‘Heritage in Peril’: The fight for Iraq’s and Syria’s history

Kerry attended an exhibit at the famed Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

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Appealing to the greater responsibility to restore peace and security in the Middle East, U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and urged the international community to join the fight against the self-proclaimed caliphate.

Simultaneous to this military push by the United States and its allies, Washington is calling for urgent action against the destruction of the cultures that once made the Middle East the envy of the world. The call cannot come soon enough: the world is watching the cradle of civilization fall into the hands of barbarians. Continued wars in the region have resulted in looting, destruction and illicit trafficking of antiquities out of Iraq and Syria.


ISIS “isn’t only beheading individuals, it’s tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to an audience on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Monday.

Kerry attended an exhibit at the famed Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, called “Heritage in Peril: Iraq and Syria,” which showcased the dire need to help preserve the culture and heritage in the areas now under threat by ISIS.

Looting, destruction and illicit trafficking of antiquities out of Iraq and Syria have been one of the more destructive and long-lasting symptoms to be born of the continued wars in the region.

“It has no respect for life, it has no respect for religion, and it has no respect for culture, which for millions is actually the foundation of life,” Kerry said.

“Far from hiding their destruction of churches and mosques, they broadcast these, purposefully and with pride, for all the world to see their act of depravity, and for all of us to be intimidated and to perhaps back off from our values. For the proud people of Iraq and Syria... the destruction of their heritage is a purposeful final insult.”


Often, the words of politicians are clouded in rhetoric and magnified for shock value, but Kerry’s are tragically accurate. It is at the hands of the barbaric ISIS, and under the guise of a convoluted interpretation of Islam, that millennia-old temples of civilization have been razed, ravaged and looted beyond recognition. ISIS has greatly threatened the culture and heritage of Iraq and Syria.

Aside from the systematic terror and intimidation that the group has invoked in areas where they have driven out everyone who does not conform to its beliefs, it has made strides in unraveling the very fabric on which these civilizations were built. The temples and statues that ISIS sees as “unholy,” or as a means of bankrolling its terror exploits, are symbolic of a time when Assyria was known as a center of trade, co-existence and knowledge.


ISIS’s caliphate does not possess any such qualities. Its looting of treasures, however, is big business. It is reported to be the world’s richest terrorist organization. This is in no small part due to the looting and pillaging of Iraq’s and Syria’s cultural heritage antiquities, many of which are reportedly sent to Western markets via international traffickers. Turkey is thought to be a popular and reliable throughway.

UNESCO has estimated that artifacts smuggled out of war zones account for $2.2 billion of the global illicit market annually. ISIS is now imposing a 20% “plunder” tax on those trafficking goods.

Syria has six UNESCO World Heritage sites. Over 90% of its cultural sites are in areas of conflict or displacement. There are more than 77,000 cultural objects in the National Museum of Damascus alone, and 35,525 manuscripts in library collections in Syria. This heritage, this history - which tells a story not only of Iraq and Syria, but of an entire region - is at stake.

In an effort to buttress the push to preserve such antiquities and historical sites, which Iraqi and Syrian conservationists are struggling to protect, Washington has provided nearly $33 million since 2003 on several cultural heritage projects. The American Schools of Orient Research is keeping track of the condition of, and threats to, cultural heritage sites to assess their protection needs.

The U.S. State Department said it has teamed up with “international organizations to develop the Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk, to enable customs officials to identify and detain objects from Iraq that are particularly at risk of looting, theft and illicit trafficking.”

Erasing history

Brazen disregard for history and culture is not new. At the height of its power in Afghanistan, the Taliban in 2001 destroyed the historic Bamiyan Buddhas. Located in the Bamiyan Valley, they marked the western-most point of Buddhist expansion, and were a key trading hub for much of the last millennium. The archaeology of the valley reveals a blend of Greek, Turkish, Persian, Chinese and Indian influence that is found nowhere else in the world.

When ISIS destroys structures, it destroys the cultures that these antiquities represent, and any hope that the countries they plague can eventually return to normal. Working to preserve these heritage sites also means fighting to return to a common humanity, a place of tolerance and shared culture, which is a far cry from what the terror group is advocating.

Damascus is widely thought to be the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world, with evidence showing settlements dating back to 9000BC. Erbil in northern Iraq is also one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world, with settlements dating back to 2300BC or earlier. These cities, nestled in the cradle of civilization, were the first chapter in the history of our common humanity.

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