Visual Moment // History, Demolished

By | Sep 02, 2015

Mar Behnam Catholic Monastery

The world watched in horror earlier this year when videos went viral showing ISIS bulldozing the 3,000-year-old ruins of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud in Iraq—a city so old it is mentioned in Genesis. The militants toppled walls and bas-reliefs, sledgehammered statues and used a bulldozer to overturn and shatter a majestic human-headed, winged bull statue that had long guarded the city’s Nergal Gate. The same week, ISIS posted equally graphic footage of the decimation by explosives of the 2,000-year-old ruins of the Assyrian city of Khorsabad and much of nearby Mosul (including its archaeological museum),  whose suburbs contain the biblical Mesopotamian city of Nineveh.

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Although the loudest cries have come from museum directors and scholars who have spent their lives studying and preserving treasures of antiquity, these losses matter to all of us. The Middle East has been home to significant Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, as well as those of other faiths. Jews have as much at stake as anyone—and maybe more—in preserving the evidence of a past that includes periods of religious diversity and cohabitation.

Conquerors sacked cities and destroyed statues long before ISIS and probably for some of the same reasons: to wipe out symbols of the past, to crush their victims psychologically and to impress onlookers with their merciless force. But it has taken social media and technological expertise to turn this into a tool of worldwide intimidation and recruitment. ISIS, sickened archaeologists say, is only expanding on the tactics the world saw in 2001, when the then-ascendant Taliban dynamited the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan to eradicate “idolatrous” evidence of other strains of worship. Archaeologists see the cultural snuff videos as a variation on beheadings of hostages uploaded to YouTube. “When they ran out of hostages,” says an Islamic art expert who has been following developments closely, “they started on antiquities.”


Buddhas of Bamiyan

Looting, sadly, is doing at least as much damage as dynamite, and it’s not just by militants, who sell antiquities to fund their wars. Besides ISIS, looters include government and sectarian troops, professional smugglers and people who, their homes in ruins, are just looking for cash to survive. Shelling and airstrikes inflict yet more damage. And even before the recent burst of political and military instability, the everyday depredations of development and industry—and even tourism—were eating away at some of the same monuments now threatened.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO maintains a World Heritage in Danger list drawn from its 1,000-plus roster of World Heritage Sites deserving of special protection. This year, 12 of these are located within the war-wracked territories of Syria, Iraq and Yemen. “We know ISIS probably has the same list,” says Massumeh Farhad, chief curator and curator of Islamic art at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. Like other scholars, she is aware that efforts to publicize the danger can encourage ISIS to do more damage. “It’s what ISIS wants,” she says, “but at the same time, you can’t just turn your back. It’s unthinkable not to do something to keep the memory of these places alive.”

On the following pages are some of the most important cultural heritage treasures in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, whose destruction could further erase the shared history of the Middle East.


Iraq has suffered wide-ranging losses, including the shocking, intentional destruction last winter of Khorsabad, Nimrud and parts of Mosul. Mosul’s famous minaret—which appears on Iraq’s currency—was saved by local heroism, but many irreplaceable saints’ tombs, including one said to be that of the Prophet Jonah, were leveled, some with bulldozers. Other sites remain partially damaged and in danger. These include the ancient Mesopotamian city of Hatra, which early reports said ISIS had “demolished” in March. Later analysis suggested that the damage was not complete—much of Hatra remains unexcavated—but there is video of ISIS fighters firing machine guns and taking sledgehammers to heads (below right), first photographed by British archaeologist Gertrude Bell in 1911, that had survived thousands of years. Many of the books and artifacts destroyed in the Mosul museum also came from Hatra.

ISIS militants have been destroying vestiges of Christianity, as well. In March, they blew up parts of the 4th-century Mar Behnam Catholic Monastery , near the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh, southeast of Mosul.


Prophet Jonahs Tomb

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Much of Yemen has been heavily shelled during the past year by Saudi Arabian forces leading a coalition that is fighting the separatist Houthi, a Shiite movement thought to have connections with Iran. In May, Saudi airstrikes completely destroyed the famed Dhamar Regional Museum in the western part of the country, a treasure trove of pre-Islamic antiquities and South Asian inscriptions, and the 1,200-year-old al-Hadi Mosque, the region’s oldest Shiite religious center. In June, airstrikes damaged the Great Dam of Marib, constructed in the 7th century BCE in the ancient kingdom of Saba, known in the Bible as Sheba. The dam is an engineering marvel, twice the length of the Hoover Dam. It collapsed in the 6th century CE—the resulting flood is thought to have put an end to the Sabaean kingdom in Southern Arabia, easing the way for the rise of Mohammed’s forces in 632 CE—but until recently, visitors could still view its structure, including its two monumental sluices.

Three of Yemen’s cities have sustained damage, particularly the Old City of Sana’a, the capital—which still contains a Jewish Quarter, although the country’s few remaining Jews live in a protected location elsewhere—and the historic Red Sea port of Zabid. The ancient al-Qahira castle, which stands on a hill watching over Yemen’s third-largest city, Taiz, was hit by airstrikes in May.


al-Qahira castle


Everything in Syria is endangered. Palmyra, the spectacular Roman ruin that was captured by ISIS in the spring, leads the list, but the cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Bosra are also threatened, along with a multitude of smaller sites and shrines, ancient and medieval, that anchor local communities. The Old City of Aleppo, long one of the world’s greatest multilayered centers of culture and a matchless example of medieval Islamic city architecture, has been battered by successive waves of civil war. Even before ISIS moved in, a 2012 report by the Global Heritage Network described Aleppo as 70 percent destroyed, “in a condition comparable to Berlin or Warsaw after World War II.”

Syria was home to ancient and significant Jewish communities. The Great Synagogue of Aleppo is said to be still partly standing, but it has sustained enormous damage. In Damascus, the Jobar Synagogue, which contained some inscriptions dating to the 4th century, was substantially damaged in May 2014. Legend has it that the synagogue, also known as the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue, was built over the cave where the Prophet Elijah hid from his persecutors. Syrian government and rebel forces have each accused the other of the destruction.

Another standout relic at risk is the 11th-century Crac des Chevaliers, one of the world’s best-preserved Crusader castles and, before the war, one of the country’s most popular tourist sites. The castle withstood a siege by the Central Asian warrior Saladin in the 12th century. In 2012, it was seriously damaged in shelling by Syrian government troops, and again in the siege of Homs in 2013.

At the archaeological site of Dura Europos, a Hellenistic-Parthian-Roman city that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, satellite photos show evidence of heavy looting and shelling. When discovered in the early 20th century, Dura Europos, sometimes called the “Pompeii of the Levant,” was an untouched treasure-house of Sumerian, Greek, Roman and Arabic ruins. The nonprofit International Council on Museums and Sites says the area has been “extensively damaged by looting, vandalism and large-scale illegal excavations carried out with heavy machinery; the looting involves the participation of hundreds of local inhabitants in economic need, who are reportedly paid by the armed groups controlling the site.” Dura Europos is also home to one of the world’s oldest synagogues. Excavated in 1932, the structure contained inscriptions dating to 244 CE, as well as extensive colorful frescoes that revised scholars’ understanding of Hellenistic-era Jewish art and have been called “the most exciting and revolutionary discovery” of Jewish art ever. A Tel Aviv museum houses a complete replica of the frescoes, but the originals are in the National Museum in Damascus, where their status is unclear.

  Islamic heritage is not immune. Said by some to have been erected in the 7th century by Caliph Omar al-Kuttab, the al-Omari mosque of Dara’a had the Levant’s first minaret. The location of some of the earliest rebellions against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Dara’a came under early and particularly heavy bombardment. Video of the minaret crumbling under repeated shellings in April 2013 was widely viewed. The mosque itself is reportedly still standing. —Amy E. Schwartz

al-Omari mosque of Dara’a — minaret

Jobar Synagogue

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Dura Europos



In mid-May, the ruins of the 2,000-year-old Syrian city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the adjacent town of Tadmur were seized by ISIS militants. Some time after, a video released by the extremists showed child soldiers executing 25 captives in the city’s Roman amphitheater . In June, there were news reports that the militants had destroyed two ancient Muslim shrines in the area. Other monuments, temples and historic buildings were reportedly mined, and a statue of a lion at the entrance to the site’s museum was destroyed. Damage to the museum itself has also been reported. In August, ISIS focused its terror tactics on antiquities scholar Khaled al-Asaad, an 83-year-old university professor and the former general manager for antiquities and museums in Palmyra. The extremists beheaded him in the city’s public square and hung his headless body on a lamppost for all to see in the heart of the historic site where he had worked for 50 years. He had been held for more than a month before he was murdered, reportedly because he refused to tell ISIS where valuable antiquities from Palmyra had been secreted for safekeeping. Later in August, ISIS released video showing the city’s 1st-century Temple of Baalshamin, one of the most important and best-preserved structures in the ancient city, being blown up. UNESCO deemed the act a “war crime” and an “immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity.”

Located in a rich oasis in a vast stretch of desert 130 miles northeast of Damascus and about halfway between the Mediterranean Sea in the west and the Euphrates River in the east, Palmyra, or “the city of palms,” was once known as the “Bride of the Desert.” According to UNESCO, the Roman city was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world—a bustling and prosperous trading hub along the caravan route that linked the Mediterranean world with the Orient. From the 1st to the 2nd century CE, the art and architecture of Palmyra, which stood at the crossroads of several civilizations, blended Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences to create a compellingly original style.

As the city prospered from lucrative commerce in silk and spices, its residents used their wealth to construct an imposing array of structures—a grand colonnaded street boasting some 375 columns, soaring arches, temples, an agora and a majestic amphitheater, all fashioned out of local pale-gold limestone. The inhabitants also built elaborate tombs outside the city walls. Carved funerary relief portraits were found in a number of these tombs. These finely wrought sculptures reflected Roman practices but also incorporated Eastern features such as Aramaic inscriptions and hand gestures that appear unique to the sculptors of Palmyra. The language of the area was Aramaic, which is related to Hebrew and is written using the same alphabet. The inscriptions that remain are primarily bilingual, in Aramaic and Greek.

By the end of the 3rd century, Palmyra’s golden age was over. The city had been badly damaged by warfare, and its importance as a center of trade had ebbed. In 634 CE it was taken over by Muslim Arabs under Khalid ibn al-Walid in the name of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr. Europeans rediscovered it in the 17th and 18th centuries—sparking a kind of craze for Palmyrene art and architecture that would impact the evolution of neoclassical architecture and modern urbanization in Europe and North America, influencing such structures as the U.S. Capitol, the White House and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. It wasn’t until 1924, however, that archaeological excavations were begun.

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have mounted a small but imposing exhibit about Palmyra. The centerpiece of the installation is a beautifully sculpted funerary relief  from a 3rd-century tomb at the site. The exhibition also features an arresting series of 18th-century etchings from British antiquarian Robert Wood’s 1753 book, The Ruins of Palmyra, and 19th-century photographs of the city taken by French photographer Félix Bonfils. The woman commemorated in the funerary relief was named Haliphat, and she is identified as the daughter of Ogalta, son of Harimai. She died circa 231 CE, when Palmyra was still a thriving Roman city. The limestone sculpture, which likely adorned the opening to her tomb, portrays Haliphat in what appears to be “Parthian style,” with a cloak secured by a brooch on her left shoulder and a veil draped over her head. Elegant and bejeweled, she delicately raises two fingers to her cheek, a gesture that may have been intended to denote her modesty and virtue.

“In the face of current tragic upheavals in Iraq and Syria,” Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonians Freer and Sackler galleries, has said, “every stone, arch and carved relief plays a greater historical and cultural role than it has in the past. Like the relief of Haliphat, each stone can remind a people of its past, and fashion identity both individually and collectively.” —Diane M. Bolz


ISIS at Palmyra’s Roman amphitheater

Funerary relief

One thought on “Visual Moment // History, Demolished

  1. h gottlieb says:

    Gee sounds just like the invasion of Iraq……

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