Trampling culture, destroying history

Print Friendly
Trampling culture, destroying history
The tomb of the prophet Jonah (Jonas), revered in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, exploded by ISIS in July, 2014.

UPDATED 5 AUGUST 2015 Since we last wrote, ISIS extremists have conquered the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, and begun to destroy priceless cultural remains in a city at the crossroads of Roman, Persian and Greek civilizations. According to the New York Times, quoted Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO: “The fighting is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East.” END UPDATE

Like a gang of vandals caught on a security camera, the destruction proceeds in strife-torn Iraq, often considered a birthplace of writing, agriculture and the city state. Blow by blow, the sledgehammer destroys statues carved during the glory days of Mesopotamia and other ancient civilizations of the Middle East.

Maybe you've seen the videos. The images are a curator's nightmare, as stone chips and ceramics shatter. And it's not just sledgehammers, but also bulldozers and explosives.

But this is not a security video. Instead, it's social-media bragging by the group calling itself the Islamic State. These warriors of ISIS have declared war on idolatry, no matter what the toll to memory, civilization or the history of human culture. Using the same ability to startle it brandished in those appalling decapitation videos, ISIS is attracting attention (and likely recruits), while burnishing a reputation for brutality and destruction in a place known as the cradle of civilization.

people climbing among the rubble and ruins of the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus (Arabic for Jonah) in Mosul, Iraq
The rubble of the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus (Arabic for Jonah) in Mosul, Iraq. The traditional site of the Tomb of Jonah was wrecked by ISIS in July, 2014. During the second Iraq War, Sunni extremists allied with al Qaeda destroyed Shiite mosques, inciting intra-communal hatred. Here, the Sunni extremists in ISIS destroyed a Sunni mosque.

Deliberate attacks on cultural features are a rather common part of war. In 70 A.D., for example, the Romans sacked the second Jewish temple, along with the majority of Jerusalem, an event that helped fuel the Jewish diaspora to Africa, Europe and beyond.

By then, looting of archeological sites was also common -- recall that more than 3,000 years ago tombs of Egypt's pharaohs were designed to deter grave robbers. Wartime chaos, now gripping Iraq and Syria, is feeding a spasm of looting at archeological sites, at least sometimes apparently intended to buy guns and ammunition for ISIS.

Harder to understand -- many say incomprehensible -- is the deliberate and complete destruction of irreplaceable examples of cultural heritage, like statues in the Mosul Museum or monuments and buildings like the Nineveh Gates, mosques, churches, tombs and shrines, under assault from the would-be caliphate-builders of ISIS.

Satellite imaging reveals ramped up looting in 2014 at several ancient cities in Syria at the hands of ISIS. This photo of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Mari (March 2014) shows pits dug to loot valuable artifacts. Rollover to see the same site in November, 2014, sowing more than 1,000 new pits.

It's hard not to view this destruction of art, architecture and religious artifacts as breaking the chain of history. "Often we don't have a lot of material to go on, particularly for the oldest civilizations, which makes these things irreplaceable," says Eric Zuelow, an associate professor of European history at the University of New England. "I gave a lecture yesterday with a photo of an Assyrian temple that ISIL [another term for ISIS] had just destroyed, and I had to tell students, 'What I just showed you no longer exists, as of last week.'" "The built structure and landscape have all kinds of different political meanings that vary with time," Zuelow adds. "States with a lot of old structures can gain legitimacy by claiming a direct connection to the ancient state that is represented in those structures. If you are a colonizing power, and you want to make a statement, you can destroy the site, which says, 'We are more powerful than you.'"

Thinking back to 2001, when the Taliban dynamited the monumental Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, The Why Files decided to check out the long history of conquerors erasing cultural, religious and ethnic history, in effect laying waste to what the vanquished hold precious. What are the goals? Does it work?

Built in the sixth century A.D., the two enormous, solid stone Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, which considered them banned idols. Rollover to see a 2005 photo of the aftermath.
Photos: 1.) Volker Thewalt 2.) Hadi Zaher

Let's start our scan of a long, sad history in present day Iraq and Syria.

What we are losing today

Information is typically scarce from war zones, but a combination of satellites and ISIS's lust for publicity is filling in the blanks. Between bulldozers, explosives and sledgehammers, "We are seeing the decimation of an incredibly rich cultural heritage of antiquities that can't be undone," says Jennifer Pruitt, an associate professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who focuses on Islamic art. The extremists of ISIS, she says, follow "a tenet in Islamic thought that is uncomfortable with idol worship. The same exists in Christianity, but ISIS have taken it upon themselves to carry this out: 'These are forms of idolatry that we can destroy.'"

ISIS has also destroyed mosques favored by sects of Islam they deem heretical, such as Shia and Sufi, Pruitt says. "It's important to point out that while the media coverage of ISIS may call it 'purely Islamic,' Muslims have gotten caught in ISIS's maneuvers more than any other group."

At one level, the videos are raw assertions of power, Pruitt says. "There is something pointed about what ISIS is doing. They know exactly what these monuments mean. They are not only destroying the monuments of people they conquer, these are monuments of ancient civilizations."

ISIS is "a very pure iconoclastic interpretation of Islam," says Tomislav Longinovic, a professor of Slavic language at UW-Madison. "It's very strict, very much against any images or representations on a theological level. On a modern level, it's tied to a denial of the heritage of people you are trying to eradicate so you can create a homogenous territory you can claim for yourself: a caliphate. It's a very strange combination of medieval justification with very modern warfare."

Baghdad Museum
Reliefs and statues in the Assyrian Room of Baghdad Museum in Iraq’s capital date back thousands of years to the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, located near present-day Mosul, which was captured by ISIS in June, 2014. Similar treasures are probably being destroyed by the Islamic extremists in Mosul.
A brave ISIS fighter confronts the ancient Gate of Nimrud. The terror group has announced its intention to bulldoze Nimrud, an Assyrian city founded about 1250 BC and located near Mosul, Iraq.
Screengrab from video released by ISIS
 Illustration of an ancient Maya text explaining a period of the civilization's history and culture.
Plates 10 and 11 of the Dresden Maya Codex, held in Dresden, Germany. A codex is a folding book held together by string.
2001 drawing by Lacambalam

Maya civilization: Manuscript burning

One vivid example of cultural destruction occurred during the Spanish conquest of the Mayan people in Mexico during the 16th century. The instigator, Bishop Diego de Landa, was a Franciscans priest in the Yucatan.

"de Landa wrote a singular, remarkable collection of ethnographic information about the Maya, but he was also very much a persecutor," says Frank Salomon, emeritus professor of anthropology at UW-Madison. "In 1562, de Landa gathered about 27 Mayan codices (singular: codex; a folding book made of bark and written in Mayan hieroglyphics), plus 5,000 sacred images and objects with religious connotation, and burned them all."

Based on the few surviving codices, the destroyed material contained historic and religious information that would have greatly eased the century-long effort to decode Mayan hieroglyphics.

*de Landa's writing proves he knew that the Mayans revered the destroyed materials:

"We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction."

"It just burns me up to try to think about this guy," says Salomon, an ethnologist who studies indigenous cultures in the Andes of Peru. "It's not as though he just ignorant and destructive, he was a real scholar who did terrific field work. He visited a lot of villages that nobody even wrote about, but at every place, after preaching and conducting conversions, he smashed sacred objects. It would not be going too far to say this was a holy war."

A holy war that was instrumental, in Mexico and elsewhere, in cementing the long Spanish domination all of Latin America except Brazil (the domain of Portugal).

As in most of the cases we'll examine, the will to destroy culture had political and economic roots as well as cultural and religious motives: demoralizing the enemy was also destabilizing, and weaker enemies (or colonial subjects) were easier to defeat and control.

Black-and-white photograph f the famous book burning event in 1933 Berlin showing a crowd of students flinging texts into a blazing fire.
1933 in Berlin: 20,000 German students, accompanied by stormtroopers and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, tossed books deemed “unGerman” into a roaring bonfire. At the scene, Goebbels declared: “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end.”

"Catholicism at the time, as could be said of Islam today, had an extremely destructive movement within it," Salomon said, "but it was not monolithic in its destructiveness. de Landa was controversial in his own time; he played fast and loose with laws that permitted persecution" and was tried (though acquitted) in an ecclesiastical court for his excesses.

Germany: Book burning

As repositories of culture and knowledge, books are a modern replacement for codices, and burning books marked one of Adolf Hitler's first offensives in his war on Jews. In May, 1933, two months after he was appointed chancellor, the Nazis organized a wave of book-burnings.

The Nazis advocated a "National Socialist Revolution," says Marc Silberman, professor of German at UW-Madison and specialist in 20th century German history, "and part of the revolutionary energy was a supposedly spontaneous outbreak of protection for what was essentially German." The targeted books were written by Jews or leftists, two primary groups of "unGerman" scapegoats.

Another low point in what might be called Hitler's political theater of oppression involved another direct assault on culture. On Kristallnacht, the "night of broken glass" (Nov. 9, 1938), gangs looted and destroyed Jewish shops and synagogues. "Kristallnacht was a culmination point of many kinds of anti-Jewish discrimination," including restrictions on marriage and employment, says Silberman. "It was one step after another, closing down opportunity and culture. But Kristallnacht wasn’t the end point..." but rather another phase in the attempted annihilation of a European culture.

The Balkan wars

The breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s provided more examples of a multi-pronged war on culture, says Longinovic: Bosnian (Christian) Serbs blew up a mosque in Banja Luka, revered by the Bosnian Muslims. Albanian Muslims destroyed Orthodox Christian churches, monasteries and graveyards in Kosovo after the NATO bombing in 1999.

Not every place, every time

Did conquerors always trash culture after victory? "Sometimes yes, sometime no," says Zuelow, an expert in nationalism, "depending on the aims of the group in question. The Romans would destroy some things, but not others, depending on whether the meaning associated with the particular site gave them a reason to destroy it."

The Romans saw monuments they encountered in Egypt and North Africa as spectacular, and made them into something like tourist sites, Zuelow says. "Many Roman-built monuments, like the aqueducts, were not destroyed because they were useful. And some Roman roads remain in use. Every April, the Paris Roubaix bike race uses cobble-stone sections of old Roman roads."

Muslims in general have a good record of tolerance, says Pruitt. "Particularly when it came to monuments of Christianity and Judaism, the early Islamic conquerors allowed these to stay. Through 1,500 years of history, things have ebbed and flowed, and destruction is part of the narrative, but many monuments have survived."

When the Ottoman Empire spread to the Balkans, Longinovic points out, "mostly it did not destroy Christian and Jewish monuments."

In the long run…

Longinovic asks whether destruction of cultural and historic monuments is always negative. "In 1989, the destruction of statues of Stalin, Lenin and Marx in and around the Soviet Union signified … people trying to purge their own history and heritage of unwanted symbols. We don't have such an adverse reaction to this; quite the opposite. It's interesting how the destruction of culture … can be liberating rather than barbaric."

A photo of a large iron statue of Lenin lifted by crane from its pedestal while a large crowd looks on pleasantly.
A crowd of people look on while the statue of Lenin is removed by crane in 1990 Bucharest, Romania after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Photo: Dinu Lazar

It's too soon to know the ultimate impact of ISIS's orgy of destruction in Syria and Iraq. Every historical situation is unique, but there are consequences:

The repression of the Jews in Europe in the 1930s and '40s set the stage for a historic genocide and then the establishment of the state of Israel.

The ethnic-religious strife in the Balkans has abated since the 1990s, but in part due to the assaults on culture we have mentioned, tensions remain and the different communities have become more isolated and insular.

bullet end The Native Americans whose cultures were subjected to more than a century of destruction are often poor, isolated, and beset by social problems.

More than four centuries years after the Spanish repression, Mayan religion is still practiced to some extent in the Yucatan, which remains one of Mexico's poorer regions.

"In Maya lands, the overall system of belief persists in a great number of people," says Salomon, "But it's much easier for a persecutor to destroy a temple and uniformed priesthood than all the hundreds of thousands of little shrines and household customs that form the basis of that system of belief. So the religion took on the flavor of an informal popular devotion carried on more spontaneously, at a household level. The whole thing turned 180 degrees. Maya religion, instead of being at the apex of society, with the most glorious, authoritative institutions, becomes the opposite, underprivileged, marginalized, existing invisibly."

– David J. Tenenbaum

1 2 3 4

Kevin Barrett, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer


  1. Destruction at the Mosul Museum.
  2. Why ISIS violence in Iraq reminds of the Khmer Rouge tragedy.
  3. ISIS is latest radical group to destroy ancient art.
  4. Syria's historical artifacts aren't just being destroyed, they're being looted.