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Stopping ISIS’s Destruction of Historical Sites: What Can and Can’t Be Done

Analyzing the options for disrupting the miltant groups’s cycle of looting, profiteering, and destruction.

Temple of Bel. Image by Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons

On August 23, the Syrian government’s head of antiquities reported that the Islamic State had destroyed the Temple of Baalshamin, a 2,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site and a truly unique piece of classical architecture, in Palmyra (modern Tadmur). Accounts from refugees relayed by the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights suggested that the temple had been destroyed as early as July, but five new photos distributed on Islamic State supporters’ social media networks show the radical militants loading explosives into the temple, detonating them, and observing the rubble. These pictures, along with satellite images of the aftermath provided by the US State Department on 27 August now prove that this tangible and irreplaceable history has suddenly vanished from the world.


Now to add insult to injury, reports out of Palmyra on Sunday and U.N. satellite photos circulated on Monday show that the Islamic State has destroyed the main building of the even larger and equally ancient Temple of Bel as well.

These destructive acts, infuriatingly clustered within a week of each other, come close on the heels of the destruction of two Islamic shrines (which the Islamic State saw as heretical), one major statue, the devolution of the Palmyra museum into a prison, and the August 19 beheading of the historic site’s foremost archaeological expert. Together, the tragedies at Palmyra have sent the world into collective cultural mourning. Over the past week, endless commentators have questioned what can be done to save these heritage sites from the Islamic State. But most responses have consisted of vague ideas and platitudes, which do not engender much hope. Yet for all the woe, there are ways we can stem the cultural destruction in the lands that have fallen under the Islamic State’s control. Unfortunately though they are neither simple nor, to many, palatable.

For those confused as to why the destruction in Palmyra alone is causing such ruckus and concern after years of Islamic State chaos, it’s worth noting that the destruction of these temples wasn’t so much a supreme offense in and of itself, but a tipping point, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Kids visiting the citadel at Palmyra in 2005. Image by upyernoz via Flickr

From day one, the Islamic State has made it clear that they consider historical artifacts either expendable or (in the case of religious sites depicting idols other than Allah/God) blasphemous. They believe that many of these sites were buried and forgotten by the time of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, but have been excavated and basically re-venerated by “Satanists.” (In truth, the Prophet and company apparently encountered many ancient ruins. And the Temple of Baalshamin they destroyed was most recently used as a Christian church rather than a pagan shrine) The fact that their territory, bloodily claimed, sits atop some of the world’s most archaeologically dense lands—one organization estimates that they occupy up to 4,500 known archaeological sites—combines with this ideology to create what many experts, including the director general of UNESCO, have labeled one of the most brutal and systematic destructions of heritage in modern history.

Over the past few months, the Islamic State has destroyed thousands of rare and historic books in Mosul, destroyed many (thankfully replica) artifacts in the city’s museum, wrecked the 2,700-year-old walls of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh and ancient ruins at Hatra, and ravaged many churches, mosques, and shrines of which they disapprove. Satellite photos of their territory show the systematic dismantling of sites in cities they hold, like their de facto capital of Raqqa. All of this destruction matters to citizens in Iraq and Syria, and to observers worldwide because the destruction excoriates the region’s unifying experience and identity.

“This isn’t just about history,” an anonymous Syrian archaeologist recently explained to The Wall Street Journal. “It’s about our future. Saving our heritage is the only thing that can help us rebuild an inclusive Syria after the war.”

Yet even after all this destruction, people felt the chaos at Palmyra acutely, in part because it was such a unique culture (drawing up to 150,000 tourists a year before the Syrian civil war). An oasis caravan town that held some significance as of 2,000 B.C (earning it some mention in the Old Testament), Palmyra reached its height in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D., during which time it developed a unique culture mixing Greek, Persian, and Roman influences. People of the region began to venerate their own special gods, like the Phoenician deity of storms and fertile rains, worshipped at the Temple of Baalshamin. In the 3rd century A.D., the site was home to Queen Zenobia as well, one of the greatest rebels of Roman history. And when they were uncovered in the 17th and 18th centuries, the site’s ruins helped to spark the revival of classical architecture in the West.

Temple of Baalshamin. Image by Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons

But the latest destruction has also been particularly painful because Palmyra has escaped desecration for so long. Placed on a “heritage in danger” list by UNESCO in 2013, the site survived shelling during rebel-government confrontations that year, enduring pitched battles in which snipers shot from its ruins. After weeklong siege this spring in which the Islamic State took control the site, the group made no immediate moves to destroy it, lulling us into a complacency that was abruptly and abrasively shattered with an execution and explosives.

In truth, the Islamic State probably only waited so long to destroy Palmyra because they were trying to loot it for all they could. (Before he was beheaded, the archaeologist at the site appears to have been interrogated for a month about the whereabouts of hidden relics from the site.) Without the financial means available to groups like al-Qaeda, these self-funded militants have opportunistically used the sale of relics on the international market to support themselves, slowly developing an entire government bureaucracy to manage the looting. (This office, apparently based out of Manbij, Syria, encourages and issues permits to civilian looters whose sales it taxes at a rate of at least 20 percent.) No one knows quite how heavily the Islamic State depends on conflict antiquities for funding, but since the group’s oil holdings (their primary source of income) have been targeted by its enemies, looting is likely to become a more important source of income. Satellite images show 3,750 looting pits in the Syrian city of Dura-Europos, which have popped up since 2011, especially during Islamic State control. Some Iraqi intelligence officials suggest that the looting at just one site, al-Nabek, in Syria, gave the State $36 million.

To some, the fact that the Islamic State probably sells far more heritage than it destroys seems like a good sign: Better relics go onto the black market than vanish completely. But these sales only fund and fuel further destruction—not to mention that removing an archaeological object from its archaeological context robs it of a vast amount of historical meaning and value.

Unfortunately, the markets used to spirit away heritage by the Islamic State are old and robust. (And ancient: Even the Assyrians, whose memory is now under assault by the Islamic State, funded their wars by selling off Babylonian artifacts they looted during their conquests.) Though they’re not just used by the Islamic State—government and opposition forces have participated in looting and destruction as well, including at Palmyra, since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Between the lot of them, the Islamic State and its opponents have sent up to $300 million in blood relics onto the markets in neighboring countries. This has led to massive spikes in smuggling and destruction all around the world, endangering all of Syria and northern Iraq’s ancient-to-modern heritage.

Interior of Temple of Baalshamin. Image by Jerzy Strzelecki via Wikimedia Commons

The wider world, having learned from centuries of pillaging, hasn’t sat idly by during the destruction and illicit dispersion of the region’s heritage. Neighboring countries have stepped up raids on smuggling rings and received support and training for border patrols. Countries have imposed bans on imports of relics from questionable vectors to stem damage. And academics have tried to create databases to keep track of what’s missing from sites.

There’s been a heartening amount of goodwill towards heritage on the ground in Syria as well. The government claims that up to 1,500 officials are still working to protect antiquities in the nation, spiriting 600,000 statues and relics to safety, including many at Palmyra. And since 2012, a group of about 200 academics calling themselves Syria’s “Monument Men” (a reference to the intellectuals tasked with saving European heritage during WWII) have secretly coordinated the documentation of regional theft and destruction. Members of the preservation group also pose as illegal dealers to map the networks used by looters, and hide what objects they can in GPS-tagged locations they’ll return to after the war. (It’s unclear if similar efforts are underway in Islamic State-held Iraq, but they may well be.)

Yet all the global and local efforts underway have made almost no dent in the iconoclastic and profiteering destruction playing out in Syria. We’ve long known that bans instituted abroad are ineffective against the scale, complexity, and sophistication of looting markets. And even Syria’s Monument Men admit that they can’t keep up with the scale of destruction there; they believe they’ve managed to recover just 1 percent of what’s been stolen over the past few years. Efforts to bolster the Monument Men and other international programs have largely fallen flat as well, given the difficulty of funneling resources to such a chaotic organization. And, as has probably become apparent, none of the many efforts underway locally and internationally can do anything to prevent the destruction of a massive temple, which cannot be moved, sold, or hidden, leaving us impotent at the violation of sites like Palmyra.

Some observers have proposed drastic solutions to stem looting and the full-scale destruction associated with it. Most notably, major intellectuals and government ministers in the West and Middle East have called for the deployment of military forces to guard heritage sites and bomb looters. This fix is problematic for a couple of reasons, first and foremost being that we just don’t have the military intel (or so officials say) to target pillaging, nor (one would suspect) the free manpower to cover the thousands of looting sites in each city.

More importantly, we have to consider how such solutions reflect our priorities regarding those caught in the Islamic State’s antiquities-fueled crossfire. Fear and outrage over the destruction of ancient heritage dominate coverage of Palmyra, but hundreds of civilians and government supporters were also slaughtered and up to a third of the city’s population of 200,000 apparently fled. By appearing to care more about various historical temples and baubles than the hundreds of thousands of lives taken and disrupted by the civil war, we play into the Islamic State’s propaganda, showing them as potent and us as less concerned with life than with cultural possessions. We also risk demonizing victims, as many looters aren’t militants at all, but refugees and poor people just trying to make ends meet in the chaos—whose lives cannot be discounted just for the sake of heritage.

Building complex of the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, site of a Turkish intervention in February. Image by Céline Rayne via Wikimedia Commons

These facts are shattering and demoralizing on the ground. And we’ve seen the scenario play out to its logical conclusion this February when Turkey sent boots into Syria for the first time—not to save citizens, but to shelter the remains of a Turkish historical figure whose shrine was at risk in the country. Their intervention saved a 13th-century relic deeply valuable to the Turkic psyche and world history, showing that military protection of major sites is possible. But it also pissed Syrians off to no end, and with good reason, given Turkey’s passive disengagement with the conflict before that point.

Sure, preventing looting is important as a means of cutting off the Islamic State’s funding. It’s a military concern, not just a cultural one. But if we can’t adequately supply people like Syria’s Monument Men, we can’t practically put guards on all the region’s major sites, and we can’t rely on bans and border guards to stem destruction and looting, then we may have only one real option left to us: We can take a book out of the Monument Men’s page and try to seriously co-opt the black market.

The FBI already has experience in posing as black market art buyers (a practice they initiated after Iraq’s national museum was looted) to intercept major artworks and map out criminal networks. And the Monument Men have already established sets of best practices for the situation, mapping the basic contours of the Islamic State’s vandalism, pillaging, and sales tactics. If we’re all so incensed by the destruction of these heritage sites, we might even want to go beyond deploying more agents and cash to map and choke off networks—by buying off art dealers to refuse looted antiquities and feed us information about the Islamic State’s activities, we set the groundwork for disrupting the destruction and sale of regional antiquities. These buyers are, after all, mercenary and can be played and purchased. This can help us to lower popular incentives for looting, better understand where any interventions would need to be staged, and slowly block funding to the Islamic State.

Bust of Odenaethus from Palmyra. Image by Marco Prins via Wikimedia Commons

Even considering any options for preservation or disrupting black market trade, it’s hard to imagine an outcome that won’t eventually require a military solution. The Islamic State lives within an ideology of cultural extermination, so full-scale destruction of major sites will only end once they’re taken out—and lesser looting will persist until law and order is reestablished in all of Iraq and Syria. That’s an incredibly tall order, and clearly the political will for a full intervention just isn’t there. But if we’re serious about protecting heritage, then the only way we can do that in total is to address the cycle of looting, profiteering, and destruction as part of the larger mechanism to which it belongs. Aggressively targeting the internal organizational workings of the Islamic State will distract enough of their attention and resources so that they don’t have the time and luxury to focus on cultural cleansing and instead have to focus on maintaining their basic existence. If we make the Islamic State squirm and squeal as they have made Syrians and Iraqis do, then we will draw them away from grandiose acts of desecration, flip the narrative of their omnipotence and terror in the region, and slowly allow the area the space and time to sort out its internal problems and restore order, thereby causing looting to slowly subside.

This will take time. This will take effort. And objects will continue to be destroyed in the meantime. Fortunately, we know that not all is lost with the destruction of a site. Projects have emerged offering to make 3-D renderings of sites and objects based on 2D photos, allowing us to create convincing replicas that can put objects of cultural significance back into physical place. And modern archaeological technology allows us to wrest data and value out of sites even after they’ve been reduced to rubble. That might not be satisfactory to many onlookers, but it may be our only consolation in a situation where there are no silver bullet solutions. And right now, mitigating and stopgap measures are the sole solace we can give the world beyond platitudes and vagaries. Because only when observing nations manage to develop a more robust strategy and the willpower to enact large and unpalatable programs of espionage and intervention, will both the Islamic State and their regime of cultural destruction be brought to a close.

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