Reports of death and destruction across the Middle East are reverberating around the world as the result of the Islamic State and their ongoing terrorist attacks. And ISIS is operating on what is arguably the richest archeological area in the world. In recent months, several ancient historic sites have been destroyed by ISIS and those sympathetic to their cause. Doctor Joan Branham, a professor of art history and the associate dean of the school of Arts and Sciences at Providence College and a fellow chair of Fellowships the Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem met with WGBH's Morning Edition host Bob Seay to discuss the loss of some of these historical artifacts is .
On the historical precedence for destroying works of art
There’s a long history of iconoclasm, or destruction of images; everything from literary accounts, even in the Bible, all the way up to the modern period. For example, in 2001, the famous destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
On the antiquities ISIS has been targeting
The Islamic state has been active in the Middle East destroying images and also documenting the destruction of these images. So they’re using the visual medium of photography and video to document the destruction of visual media and visual arts. The video that was produced and distributed from their attack on the Mosul museum, [which] is probably the most famous.
Where we see in Iraq, first the destruction of images and statuary in the museum. We also see in neighboring sites at Nimrud and Nineveh ancient sites that are completely exploded or dynamited up through the Roman city of Hatra in Iraq. Those sites have been documented as well as other sites in Syria. So recent activity has been a combination of the civil war in Syria where a number of sites have really suffered through this war activity. War activity is bad for antiquities. So for example, in 2013 a famous crusader castle from the 11th century Krak des Chevaliers was completely torn apart by gunfire and beautiful lanced windows with tracery was destroyed.
Most recently, is the sight of Palmyra in Syria. This is an ancient city that has monumental beautiful Hellenistic architecture and art and the Islamic state captured Palmyra in May of this year and have already documented the destruction of a couple of shrines there as well as statuary dating from the 2nd century in this ancient site.
On the motives behind the destruction
There are a number of motives, it seems to me, at work here for the Islamic state. The first is, that this is visual terrorism. These are videos of destruction that show the power of the Islamic state. Not only can they occupy and command and govern a particular territory they can actually destroy something that the world really cares about, these antiquities. So a very basic notion of power is at play.
A second reason and of course the one that they are citing is the reason of idolatry. That these objects in the museums were once worshiped by ancient Syrians and Acadians they actually narrate their videos to let us know that the prophet Muhammad destroyed idols in Mecca. So we, too, should stand in that sacred lineage and be destroying idols as well. And of course this appeals immensely to recruits.This is a great propaganda tool to gather those people to the Islamic stateside. In earlier cases in iconoclasm, biblical Byzantine for example, the objects were actually being worshipped. No one is worshipping these ancient objects in the museums.
The final reason is that the Islamic state is not just destroying images, they’re selling them. There is a big looting market going on right now. And they have collected millions of dollars through the illegal looting of antiquities and selling them on the black market.
On what's being done to protect these antiquities
There are a number of organizations, UNESCO, the Global Monuments fund, the American school of Oriental Research and other have collaborated together. First, and foremost to document these antiquities to know what is going missing. Also, there is a dilemma and is a big scholarly discussion is do we buy these antiquities on the black market because it will preserve them? But at the same time, those monies will then go to more ammunition for the Islamic state. So it’s a dilemma, but there are some organizations and museums who feel that it is better to preserve them and then return them later when things are stabilized at that time. The truth is: it’s an extremely frustrating situation not to be able to stop this action. These objects are irreplaceable and they are not simply part of the heritage of say the Syrian and Iraqi people, they are the heritage of all of humanity. My colleagues, students, and I, we are definitely demoralized, there is a visceral reaction of disgust and a public outcry of condemnation.
>> To listen to the full interview with Morning Edition's Bob Seay, click on the audio file above.
Kate Wilkinson is an intern with WGBH News.