This page is dedicated to archiving the cultural heritage sites destroyed or being threatened by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL). The page includes a photo archive of major cultural sites with information about each as well as resource links for further information. Will be updated regularly.
ISIS and its actions have captured the imagination of the public with growing horror since 2013 and early 2014. Though various manifestations and iterations of the group have existed since much earlier, it was not until their surprising victory over Iraqi forces and the subsequent seizing of territory that they made headlines. Their path of destruction has been chronicled by major media outlets, with emphasis placed on some of their actions. Various political pundits have engaged in trying to explain the group’s existence and coordinate a military response. That is not the aim of this project.
On this page, I intend an archival project focused specifically on ISIS’ destruction of cultural sites. While other resources exist that report on the destruction, this site will be focused on gathering together the disparate resources across disciplinary boundaries in order to build an archive around specific thematic questions. While I do not propose to have the answers to said questions at this time, it is my hope that this archiving will become a resources in which to interrogate and theorize these acts of destruction which in turn will fit into a wider project about the group itself.
These are some of the questions that inform the intent behind this project. Mapping these questions will form a backbone or spine that will give shape to the archiving project itself. As I collect and archive from various sources, it will be to provide a resource base upon which to begin answering the questions. This also situates this current project in a wider dissertation proposal.
- How do we understand and theorize the destruction of cultural sites?
- How does the act of destroying cultural sites constitute a rewriting of history?
- What sites are being targeted for destruction and what sites are left untouched? What is the logic behind these decisions? Are these actions a re-imagining of the past in accordance to a specific vision of Islamic history?
- What is the productive power of the destruction? What narrative is being constructed and shaped?
- How can we conceive cultural sites and artifacts as an archive themselves? How does the act of destruction make them into an archive?
- How does cultural sites intersect with urban and rural geography? How have they become lived sites?
- Many of the cultural sites are ancient cities around which people continue to live, how does the destruction of these sites interrupt life and identity? At one point, a human chain was formed to defend the Shiekh Al Fathi shrine.
- ISIS’ acts of destruction are met by international calls for preservation which has produced a discourse on the “authentic.”
- What does this discourse reveal? Some of the items destroyed are deemed “not real” with the “authentic” supposedly spirited away before the destruction. The tombstone at the Qabr al Bint is an example of this.
- Which cultural sites are taken up in the “Western” narrative as part of its history? Which sites draw the attention of the media and which are ignored? (By “Western” here, I refer to US and European media outlets).
- What determines which items and sites should be preserved and how does this construct a notion of cultural value? How does the attaching of value or attempt to preserve in turn endanger the site.
- How does the act of destruction and defacement produce value?
- Why does ISIS claim the destruction of certain sites even if they have not actually destroyed the site? What is the discourse that emerges from claims and refutations?
- How do artifacts become commodities to sell on illegal international black markets?
- How can we think of these as transnational circuits?
- Is there a discourse of using the black market to purchase items in order to save them from destruction?
- How does the destruction of cultural sites and rewriting of history compare with other nationalist, religious, or revolutionary movements?
- Cultural Revolution of China?
- Protestant Revolution
- How can we see cultural sites as sedimentary, or layered history? New cities are built on old cities, cultural sites become urban centers. How does the destroying of these sites erode the layers?
- How does this intersect with the stated desire of ISIS to overthrow colonial boundaries of the nation-state? What is produced from this reshaping of historical/geological layers and how does it intersect with the reshaping of boundaries?
- How does the destruction of monuments coincide with the destruction of populations?
- Can we draw insight from what happened in Bosnia?
- What does the destruction of cultural sites tell us about the political logic of ISIS and how does their actions fit into their wider strategy?
- How are cultural sites deployed as a tool of war? How is the need for preservation used as justification for intervention while destruction of them may be seen as act of resistance against foreign forces or a rejection of a certain history?
At this current juncture, I am focusing on archiving those cultural sites in and around Mosul where ISIS/ISIL is concentrated. The map above lays out some of the major sites targeted and destroyed by the group. ISIS/ISIL has predominantly focused on several cultural sites as part of their campaign to purge their state of “idols” and to re-imagine the region through their interpretation of a Islamic history. This includes pre-Islamic sites, Shia, Sufi, Sunni, and Christian sites.
I will archive any reports of cultural sites being destroyed and place them here to produce an archive that can be interrogated and read with the thematic questions in mind.
While reports indicate that ISIS/ISIL is engaged in aggressive erasure of historical sites, there are lots of conflicting news. ISIS/ISIL has claimed to destroy sites which later turn out to not be destroyed, or at least not yet.
Despite this, the damage to the cultural landscape is undoubtedly severe with many items and sites completely lost.
Hatra (2nd Century)-Parthian City became part of Sassanid Empire. Destroyed March 7th 2015.
Hatra- Temple in Parthian city. Design reflect Hellenic influences infusing with Parthian/Persian. An example of cities that are layered. Destroyed March 7th 2015.
Nimrud (8th Century BCE)- Assyrian military capital of King Ashurnasirpal. Originally damaged back during Iraq War, bulldozed by ISIS/ISIL in March 2015.
Nineveh- Neo-Assyrian city damaged by ISIS/ISIL. Was under reconstruction and repair. Original reports indicated damage to the walls, but these were later discounted as propaganda. Damage to the inside of the city confirmed.
Mosul Nineveh Museum- Defaced Lamassu Statue from Nineveh kept at the Mosul Museum. No complete catalog of artifacts or items in Mosul Museum found, but reports of several statues being destroyed with sledgehammers. Damaged on February 26 2015.
Masjid al Nabi Yunus (Mosque of Jonah)- Tomb of Prophet Jonah, sacred to Muslims and Christians. Near Nineveh. Conflicting reports indicate destruction on July 4th, but confirmed July 24th 2014 to have been destroyed.
Shiekh Al Fathi Shrine- Shia shrine from 1760. Foundation and mihrabs possibly from 13th Century. Destroyed on June 2014 at night. Originally protected by human chain.
Qabr Al Bint- Alternatively believed by local legend to be grave of girl who died of heartbreak, or according to historians the grave of Ali ibn Al-Athir, Sunni historian who traveled with Saladin. Tombstone may be a replica with “real” spirited away. Destroyed June 2014.
Tomb of Mar Benham and Mart Sarah- Sassanid-Christian shrine near Tel Khidr. Sacred to Christians for burial of Mar Benham and Mart Sarah early Persian Christians. Sufi Muslims and Yazidis recognize it as tomb of Al Khidr Destroyed on April 2015.
Masjid Al Khidr (12th Century)- Built to honor Sufi figure of Al Khidr in Mosul. Destroyed on late March and early April 2015.
1. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso Press, 1983.
Anderson’s book theorizes the nation-state and nationalism as centered on an imagined community with a horizontal communion of its members, permeable boundaries, sovereignty of the people, and a shared past. Employing Marxists methods of historical materialism, he traces the origins of the nation-state and nationalism to print capitalism with the decline of sacral tongues and the rise of the vulgar languages. The section on museums and their connection to the nation and control of the past is most useful to analyzing ISIS and its activities.
2. Afsaruddin, Asma. “The Islamic State: Genealogy, Facts, and Myths” Journal of Church and State Vol 48 No. 1 (2006), 153-173.
A good introduction into the origins and theory behind the state in Islamist thinking. The article explores the political thought of Islamism, the manner in which the state is conceived, formed, and the role it plays in the objectives of Islamist movements. Seeing as ISIS envisions itself as an Islamic state, understanding where it fits into the wider body of theory is important.
3. Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland. Boston: Belknap Press, 2002.
Walter Benjamin’s work has become an important place of contemplation for historians. The Arcades Project, a wonderfully enigmatic work that some believe is incomplete while others believe is deliberately archived and collected in a haphazard way, is an important revelation of a certain way of doing history. Using the arcades of Paris, he presents a history of class and production. In a way, he uses the arcades as monuments and archives to be read. His methodology will likely prove highly useful to reading the monuments and sites of Iraq.
4. Cohn, Bernard S. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Cohn’s work looks at the link between colonialism and control over forms of knowledge and their institutions. His analysis of the way knowledge and power inform one another is along the same vein of the theories of Foucault though his focus is on British India. His chapters on the relationship between colonialism and control of the past is particularly important for ISIS’ destruction of cultural sites. ISIS claims to be shaking off colonial vestiges through its transgressing of boundaries and destroying of museums and cultural sites.
5. Dodds, Jerrilyn. “Bridge Over Nerevta,” Archaeology Vol 51 No. 1 (1998), 48-53.
An important look at the situation in Bosnia with the destruction of a cultural site and its intersection with genocide. This article helps to shed light on the geographic sites and lived places and how violence to the body intersects with violence to architecture. It would be a useful article to mine for theoretical insights.
6. Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Derrida’s important work, Archive Fever has become a central piece for all those engaged with the archive. He deconstructs the archive as connected to power and memory. In particular, he draws upon Freudian notions of the unconscious which inform his interpretation of “traces” as physical markers of memory on the body. This theory can be extrapolated to monuments and provides a tool of understanding cultural sites as archives, layered, and retaining traces of the past.
7. Eaton, Richard and Phillip Wagoner. Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
An important monograph on India’s Deccan Plateau that provides an insightful investigation into the way architecture and memory intersect and how contestation of those sites transform them into sites of power. Control of the sites equals control over the memory. This provides interesting ways to think about ISIS and their control and destruction of cultural sites as exercises of power over memory.
8. Ho, Engseng. Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility Across the Indian Ocean. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
This monograph looks at the sacred shrines of Sufi saints as centers of memory, genealogy, and embodied sites of religious meaning. Shrines are deeply tied to mobility as they are pilgrimage sites, are linked with verbal utterances of remembrance, and movement. Islamist destruction of these shrines mirror some of the destruction carried out by ISIS. This book can provide an opportunity to think through ISIS’ destruction as well as theorize the cultural sites themselves and their role/function in Iraqi society.
9. Messick, Brinkley. Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in Muslim Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
An important book in understanding the role of text and language in the Islamic world. An exploration of how writing and power intersect in the form of texts and authority. Messick traces the evolving relationship between authoritative texts and Muslim society. This relationship is of particular interest in understanding ISIS and its acts of destruction which involve shrines that contain texts in them.
10. Raymond, Andre. Cairo. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2002.
A powerful longue durée history of the city of Cairo that employs an interdisciplinary approach. In the work, Raymond not only presents a history of the city but demonstrates how to read a city through urban design, archaeology, and architecture. The result is a city seen through historical layers from the Arab conquests until the modern era. This particular methodology is useful in thinking through some of the ancient Iraqi cities.
11. Robinson, Glen. “The Battle For Iraq: Islamic Insurgencies in Comparative Perspective,” Third World Quarterly Vol 28, No. 2, (2007), 261-273.
Robinson’s article provides an analysis and introduction to different Islamist formations and movements in the Middle East and situates the Iraqi insurgency into this wider history. He groups Islamist movements into three groups and identifies their different aims and methods. This article provides important contextual knowledge for understanding the emergent group of ISIS and how it fits into other Islamist movements and its relationship to them.
12. Taussig, Michael. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Taussig’s book theorizes the act of defacement and how through destruction and defacement value is attached to an object and it is made sacred even in secular settings. He works through ideas of transgression and public secrets and explores the connection between defacement and the sacred. This is an important theoretical text for understanding the acts of destruction ISIS is committing and how the very acts themselves may produce value in the objects.
13. Tomass, Mark K. “Religious Identity, Information Institutions, and Nation-States of the Near East,” Journal of Economic Issues Vol XLVI No. 3 (2012), 705-728.
This article provides important background in understanding the various state formations of the Levant and how this intersects with religious identity, affiliations, and institutions. The work destabilizes the fundamental understanding of the nation-state and instead provides a look into how state formations intersect with different identities and less formal institutional organizations in the Near East. This work is important for understanding the logic of state formation and its complexity in the Middle East and how this complexity is part of the ongoing conflict between ISIS and the states it is at war with.
14. Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.
Trouillot’s work is an important intervention in Haitian history and in the discipline of history itself. He unveils an intimate relationship between knowledge and power and how that power shapes the narratives of the past into what is written, what is occluded, and what is unthinkable. He pinpoints areas in which silences occur in the writing of history. This work is important for any attempt at writing a history of ISIS and their actions as a means of examining dominant narratives for silences.
Resources and Links:
Cultural Heritage Monitor– Submit photos of cultural heritage sites that are threatened or being destroyed.
World Museum Community’s Iraq Red List– A downloadable list of objects and artifacts for customs purposes.
Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage– Education in conservation and preservation dedicated to dealing with Iraqi Cultural Heritage Crisis.
Conflict Antiquities Blog– Tracking news of illicit antiquities trading and cultural heritage preservation.
Global Policy Forum– Articles about destruction of cultural sites by ISIS/ISIL.
“Slaying Saints and Torching Texts” at Jadaliyya– Emily O’Dell looks at the destruction of Sufi shrines in Mali and the international discourse as well as the discourse of the destroyers surrounding the shrines.
Gates of Nineveh– WordPress/blog on on archaeology of the Near East and Assyriology with an ongoing exploration of the Iraqi Cultural Heritage crisis.
UNESCO World Heritage Conservation– United Nation’s report on Iraqi Cultural Sites, their conservation, destruction and the ongoing crisis.
World Monument’s Fund– Global watch of Iraqi Cultural sites. Includes field projects and previous watches.
US State Department Iraqi Cultural Heritage Initiative– US initiative working with Iraqi government to preseive cultural heritages sites. Links to several groups and programs.
Iraqi Cultural Center– Located in D.C the cultural center includes a red list of stolen cultural items as well as updates about the ongoing cultural heritage crisis.
The Getty Conservation Institute– Working in partnership with World Monument’s Fund and Iraqi government, the Getty initiative aims to mitigate the threat and damage to cultural sites in Iraq. Involves training, building a database, and resources for conservation.