From 1933 until the end of World War II, the Nazi Party of Germany committed art theft on a massive scale, stealing over 650,000 works throughout Europe. It was the greatest art theft in history and a devastating blow to Europe’s cultural heritage. But in the latest series of attacks on ancient artifacts, the Islamic State (ISIS) has one-upped Nazi plunder.
In late February, ISIS released a video of militants using sledgehammers, drills and brute force to destroy archeological treasures at the Mosul Museum in Iraq, causing irreparable harm to the country’s culture. The artifacts destroyed date back to the Assyrian empire, with some of the items as old as 605 B.C. ISIS has wreaked havoc on Iraq’s art history in the name of Islamic law—the organization sees these relics as representations of worship against the Prophet Muhammad.
While the destruction of art is not synonymous with the killing of humans, many art world leaders believe that ISIS has directly assaulted the heart of global civilization in this spree of cultural devastation.
“This mindless attack on great art, on history and on human understanding constitutes a tragic assault not only on the Mosul Museum, but on our universal commitment to use art to unite people and promote human understanding,” said Thomas P. Cambell, director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in an official statement.
This movement is part of the Islamic State’s long-term goal to establish a new fundamentalist Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. To do this, ISIS is destroying valuable, historic artifacts as a means to “purify” the areas and rid them of works that depict deities or pre-Islamic values.
The movement has destroyed mosques, non-Islamic texts, tombs, statues, shrines and Muslim holy structures. One of the most significant losses in the wake of ISIS’s wrath were the colossal ancient Assyrian “lamassu” statues, 17-ton monuments that depict mythological lions or winged bulls with bearded human heads. Ironically, a lamassu is an Assyrian protective deity placed at ancient palace and city entrances.
On March 22, ISIS bombed the Shingal minaret, a structure that dates back to antiquity and was considered a religious symbol for the town’s Yezidi Kurds. The minaret in Shingal was the most historic site in the city and the latest casualty in ISIS’s ongoing beating on the world’s ancient relics.
ISIS’s obliteration of artifacts has ignited public anger on a world scale, as Iraq and Syria hold traces of the world’s earliest civilizations—civilizations whose historical imprints are in jeopardy of being erased.
On March 2, Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq re-opened for the first time in 12 years in response to the damage done in the Mosul Museum. Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, expressed his abhorrence of the organization during the museum’s reopening, according to CNN.
“They are trying, with their barbarism and arrogance, to destroy the inheritance of humanity, the inheritance of Iraqi people and their civilization, [the] same way they destroyed humans,” al-Abadi said.
UNESCO also released a statement on the same day, lamenting ISIS’s attack on the culture, knowledge and memory of Iraqi people.
“UNESCO was created 70 years ago to combat this type of violence, through education, science and culture, using the tools of dialogue and peace,” Irina Bokova, UNESCO director-general, said in the statement. “Such destruction is a cruel reminder that the nations of the world must remain united to combat such fanaticism today.”
American archeological institutions have released a joint statement condemning ISIS’s actions, imploring authorities to do what they can to protect the world’s archeological and cultural objects. And while ISIS has recorded its annihilation of the Islamic world’s history through video, archeologists, preservationists, curators, scientists and art historians around the world have rallied to do what they do best—document.
In monitoring ISIS’s pillaging through covert photography, GPS identification and satellites, art professionals are collecting evidence of the damage with the hopes of discouraging the trafficking of looted antiquities and expediting the restoration process. While art leaders can do little to deter ISIS’s frenzy of destruction, these professionals are capitalizing on technology to keep track of artifacts in order to combat the damage done in the long term.
As ISIS continues to tear through the Middle East, groups from around the world have joined forces in attempts to protect and restore 5,000 years of historic world materials from ISIS’s violent methods of guerrilla warfare. Which side will prevail is yet to be determined.