Why ISIS is Destroying Cities and Artifacts And What to Do About It

Howard Nowes - 04/14/2016

ISIS has destroyed vast stores of precious cultural artifacts in its quest to restore Salafi Islam, one of the earliest tribal versions of Islam, under which all sculptures, icons, and artistic representations of life are considered sacrilege. 

The attacks have taken place in both Iraq and Syria, including the destruction of Iraq’s ancient city of Nimrud, which lies 19 miles south of Mosul, Iraq.  Nimrud was the first Assyrian capital, one of the first known sites on Earth to show traces of an organized, imperial civilization, and the site of extremely precious archeological and cultural artifacts.

Also destroyed was the ancient Assyrian capital Khorsabad, in Iraq, built by Assyrian emperor King Sargon II between 717 and 706 BD.  Khorsabad was unique because of its well-preserved painted relief sculptures and written records.

ISIS invaded several other extremely important sites in Iraq, including the Mosul Museum and Library north of Bagdad, where 173 artifacts were destroyed and thousands of ancient texts were burned. Also destroyed were the sites of Jonah’s tomb in Mosul, and the ancient city of Hatra.   Jonah’s tomb is an important site to those with Judeo-Christian beliefs who revere Jonah as a heroic figure.  Hatra dates back to 300 BC; it was founded by the successors of Alexander the Great, and was an influence on what would one day become Western civilization, including the Greeks, Parthians, Romans, and Arabs.  (UNESCO website).

The destruction in Syria is also rampant, with archaeological sites such as Almyra, the Crac des Chevaliers, the Saint Simeon Church, and Aleppo, including the Aleppo Citadel, left ransacked by ISIS.

The recent destruction of ancient sites and landmarks in Iraq and Syria by ISIS is shocking and confounding.   

Why is ISIS attacking sites in Iraq and Syria that contain artifacts from the dawn of human civilization?   

Scholar Mark Mosavian explains that ISIS is attempting to restore one of the earliest forms of Islam, Salafi Islam, in which all artistic representations of life are considered blasphemous.  According to Salafi Islam, any sculptural form, whether human, animal, or mythical creature, confines the limitless concept of God into a limited, granular form, therefore the creation and existence of these objects is a sin.

One enterprising group, the Initial Training Network for Digital Cultural heritage, is fighting back against these losses with a unique method: using crowd sourcing and videos of the ISIS destruction to create replicas of the lost artifacts using 3D printing.  Although a 3D printed object could never replace the real thing, this is a valiant effort to preserve some of the knowledge that might have otherwise been lost, and an interesting read: 


Another way to help is to consider opening your mind to the vast world of collecting.  Collectors have a passion for the history and objects these extant cultures leave behind and the majority of collectors are extremely educated about the objects they collect, diligent in their quest for knowledge and understanding, and contentious in following ethical collecting practices and working to establish cross-cultural unity.

Collecting is a form of insurance against threats by groups such as ISIS, because housing artifacts outside their country of origin means that they can be safely cared for, conserved, mounted, researched, documented, and loved, now, and well into the future.

James Cuno writes, “Antiquities are the cultural property of all humankind – of people, not peoples – evidence of the world's ancient past and not that of a particular modern nation.  They comprise antiquity, and antiquity knows no borders … It cannot be subdivided and nationalized.  Its influence is boundless, uncontainable.  We all have a stake in its survival, in all its forms, everywhere.”

Locked within these objects’ form and function is meaning, knowledge, and an understanding of our history.  Understanding the motivations of the cultures that made these artifacts can teach us lessons about ourselves.  

History tends to repeat itself,replica watches but we can learn so much from collecting, and with the web and other information sharing technology, the knowledge these artifacts contain educate us, open our minds, and bring us closer.




Cuno, James.  Who Owns Antiquity?  Princeton University Press, 2008, p.146-147.

Mosavian, Mark.  Why did ISIS Destroy the Tomb of Jonah?  First Things Magazine, July, 2014.


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