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As if the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's (ISIL; also referred to as IS, ISIS, and Daesh) actions weren't troubling enough, last week the US Department of State reported on the irrevocable damage the terror organization continues to wreak on cultural artifacts in Iraq and Syria. The destruction goes beyond wartime collateral damage– ISIL is celebrating their destruction of religious monuments and profiting from the systematic looting taking place. Corine Wegener, a cultural heritage preservationist at the Smithsonian Institution, called the current situation "one of the biggest problems to confront the cultural heritage community in decades." 

Secretary of State John Kerry joined Thomas Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in hosting a conference last week at the Met to call attention to the issue. Some remarks from Secretary of State Kerry:

We gather in the midst of one of the most tragic and one of the most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage that perhaps any of us have seen in a lifetime. Ancient treasures in Iraq and in Syria have now become the casualties of continuing warfare and looting. And no one group has done more to put our shared cultural heritage in the gun sights than ISIL.

ISIL is not only beheading individuals; it is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations. It has no respect for life. It has no respect for religion. And it has no respect for culture, which for millions is actually the foundation of life...ISIL is stealing lives, yes, but it’s also stealing the soul of millions...How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization...these appalling acts aren’t just a tragedy for the Syrian and the Iraqi people. These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilized people, and the civilized world must take a stand.

The Department of State's announcement noted just a few of the historic and religious sites destroyed or dealt consequential blows:

  • Most of the monuments of Islamic architecture in Mosul, including the tomb of Nebi Yunus/Prophet Jonah, a sacred site for Muslims, Christians, and Jews
  • Significant areas of Homs and Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site
  • A massive ancient Assyrian gateway lion sculpture (8th century BC) in Raqqa was bulldozed
  • The ancient Roman city Dura Europos
  • The Krak des Chevaliers, a medieval castle dating from the 11th century

ISIL is composed of extremists who advocate a severe interpretation of Islam and their cultural assault includes Islamic sites and objects they consider forms of idolatry. This includes graves where worshipping occurs, like the aforementioned tomb of Nebi Yunus/Prophet Jonah, and earlier in the summer an anonymous member of the group threatened to destroy the Kaaba in Mecca. 

Books and manuscripts have not been spared. Baghdad museum director Qais Rashid reported that in once incident ISIL "gathered over 1,500 manuscripts from convents and other holy places and burnt them all in the middle of the city square." 

It's been widely reported that ISIL is the most well-funded terror organization in the world. Their coffers have continued to increase in size as the group has made a business of trafficking antiquities looted from Iraq and Syria, which includes imposing a 20% "plunder tax" on the goods. Many of these valuable items are thought to be making their way to Western markets. Rashid referred to ISIL's looting as "an international artifacts mafia."

So what's to be done?

On Monday, a multinational group of diplomats, Iraqi officials, and experts on Iraq's heritage met at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris to discuss and bring awareness to the dire situation. This meeting comes a month in advance of the general assembly meeting of the world cultural body. Reports say that at the upcoming meeting France will propose a resolution aimed to raise awareness of the issue and suggest a strategy to help Iraq assess the damage. UNESCO has also asked the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution that outlaws all sales of Iraqi and Syrian cultural goods. 

The US Department of State and the American Schools of Orient Research (ASOR) have formed a partnership to create an exhaustive study of the condition of and threats to cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria in a means to "assess their future restoration, preservation, and protection needs." You can view their weekly findings here

The Department of State has also partnered with a number of international organizations to produce Emergency Red Lists for both countries. These red lists contain items at risk of illegal trafficking in the hope that museums, dealers, and law enforcement officials will be better able to identify and detain any objects that come their way. Click here for the Emergency Red List of Iraq Antiquities and click here for the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects At Risk.

It's difficult enough to read about this dire situation and viewing photos of the events are chilling. Just today, the New York Times published an article about the cultural devastation that included a photo slideshow. PBS NewsHour aired a segment on the issue last week, which you can view below.