Beyond the horrific executions, the deadly assaults on Christian and Yazidi communities and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing towns to avoid their terror, fighters of the Islamic State movement sweeping through Syria and Iraq are deliberately demolishing or damaging ancient historical sites in some of the world’s oldest towns and cities.
The recent campaign of destruction, combined with damages inflicted on other places in three years of civil war among assorted rebels and the government of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, have left five of the six Unesco World Heritage Sites in Syria in ruins or severely damaged, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported recently, backing up its findings with high-resolution satellite images.
Syrian government shelling and airstrikes on Homs and Aleppo appear to have decimated or irrevocably damaged large areas of these cities, and the 11th– century crusaders’ castle, Crac des Chevaliers, has been severely damaged. Only the Ancient City of Damascus, part of the Syrian capital region, appears to have mostly survived.
In Iraq, Islamists have attacked numerous monuments in the old city of Mosul, which they seized in June. Many of these sites were outstanding examples of Islamic architecture, experts say. The destroyed historical buildings include the one revered as the tomb of Nebi Yunus — the Biblical prophet Jonah — sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sept. 22, as the 69th United Nations General Assembly session was getting underway in New York, United States Secretary of State John Kerry joined Unesco’s director general, Irina Bukova, and archeological experts in condemning the loss of the damaged historical sites, reminiscent of the destruction of the giant Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001.
“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,” Kerry said. “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 [or ISIS].
“ISIL is not only beheading individuals; it is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations,” he said. He announced that the State Department, working with the American Schools of Oriental Research, would be documenting the cultural heritage sites.
Bukova, speaking at Unesco in Paris on Sept. 29 on the urgent need to protect Iraq’s endangered historical heritage, said, “We can testify that the destruction of heritage is clearly a forerunner to sectarian persecution.”
Recalling the attacks on the Al-Aksari mosque in the Iraqi city of Samarra in 2006-2007 and the displacement of Shia, Sunni and Christians across the country, she added: “The communities concerned understand immediately and clearly that these attacks against culture are attacks against people, against their identities, against their values and history, against their future — this is why the cultural and humanitarian dimensions of international responses cannot be delinked.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.