The ancient city of Palmyra, once a sprawling oasis in Syria’s central desert known for its archeological sites, is now a wasteland of rubble and fallen monuments. Local antigovernment activists recently reported that Islamic State militants destroyed a set of triumphal arches built by the Romans in the second century. The triple arch sat at the entrance to Palmyra’s grand colonnade and was built by the Romans to celebrate a victory over the Persians. The deliberate destruction of the arches is the latest cultural tragedy to befall the ancient city; ISIS already razed the temples of Baal and Baalshamin, both of which were UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The strategy behind the Islamic State’s destruction of archeological sites is twofold. The bombing and bulldozing of ancient sites gains ISIS widespread media attention; it’s a propaganda campaign that enables the terrorist group to extend its message and boost potential recruitment. At the same time, the Islamic State funds its terror organization and military operations by profiting from a large network of looters. According to the New York Times, the years of conflict in Iraq and Syria have created “a thriving trade in looted antiquities.” ISIS isn’t the first terrorist group to destroy ancient sites, but its war on the region’s cultural heritage has been relentless. Here are 10 ancient sites that were destroyed by terrorists.
10. Ancient Sites in Cambodia
Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge murdered over two million Cambodians. Proclaiming a return to “Year Zero,” the regime also demolished cultural links to the past. Over 3,000 temples were destroyed and irreparable damage was done to statues, sacred literature, and other religious items and artifacts. The 73 Catholic churches in existence in Cambodia in 1975 were also destroyed. According to Tess Davis, a lawyer for the Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservations, many of the treasures pillaged from the Cambodia’s ancient sites were sold on the international art market.
9. The Amber Room
Located in Catherine Palace, near St. Petersburg, and Dubbed the “Eight Wonder of the World,” the Amber Room was a gift to Peter the Great from Frederick William I. The jeweled chamber celebrated the truce between Russia and Prussia. Designed by baroque sculptor Andreas Schluter and Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram, the Amber Room featured 13,000 pounds of amber, gold leaf, gilding, gemstones, and mirrors. The Nazis disassembled the Amber Room in the final months of WWII. Supposedly, it was packed away in crates and shipped to Konigsberg. The Amber Room was never seen in public again.
8. Gao Saney
In 2012, Arab and Tuareg Muslim terrorists pillaged an 11th century archeological site in Gao Saneye in northern Mali. The complex features a pyramidal tomb, two flat roofed mosques, a cemetery, and an open-air assembly ground. According to United Nations cultural officials, 90 percent of the site was destroyed. Traditional African musical instruments and costumes were also damaged. Gao Saneye wasn’t only the ancient site in northern Mali destroyed by extremists. Djingareybar Mosque, one of three 15th century madrassas in Timbuktu, was also damaged.
7. The Shrine of Imam Awn al-Din
“It’s just gone,” said Yasser Tabbaa, a specialist on Islamic art and architecture, as he watched an online video of the Shrine of Imam Awn al-Din reduced to a cloud of dust. Located in Mosul on the edge of the Tigris River, the 13th century shrine was destroyed by ISIS in July 2014. The shrine was an architectural jewel; it featured a pyramidal tower and vaulted, honeycomb ceiling.
The fog of war prevents a full account of all the ancient sites ISIS has destroyed. As the extremist group pushes farther into the cradle of civilization, it has wrecked shrines, tombs, mosques, minarets, castles, citadels, and anything else in its way. According to historians “with all the looting pits the area now looks like the surface of the moon.”
6. Crac des Chevaliers
Constructed between 1142 and 1271, the Crac des Chevaliers was one of the most well preserved Crusader castles in the world before fighting between Syrian rebles and government forces took a toll on the structure. The UNESCO World Heritage site illustrates the “evolution of fortified architecture in the Near East during the Byzantine, Crusader, and Islamic Periods.” A month before the Crac des Chevaliers was damaged UNESCO decried the use of the castle for military purposes during the Syrian civil war. However, the historical site was caught in the crossfire; an airstrike leveled its roof, and heavy artillery damaged its walls and religious artifacts.
Founded in 13th century BC and located south of Mosul, Nimrud was the capital of the neo-Assyrian Empire. While it’s difficult to assess how much damage ISIS has done to the ancient city, satellite imagery suggests that much of it has been ruined by bulldozers and heavy military vehicles. Nimrud is a sprawling city that contains several important sites, including the palace of Ashurnasirpal, the king of Assyria, and colossal statues known as “lamassu.” Lamassu are mythological creatures; the statues depict lions or winged bulls with bearded human heads. UNESCO called the pillage of Nimrud a “war crime.”
ISIS has left a trail of historical obliteration in Syrian and Iraq. On March 9, 2015, the terrorist group looted and razed portions of Khorsabad, an ancient city nine miles northeast of Mosul. A palace known for its stylistic innovations was destroyed, as well as carved stone reliefs and ancient writings. Khorsabad was the capital of ancient Assyria in 721, when King Sargon came to power. Khorsabad is the third ancient city destroyed by ISIS. According to the Guardian, the Islamic State department responsible for destroying artifacts is called the Committee for the Preservation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
3. The Mosul Museum
Located north of Bagdad, the Mosul Museum is Iraq’s second largest museum. When ISIS militants stormed the city and used sledgehammers to obliterate sculptures and ancient artifacts, the Mosul Museum was holding 173 pieces of antiquity. Several large statues from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Harta were defaced and destroyed. Artifacts from the archeological sites of Ninevah were also demolished. The terrorist organization released footage of jihadists destroying the 3,000 year old artworks. Some claim, however, that the artworks in the video aren’t originals and that the footage is a propaganda exercise. Others claim that at least two genuine pieces of antiquity were destroyed, including a 7th century “Winged Bull” that once stood at the gates of Nineveh.
2. The National Museum of Afghanistan
According to National Geographic, 70 percent of the National Museum’s collection has been pillaged or destroyed. While the museum has been looted by several terrorist groups in the 35 years of near-constant conflict that’s raged in Afghanistan, the Taliban are responsible for the most destruction. In February 2001, Taliban fighters smashed every item and artifact in the museum that had an animal or human likeness, erasing centuries of culture they believed was sacrilegious. In the end, the Taliban destroyed 2,500 artifacts. Three hundred of those artifacts have been painstakingly reassembled, including a series of Greco-Bactrian Buddha statues that are some of the earliest representations of the Buddha in human form.
1. The Buddhas of Bamiyan
In March 2001, the Taliban dynamited two 6th century Buddha statues hewn from the sandstone cliffs in the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan. The statues were built between 507 AD and 554 AD and were 8,200 feet tall. They Buddhas of Bamiyan had survived wars and the elements for over 1500 years. Even Ghengis Khan realized their cultural importance and refrained from damaging them. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban in 2001, ordered the destruction of the Buddhas. The Taliban wanted to cleanse Afghanistan of “Hindu heresy.” The Taliban’s Foreign Minister is reported to have said, “We are not against culture but we don’t believe in these things. They are against Islam.”
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