World Heritage Day Revives Sites Destroyed By Conflict And ISIS

Middle East

UNESCO is looking into the restoration of heritage sites in Iraq, Syria and Libya and repair the damage caused by conflict and ISIS militants.

The conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya and the deliberate efforts of ISIS militants have resulted in the destruction and looting of many heritage sites. As UNESCO marks the World Heritage Day, there are now efforts to restore and review many of these sites.

In Aleppo, Syria, intense close-quarter fighting between the rebel groups and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) led to the toppling of the Great Aleppo Mosque’s minaret, built in 1090. It isn’t clear how exactly the destruction occurred, with the SAA blaming the rebels for planting explosives inside the tower and the rebels accusing the SAA of deliberating firing tank shells at the minaret to destroy a potential sniper location.

In May 2015, ISIS militants launched an offensive to capture the Tadmur District from the SAA, which included the ancient city of Palmyra. During the occupation of the district, militants systematically destroyed many of Palmyra’s ancient heritage sites, including the Temple of Bel, which has stood at the site since 32AD.

The destruction and restoration of the Lion of al-Lat has become a symbol of ISIS militants’ iconoclasm in Syria. The lion was destroyed along with the Temple of al-Lat when militants first captured the city in May 2015. When the SAA took back control of the city in 2016, the lion was transferred to Damascus where it could be restored and protected. It was therefore safe from being destroyed once again when militants partially recaptured the city for a brief time in December 2016.

In Afrin, airstrikes and shelling that occurred during Operation Olive Branch destroyed the 3,000 year old Ain Dara Temple.

ISIS militants carried out similar acts of destruction across its territories in Libya and Iraq. In Mosul, one of the militants last acts as they lost territory in the city was to destroy the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and its famous leaning minaret. The mosque, consecrated in 1172, was the venue used by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to announce the creation of his self-proclaimed caliphate in the territory captured by militants across Syria and Iraq.

In Libya, archaeologists believe that 40% of the country’s archaeological sites have been destroyed as a result of the civil war and the deliberate efforts of ISIS militants.

ISIS militants are widely known to loot antiquities from archaeological sites, which are smuggled abroad and sold to fund the activities and weaponry of the militant group. Auction houses globally stated that in 2017 alone, 2,300 pieces have been sold after being smuggled out of Syria, Iraq and Libya. The illegal sales provide the group with millions of dollars annually.

The iconoclasm of ISIS is routed in the Salafist idea that shrines and monuments should never be built for prophets as nothing but God is constant. Furthermore, antiquities represent idols which were worshipped in the pre-Islamic era in the Arab world. They claim their actions are in accordance with Islamic teachings by referring to stories such as the Prophet Abraham’s destruction of his local idol temple.

In addition, ISIS attempted to wipe the slate clean of all previous civilisations in their self-styled caliphate as part of their “year zero” project.

In Iraq, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities are launching an international initiative to restore the country’s heritage in Mosul and Nineveh that was destroyed by ISIS and war. Turkey, the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are amongst the regional donors pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to fund Iraq’s reconstruction and the restoration of archaeological sites post-ISIS. UNESCO, for its part, has announced a partnership with the Ministry to assist in the ongoing restoration efforts in Nineveh and Nimrud.