Islamic State militants in Iraq have forced archaeologists to abandon their posts, attacked prized historical sites and embraced an illicit antiquities trade that experts say helps fund their activities.
Now, the fate of the Iraq’s cultural heritage remains unclear as officials and experts remain limited in their abilities to even assess the damage.
“There is a well-studied, systematic plan to destroy Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization,” said Junaid Amer Hameed Jasim, an Iraqi archaeologist who works at the Iraqi national museum in Baghdad.
“The current conditions and the impossibility to get access to these sites is the biggest challenge we are facing now,” he said.
Concern over Iraq’s heritage surrounds a string of assaults that started after the Islamic State seized Mosul last summer. A week after the city’s capture in June, staff members at the Mosul Museum were prevented from working, said Amer Al-Jumaily, an Iraqi archaeologist and professor at Mosul University who fled the city to Baghdad.
Later, a video posted online appeared to show Islamic State militants smashing the museum’s relics, which they claimed were symbols of idol worship. The video didn’t show images of the museum’s Assyrian hall, raising concern among Iraqi archaeologists that objects there were also looted.
Out of 173 artifacts in the museum—including reliefs, doors and altars—169 were originals and only four were copies, said an Iraqi archaeologist in Mosul whose name was withheld for his safety. “It is a big loss,” he said, noting that all archaeological activity in the city has halted. “It is impossible to work or do anything under such conditions.”
Protests against the museum attack and broader assaults on Iraq’s cultural heritage were held at universities this month, including at the University of Baghdad and Al-Qadisiyah University—both in southern parts of the country that the Islamic State doesn’t control.
“But this has no impact,” said Jaafar Jotheri, an Iraqi Ph.D. student at Durham University in the U.K., who is familiar with the protests. “We do a demonstration or a march in the south, but we cannot protect our heritage in the north.”
Aside from attacking the Mosul Museum, militants bombed the grave of an important religious figure, [some reason we don’t identify a bit more or at least specify the religion?] a video posted online last summer appeared to show. They also destroyed churches, monasteries, mosques, libraries and museums, archaeologist Jasim said. This month, they attacked historical properties including Nimrud and Hatra, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
But the extent of the destruction remains unclear: Officials and archaeologists can’t access the sites since they remain under Islamic State rule. Still, any degree of damage is unacceptable and heartbreaking, said Lamia Al-Gailani, an Iraqi archaeologist and honorary research associate at the London-based Institute of Archaeology.
“I love these pieces,” she said. “There is a lot of intimacy with these objects because you know them, you know the history, you know the background of how they were discovered, and of course their significance. So, it’s very difficult.”
In addition to being important for research, cultural heritage can unite people by pointing to a shared history. Historical properties also have educational value for local communities and can be critical to the country’s tourism industry if it eventually recovers, experts and archaeologists said.
Take Nimrud, for example. The 3,000-year-old city was once home to massive palaces as the capital of a mighty empire. While many artifacts from the site were moved to museums worldwide after Austen Henry Layard, an English archaeologist, started excavations there in the 1840s, the site is still home to important reliefs depicting the ancient royal court and king, offering windows into history, Al-Gailani said.
Hatra, meanwhile, is a sprawling complex of stone structures about 70 miles from Mosul. It is unique for once being a cultural melting pot where Arab inhabitants spoke Aramaic and wore Persian clothing, Al-Gailani said. And it hasn’t been well studied yet since excavations there began recently, in the 1950s, she said.
To assess the damage, experts are relying on satellite imagery, images of destruction posted online and phone reports from local sources.
Axel Plathe, director of the UNESCO Office for Iraq, said initial analysis of satellite images indicated that Nimrud and Hatra have not been completely bulldozed. “We still see structures, distinct structures, of the buildings that have been there,” he said, “but we also see bulldozers and other technical material on the sites,” which could be used to illegally excavate or destroy antiquities.
Aerial photos, however, can only show so much about on-the-ground realities. “We cannot assess the damages,” said Abdulamir Al-Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist and Ph.D. student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “Even the aerial photographs are useless as they will never show what had happened to the statues and reliefs at Nimrud—ancient Kalhu—and Hatra.”
Regardless of how much might be hurt, history won’t vanish with site damage. Archaeologists said the sites have been documented well and that artifacts can be restored. One major uncertainty, though, is what could happen to looted objects, which are often hard to recover.
At least symbolically, some have pushed back.
In Baghdad, Iraq’s national museum reopened late last month ahead of schedule and in “rapid reaction to what had happened to the Mosul Museum,” said Jasim. The Baghdad museum was looted in 2003 following the American-led invasion and closed for over a decade. Security personnel have now been trained and security cameras have been installed to better protect it, Jasim said.
“The most important point now is to raise the Mesopotamian cultural awareness especially among children, universities, institutions and school students,” Jasim added. That could help prevent future attacks on the nation’s antiquities.
But the region is facing a broader battle against destruction. Warfare, looting and targeted attacks have damaged cultural heritage in Syria, while a period of political unrest that started in Egypt four years led to a spike in antiquities looting.
Looting in Egypt more recently slowed. People woke up to the problem after the nation’s Malawi museum was ransacked in 2013, said Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. But stronger punishments for antiquities trafficking and theft, and reduction in demand for artifacts, are still needed to help squash the problem. “If there is no demand, then the supply does not need to be there,” she said.
Ikram has doubts that the situation will soon improve particularly in Iraq, and in Syria. “These people will continue to shed blood and rip their countries apart, and with it rip their history and world history and heritage apart,” she said.
Sarah Lynch reported from Cairo; Gilgamesh Nabeel from Istanbul