Destroying the Past: ISIS and Our World Cultural Heritage

By Alexis Jones for

Alexis-JonesFrom the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, to the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, and the shrines, churches and mosques of Iraq and Syria, the loss of cultural heritage has plagued the world for centuries. In our current chapter of world history, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) plays the role of destroyer by targeting the ancient and modern religious monuments of both Iraq and Syria. ISIS threatens and destroys these monuments in an attempt to eradicate not merely the cultural treasures of the people who live there, but also their identity.

For millennia, both Iraq and Syria have held prominent roles in world history as part of the cradle of civilization, otherwise known as Mesopotamia. They have sheltered the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, upheld the title of Alexander the Great, and weathered the storms of the Roman and Parthian battles. And throughout all these eras, the religious – both Christian and Muslim alike – have called these lands their home. As a result, both countries are not only rich in historical and archaeological treasures unique to the region, but also rich in a culture even more remarkable.

The cultural heritage of this volatile region has played an important role in forming the identity of not only the people who live there, but also the religious world as a whole. As such, it is important both nationally and internationally as symbolic of these cultural identities. Nations and the world derive significant value from their cultural heritage. As one scholar has noted, “[t]he battle over ancient treasures is, at its base, a conflict over identity, and over the right to reclaim the objects that are its tangible symbols.” [1] Today, “antiquities have become yet another weapon in this clash of cultures, another manifestation of the yawning divide.”[2]

The rich past of these regions is “threatened by the nightmare of its present.”[3] Because ISIS is made up of ardent followers of Islamic Sunnism, it is unsurprising that they have focused much of their attention on destroying holy sites of the Shia sect.[4] By destroying the symbolic manifestations of their heritage, ISIS believes it can eradicate the religious practices associated with them. Irina Bokova, the UNESCO Director General has described this practice as “cultural cleansing,”[5] not unlike the methods of the Nazis.[6]

Today in Syria, historic buildings across the country – including ancient mosques, government buildings and castles – exhibit signs of destruction as a result of the conflict.[7] Some have even been reduced to rubble.[8] And all six of Syria’s World Heritage Sites have been put on UNESCO’s list of endangered World Heritage Sites.[9]

Similarly in Iraq, ISIS has bulldozed, blown up and destroyed churches, shrines, mosques, ancient statutes, artifacts, manuscripts, archives and archaeological sites – things it considers idolatrous or heretical based on their strict Salafi interpretation of Islam, which “deems the veneration of tombs and non-Islamic vestiges as idolatrous.”[10] What they haven’t destroyed, they have sold on the black market, reaping windfalls from the priceless antiquities.[11] They are said to have reaped $36 million in antiquities up to 8,000 years old from al Nabuk alone, an area in the Qalamoun Mountains west of Damascus.[12] Qais Hussein Rasheed, head of the Baghdad Museum has called ISIS an “international artefacts’[sic] mafia.”[13] Reports even speculate that ISIS plans to target Mecca, the pilgrimage site for Muslims, home to the Al-Masjid al-Haram mosque, held by Muslims as the most sacred mosque worldwide.[14] According to one ISIS member, Abu Turab Al Mugaddasi, “If Allah wills, we will kill those who worship stones in Mecca and destroy the Kaaba. People go to Mecca to touch the stones, not for Allah.”[15]

Bokova has called these acts “a way to destroy identity…. Along with the physical persecution they want to eliminate – to delete – the memory of these different cultures.”[16] Cultural heritage is a legacy. It is the heart and soul of a people. And as such, the destruction of it is all the crueler, because, as Bokova put it, “[w]e continue to rebuild, but you cannot rebuild the traditions and heritage of a culture – when it is destroyed it is destroyed forever.”[17]

Lyndel V. Prott and Patrick J. O’Keefe’s argument for the preservation of cultural heritage sums up the importance of protecting it: “Heritage creates a perception of something handed down; something to be cared for and cherished. These cultural manifestations have come down to us from the past; they are our legacy from our ancestors. There is today a broad acceptance of a duty to pass them on to our successors, augmented by the creations of the present.”[18] Bokova put the current situation in context best: “cradle of civilization that has contributed so much to all of humanity – there have been conflicts, there have been invasions, empires disappearing – and still that cultural diversity was kept into the 21st century. To see this disappearing, I think, is a tragedy for all of us.”[19]

Unfortunately, ISIS does not see it this way. And although UNESCO has sounded the alarm over this issue,[20] it is impossible to know the extent of destruction while the conflict is ongoing.[21] All we can do in the meantime is wait and hope.

Alexis Jones is a JD Candidate, Class of 2016. Jones’ entry to the GlobalJusticeBlog is part of an assignment for the course International Criminal Law, taught by Professor Wayne McCormack.


[1] Sharon Waxman, Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World 3 (2009).

[2] Id.

[3] Ben Wedeman & Laura Smith-Spark, ISIS Threatens Iraq’s Priceless Cultural Heritage, CNN (Oct. 23, 2014, 9:57 AM),

[4] Sarah Cascone, ISIS Destroying Iraq’s Cultural Heritage One Site at a Time, Artnet News, (July 20, 2014),

[5] Al Akhbar, ISIS Destroying Iraq’s Cultural Heritage: UNESCO Chief, GlobalResearch (Nov. 2, 2014),

[6] Islamic State Seeking to ‘Delete’ Entire Cultures, UNESCO Chief Warns in Iraq, Trend (Nov. 8, 2014, 7:15 PM), [hereinafter Islamic State].

[7] Lucy Rodgers, Syrian Heritage Destruction Revealed in Satellite Images, BBC News (Sept. 19, 2014, 12:31 PM), (depicting satellite image of the destruction of various sites in Syria).

[8] Id.

[9] Six Syrian Heritage Sites Declared Endangered, AlJazeera (June 21, 2013, 3:19 PM),

[10] Cascone, supra note 4; al Akhbar, supra note 5.

[11] Martin Chuvlov, How an arrest in Iraq Revealed Isis’ $2bn Jihadist Network, The Guardian (June 15, 2014, 4:06 PM),

[12] Id.

[13] al Akhbar, supra note 5.

[14] Cascone, supra note 4.

[15] Id.

[16] Islamic State, supra note 6.

[17] Id.

[18] Derek Gillman, The Idea of Cultural Heritage 9 (2010) (quoting Lyndel V. Prott and Patrick J. O’Keefe, ‘Cultural Heritage’” or “’Cultural Property?’, I International Journal of Cultural Property 311 (1992).

[19] Islamic State, supra note 6.

[20] Wedeman & Smith-Spark, supra note 3.

[21] Islamic State, supra note 6.