Which heritage sites are IS targeting and why?

Aside from the incalculable loss and displacement of human lives, during the course of conflict, another casualty of war is the destruction of religious and cultural heritage sites due to their symbolic importance and noticeable presence. More often than not, this has a spiral impact on the economy of a country, particularly if tourism is a significant contributor to the country’s annual income such as in Syria prior to the uprisings. When important heritage sites are destroyed or damaged, the country’s tourism sector may not recover. Aside from a heightened sense of insecurity, this is because the sites are at times destroyed completely, leaving little for tourists to see, thus making it difficult for the tourism sector to thrive again to its full potential. In 2014, IS began demolishing a number of heritage sites, including mosques, shrines, churches, and ancient & medieval monuments in Syria, Iraq and Libya. IS’ destruction of cultural heritage sites is considered to be the largest scale mass destruction of cultural heritage since World War II.

1. Motives

IS claim that the destruction of ancient sites is simply religiously motivated. This narrative is also generally portrayed in the media as it points to IS’ iconoclastic approach to heritage. Rooted from the austere Wahhabi movement, IS militants have targeted renowned ancient sites as well as shrines belonging to other Muslim sects. IS’ destruction of other priceless architecture and antiquities include ancient manuscripts and Islamic books that comprised of a version of Islam that IS rejects. The damage that is subsequently caused to the local culture and religion would limit education for future generations to come.





Another alleged motive for IS’ destruction of heritage sites is a desire to send shockwaves across the world and instil the feeling of fear, allowing IS to demonstrate its alleged monopoly of capabilities over the rest of the international community.

Finally, when IS targets museums and cultural sites, this boosts the scarcity of the artefacts and thus their value; IS can retrieve remaining artefacts to sell onto the black market. Aside from captured oil sales, another source of revenue, artefact trade provides a substantial source of funding to finance IS military operations.

2. IS Destruction in Syria

Syria’s cultural and religious heritage is exceptionally rich and dates back to over a thousand years. Syria claims some of the earliest cities in human history, with a wealth of archaeological sites, cultural landscapes, monuments and religious heritage. Civilisations such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Arabs had chosen Syrian cities as their capitals. In terms of its archaeological sites, it is unrivalled as it dates back to antiquity, the Roman era (Palmyra), the Crusades, and the Muslim period (the old cities of Damascus and Aleppo, including the mosque of Sayyeda Zainab). According to UNESCO (UNESCO, 1979), Syria is ‘the cradle of historical civilisations, constituting a beacon of science and art over time, and a historical encyclopaedia which tells a great part of the history of humanity’.

IS in Syria have deliberately targeted and destroyed symbols and sites that are sacred to the state and people. Additionally, they have stolen hundreds of archaeological artifacts from the city’s National Museum. Below are just some of the key sites that IS have targeted:

2. a) Sayyidah Zainab Mosque

Sayyidah Zainab is the esteemed granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Her shrine and mosque is located in the city of Sayyidah Zainab, within the southern suburbs of Damascus. Her tomb became a centre of Shia religious studies in Syria and a destination of mass pilgrimage across the Muslim world with approximately 1 million people visiting her shrine annually prior to the Syrian crisis. On 7th November 2013, 4 shells were fired at the shrine. One of the shells struck a minaret causing damage. Another hit the courtyard, injuring 30 people, some of whom were children. Furthermore, on 31st January 2016, two suicide bombs and a car bomb exploded near the shrine with reports that this claimed the deaths of 60, with another 110 people injured. IS claimed responsibility for the attack as they struck again later in February 2016. They detonated a car bomb and later launched two suicide bombings about 400 meters from the mosque, with 83 people reported dead and another 178 wounded.

2. b) Site of Palmyra

The site of Palmyra was adorned on the World Heritage List as one of the most important cities in ancient Syria. It contains the monumental relics of a great city, encapsulated by Graeco-Roman, Arab and Persian influences, and was one of the most famous tourism spots in Syria. IS managed to seize Palmyra by May 2015, and by June they demolished the ancient Lion of Al-lāt statue. Later, in August 2015, IS blew up the 1st-century Temple of Baalshamin, along with the Temple of Bel. As of March 2016, the Syrian government managed to recapture Palmyra. However, IS fighters managed to blow up parts of the 13th-century Palmyra Castle, causing extensive damage before they retreated.

2. c) Mar Elian Monastery

For centuries, the Christian monastery was an important pilgrimage site visited by Christians and Muslims to venerate a 4th-century saint known as Mar Elian. However, this site was also captured by IS in August 2015, immediately following the capture of the Syrian town al-Qaryatain. The shrine was bulldozed as the walls were toppled.

2. d) Armenian Genocide Memorial Church, Deir Al-Zour

The church of Deir al-Zour was dedicated to the victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. According to the BBC, on 21st September 2014, the memorial complex was blown up during fighting between IS and Jabhat al-Nusra. The central church of the complex was almost completely demolished.

3. IS Destruction in Iraq

IS in Iraq have additionally been embroiled in ethnic cleansing campaigns since 2014. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced to the Kurdistan region and to southern Iraq, whilst others were either killed or held captive as slaves. As the religious landscape of Northern Iraq changed, IS turned its attention to destroying historical religious and cultural heritage sites, including mosques, churches, shrines and ancient libraries. Below are just some of the sites that have been targeted in Iraq:

3. a) Hatra

Hatra was built in the 3rd-century BC and was a capital of the first Arab Kingdom. The city, known for its huge walls, sports a combination of Persian and Roman-influenced architecture. Hatra was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985. In 2014, Hatra was taken over by IS and reportedly used as an ammo dump and training camp. A video released in March by IS showed the group using sledgehammers and weapons to destroy sculptures and statues in Hatra.

3. b) Mosques and Shrines

Since 2014, a number of media outlets have reported IS’ continuous destruction of multiple, predominantly Shiite, mosques and shrines in Iraq. Some of these include the 12th-century Khudr Mosque in Mosul, the Al-Qubba Husseiniya Mosque, also in Mosul, the Jawad Husseiniya Mosque in Tal Afar, and the Saad bin Aqeel Husseiniya Shrine, also in Tal Afar. Aside from mosques, the shrines of historical personalities revered by many from all Abrahamic faiths have been targeted. In July 2014, IS destroyed one of the tombs of Prophet Daniel in Mosul through the use of implanted explosives. According to the Huffington Post and the Guardian, the tomb and mosque of Prophet Jonah was also destroyed with explosives in July 2014. The tomb of Prophet Jonah was a popular place of pilgrimage as people all over the world would visit it before the arrival of IS in Mosul.

3. c) Churches

IS continued its rampage of holy places by destroying a number of churches in Iraq. On 24th September, 2014, IS militants destroyed the 7th-century Green Church that belonged to the Assyrian Church of the East in Tikrit. In 2015, St Markourkas Church and a 10th-century Chaldean Catholic church were also destroyed, according to the Iraqi government officials. Recently, in April 2016, the 1872 Sa’a Qadima Church was also blown up.

4. What Does IS Destruction Mean for Libya?

Libya has five UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Greek archaeological sites of Cyrene, the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, the Phoenician port of Sabratha, the rock-art sites of the Acacus Mountains in the Sahara Desert, and old Ghadamès, an oasis city. Fortunately for Libya, the country has not faced the same level of damage to its antiquities as Syria and Iraq. However, the risks are high as, for example, the Benghazi area suffers from lack of security and IS continues to establish its stronghold Sirte. Recent reports claim that some illegally excavated artefacts are being smuggled out of the country in black market trade. In March 2015, IS were reported to have destroyed Sufi shrines with sledgehammers and bulldozers near Tripoli.

Many question the importance of spending time and resources on the protection of heritage sites when lives are being lost and destroyed. However, these heritage sites would not only have an economic significance in rebuilding the country, but would also play an important sociological role in helping individuals feel part of a well-established community and society. Cultural and religious heritage is significant as it gives Libyan citizens a greater sense of identity and belonging, forging an intangible link with the past, present and future. A country’s ancient past, represented in its rich cultural heritage, is key to protecting and preserving history as well as safeguarding its future.

Syria, Iraq and Libya’s rich cultural and religious heritage are rare, exceptional, and date back to over a thousand years. Thus the destruction of sites and objects places a great risk to these countries losing a cultural legacy of universal importance. With the assistance of international organisations and governments, the international community at large, regardless of personal beliefs, should unite in protecting these sacred heritage sites that are important to not only the state but also to people all over the world who visit the sites for either religious pilgrimages or for tourism.

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