mosul, control major oil wells in Syria, thus becoming the richest terrorist organization in the world.
The barbarous so-called state is majorly focused on tightening its field military grip on regions in Iraq and Syria, two of the oldest countries ever, with more than 31 franchises in 18 countries, and with architectural treasures surrounding it from every direction. The newly forged state has already destroyed tens of the historic sites of Syria and Iraq, some of which are enlisted on UNESCO’s world heritage list. They went further to loot and destroy many overseas other historical sites.
Standing up to IS is easier said than done, as the numerous armed forces who oppose it are dilapidated, newly forged, or not organized. Another reason is the IS exploitation of the tribal nature of the area, forming alliances with certain tribes, and going to war with others. The third reason, being the most important as many critics argue, is the lack of any solid ideology. All IS acts are supported by misinterpreted, historically false, or ages old questionable Islamic texts, which leads to the fact that IS will go as far as it takes to distort order for its own good.
The so-called Islamic State’s sole firm bedrock is the intolerance to all religions, states, traditions, and customs differing from theirs- an ideology contradicting all Islam teachings. However, the malice this organization shows towards historical treasures has only been seen when the Mogul Empire has set half the world on fire during its expansion. Operating by spreading random destruction, here are some of the least popular examples of its barbarous actions:
- Khorsabad, the Assyrian capital (Iraq): (Source: C.N.N.)
Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said on March 9 that it had received reports the ancient Assyrian capital of Khorsabad had been destroyed.
“We have warned before and we warn again that those gangs and their sick Takfiri ideology will continue to destroy and steal artifacts as long as there is no strong deterrent,” the ministry said in a statement. (A Takfiri is a Muslim who accuses another Muslim of apostasy.)
Assyrian King Sargon II built a palace at Khorsabad between 717 and 706 B.C., according to the Oriental Institute at Chicago University, which helped excavate the site during the last century. Khorsabad, one of three cities that served as a capital during the empire’s reign, was abandoned after Sargon’s death in 705 B.C., the institute said.
The Oriental Institute says that “Khorsabad is unusual among the Assyrian palaces because of its stylistic innovations, the preservation of paint on its reliefs, and the extensive ancient written documentation concerning the organization of the building project.”
News Report from CCTV reporting Khorsabad’s cultural crime.
- Timbuktu’s Tombs and Library (Mali): (Source: Beastrabban’s Blog)
Over 20,000 historical manuscripts have either been destroyed or looted by Islamic extremists in Mali, 2013.
A report from Euronews from 29th January 2013, reports how, when they were expelled from Timbuktu, Islamist militants smashed one of the important local graves, and set fire to the local library, in the hope of destroying the priceless books and manuscripts within.
The local library houses thousands of ages-old manuscripts, and the Sufi tombs are located within the city. This was a calculated attempted to destroy Mali’s peculiar Islamic culture, and its rich intellectual heritage that is only just beginning to be discovered and truly appreciated by Western scholars. And it shows clearly what ISIS would like to do to other Muslim nations and their cultures, including those in the West, simply for not following what they consider to be the correct interpretation of Islam
News Report from Euronews reporting Timbuktu’s cultural crimes.
- Hatra, the city that withstood the romans (Iraq): (Source: C.N.N.)
In 2014, ISIS took over the site of the ancient ruined city of Hatra — or al-Hadr in Arabic — using it to store weapons and ammunition, train fighters and execute prisoners.
“The destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing underway in Iraq,” said UNESCO’s Bokova and Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri, director general of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in a joint statement.
UNESCO says the city withstood attacks by the Roman Empire before falling in the third century to the Persian Sassanid Empire. Hatra is an “excellent example” of a circular fortified city, it says.
“The perfect condition of the double wall in an untouched environment sets it aside as an outstanding example of a series which covers the Parthian, Sassanid and early Islamic civilization. It provides, moreover, exceptional testimony to an entire facet of Assyro-Babylonian civilization subjected to the influence of Greeks, Parthians, Romans and Arabs,” its description of the site continues.
One of the tens of videos showing ISIS destroying Hatra’s heritage using primitive tools.
The list goes on. The known historical sites destroyed by IS number up to twenty sites, some of which never made it to mass media to actually be counted on this list. And while the UNESCO tries its best to make statements in a desperate attempt to face the threat of IS, the local community has been doing the best it can as well to help.
The least could be done to stand up for the deeds of the IS is spreading awareness about the destroyed heritage on international media, and taking the precautions to protect possible targets from IS’s hands. One activist elaborates about Syrian heritage saying “All Syrians have the rights to this heritage, no one has the right to steal it or harm it whoever they were, and the people will not forgive any person who messes with it whatever their intention is.”
Showing the impact of stirring the international media about the drastic loss of treasures, UNESCO’s mere labeling of raiding historical sites as a “war crime” has pushed the alliance against IS to carefully monitor its drones’ activity not to harm any of the tens of the historical sites in the areas controlled by IS. This comes after reports of harming several historical sites in the beginning of the military operation against IS during the process of bombing the organization’s military sites “The Sukkara Citadel in Hasaka”.
Local architects have been working day and night, documenting and protecting historical monuments of both Syria and Iraq. Efforts have resulted with some very beneficial projects so far, like “The Syrian Association for Preservation of Archaeology and Heritage”; a Syrian project to protect and document the monuments of Syria, “ITN-DCH”, an Iraqi project recreating 3D replicas of historic artifacts, “Heritage for Peace” a multi-national NGO concerned with reaching a solid ground for an urgent solution of the issue of heritage destruction in Syria.
Other reactions to the acts of IS include petitions like This one calling for subsiding Palmyra from the ongoing war, artworks such as “Cultural Beheading” by Humam Al-Salim and Rami Bakhos, highlighting the graveness of the danger surrounding Palmyra. Last but not least were workshops organized by local universities in coordination with international organizations such as Architects Without Borders, that, for example, organized a workshop in Damascus University addressing the ongoing war and its effects on architecture in the country.
There is no guarantee for the exclusion of any of the rest of architectural treasures from a lasting decimation. Today, the treasures in the city of Palmyra are anticipating their fate between the hands of the beheader. Novelist and historian Tom Holland explains the catastrophic consequences of IS’s actions saying “Extensive destruction of Palmyra would not just be a tragedy for Syria. It would be a loss for the world; Mesopotamia, Iraq, Syria.. This is the wellspring of global civilization; it really couldn’t be higher stakes in terms of conservation.”
Written By: Hazem Raad
Reviewed By: Zeynab Matar
Some of the local reactions on ISIS’s assaults on Wolrd Heritage: