Zainab Bahrani on the Destruction of Antiquities

As the Islamic State continues its attacks in Iraq, Syria and now France, Columbia News asked professors from a number of disciplines to evaluate the threats posed by the group. Zainab Bahrani, the Edith Porada Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology, realized over a decade ago the importance of documenting cultural treasures in war-torn regions. She now runs the Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments project.

Eve Glasberg
November 18, 2015
Zainab Bahrani

Q. How has your work been affected by the rise of ISIS?

A. In northern Iraq several historical sites of huge significance to world history, including the legendary Assyrian capitals of Nineveh and Nimrud, were destroyed. Two UNESCO world heritage sites in northern Iraq, Hatra and Assur, have also been demolished. The Mosul Museum, an important archaeological museum, was looted, and its objects are for sale on the international black market for antiquities, providing funds for ISIS.

Q. You were in the field documenting monuments well before the ISIS threat. Can you continue that work?

A. This summer we worked in southeastern Turkey documenting Assyrian rock reliefs, historical mosques, and early Christian churches and monasteries. Now this area is in danger as ISIS begins to encroach. Other universities have digitization projects, but only ours documents monuments in the field from all historical eras and cultures, ancient to modern, religious and secular. Our work is even more urgent now.

Q. You’ve said that the destruction of history is one of ISIS’s main goals. What do you mean?

A. By erasing pre-Islamic monuments as well as Shiite and Yazidi sacred shrines and Christian churches and monasteries that have stood in this land for millennia, ISIS is attempting to destroy the links between peoples and their land. They are attempting to erase any evidence of the history of multiple religions, ethnicities and languages. They want to write a new history in their own vision.

Q. How have your colleagues abroad fared?

A. During our 2013 field season in Iraq, one of our team members was a young Iraqi woman from the department of archaeology at the University of Mosul. During the takeover by ISIS she escaped the city on foot and is now a refugee with no home and no job. The most devastating event was the murder of a Syrian archaeologist in Palmyra, who was beheaded by ISIS in a public square when he refused to give information about the whereabouts of antiquities.

Q. What sites in Syria have been affected?

A. ISIS has blown up several temples in Palmyra that date to the Roman era, but which are distinctively local works built for Syrian gods. UNESCO world heritage sites such as the cities of Apamea and Aleppo and Krak des Chevaliers, the crusader castle, have suffered great damage. Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world and a jewel of Islamic architecture. The museums of the Syrian provinces of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour and countless other places have been looted, and numerous early Christian monasteries and churches in Syria and Iraq have been attacked.

Q. Is there anything the international community can do to stop the destruction?

A. The international community can stop buying antiquities. ISIS sells artifacts to support their state. They use this money to kill and enslave human beings.