The head of the United Nation’s cultural organization said today that the continued looting and destruction of ancient artifacts – most recently ISIS's “bulldozing” of one of Mesopotamia’s greatest cities – constitutes nothing less than a “war crime.”
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“I condemn in the strongest possible manner the destruction of the archaeological site of Nimrud site in Iraq. This is yet another attack against the Iraqi people, reminding us that nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in the country: It targets human lives, minorities, and is marked by the systematic destruction of humanity’s ancient heritage,” Irina Bokova, Director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said today. “We cannot remain silent. The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime. I call on all political and religious leaders in the region to stand up and remind everyone that there is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage.”
Bokova’s statement came a day after Iraqi television reported that ISIS militants had “bulldozed” Nimrud, the second capital of the Assyrian Empire founded during the 13th century B.C., which lies approximately 20 miles south of Mosul, according to the UN. The Associated Press reported that the discovery of treasures in Nimrud’s royal tombs in the 1980s was “one of the 20th century’s most significant archaeological finds.”
“[Nimrud’s] frescos and works are celebrated around the world and revered in literature and sacred texts,” Bokova said.
Beyond the human toll of countless of ISIS’s alleged war crimes – including the systematic murder of unarmed civilians and prisoners, persecution of minorities and the use of young women as sex slaves – academics and officials have said ISIS has targeted for destruction anything that doesn’t conform to their twisted interpretation of Islam, no matter the cultural value.
Last week video emerged that appeared to show ISIS militants taking sledgehammers to artifacts in a museum in Mosul, pushing over statues and drilling into other ancient treasures. Some of the statues appear to have metal rods inside them, suggesting they’re replicas, but others just crumble when they hit the floor.
“These antiquities and idols behind me were from people in past centuries and were worshiped instead of God,” an unidentified man says in the video. “When God Almighty orders us to destroy these statues, idols and antiquities, we must do it, even if they’re worth billions of dollars.”
But ISIS is hardly above stealing ancient treasures for financial gain. David Cohen, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the U.S. Treasury Department, named looting as one financial supply line for ISIS and said the group “lay[s] waste to thousands of years of civilization in Iraq and Syria by looting and selling antiquities.”
In January ISIS purportedly stole around 2,000 books from the Central Library of Mosul, loading up the texts including children’s stories and poetry, and trucking them away, according to The New York Times. They left only the Islamic texts.
“These books promote infidelity and call for disobeying Allah,” a bearded militant reportedly told locals. “So they will be burned.”
Looting has been a major problem for cultural heritage since the outset of the Syrian civil war. As noted by the website TraffickingCulture.org, satellite images show the destruction at one site, the ancient Syrian city of Apamea, that took place just between 2011 and 2012. An image from the latter period shows the ground covered in pockmarks, presumably thousands of holes dug by looters.
In 2013, the International Council on Museums issued an “emergency red list” identifying categories of Syrian artifacts that are in danger of being looted so that museums, private collectors, auction houses and art dealers would know not to buy them.
“Objects from these sites are highly coveted in the international art and antiquities markets and therefore subject to theft, looting and illicit trafficking,” the notice says.
“What started as opportunistic theft by some has turned into an organized transnational business that is helping fund terror,” Michael Danti, an archaeologist at Boston University, told The Wall Street Journal last month. “It’s the gravest cultural emergency I’ve seen.”
Bokova said ISIS’s latest acts in Iraq must not be tolerated by the world.
“I call on all of those who can, especially youth, in Iraq and elsewhere, to do everything possible to protect this heritage, to claim it as their own, and as heritage of the whole of humanity,” she said. “I appeal also to all cultural institutions, museums, journalists, professors, and scientists to share and explain the importance of this heritage and the Mesopotamian civilization. We must respond to this criminal chaos that destroys culture with more culture.”