The Fight Against Terrorism: Protecting Cultural Heritage Sites for Syrians and the Future

Archaeology has been thought of a discipline filled with old men who dig bones, observe soil, and freak out when they find the smallest fragment of anything; however, archaeology is becoming a  into a branch that now attempts to extend itself to the public, by giving back information and artifacts to groups and by using archaeology to combat current issues. Today, artifacts are being destroyed by ISIS in Syria, and archaeologists are attempting to protect antiquities for future generations to come.

To achieve their political goals, ISIS is destroying culturally significant objects to, in a sense, change the history of the region. Syria is an extremely archaeological rich area, containing artifacts from the earliest known civilization, Mesopotamia. Syria has some of the oldest Sumerian writing tablets, as well as sex UNESCO World Heritage sites. Entire museums are left in rubble as objects are destroyed. Artifacts are, too, taken and sold on the black market to finance this militant group’s political agendas. The Islamic State has destroyed other culturally significant pieces, such as burning thousands of rare documents and books.

ISIS militant destroying a 3000 year old Assyrian Winged Bull

ISIS militant destroying a 3000 year old Assyrian Winged Bull

Activist archaeologists are attempting to right the wrongs done in Syria, and there are similar but different approaches. One group of activists are secretly documenting the destroyed artifacts, taking photographs to show the true damages as well as writing descriptions of the lost relics. These activists send their information to Al-Azm, a former researcher for the Syrian government, who sends this information to international law enforcement agencies to help stop the black market sales of Syrian cultural items.  Similarly to Al-Azm, European archaeologists have created the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, which attempts to create a record of the losses in Syria. This movement is based on the internet, utilizing social media such as Twitter and YouTube to educate the international community on the significant losses. Some researchers, like Ms. Hanna of the American University in Cairo, has begun to focus on activism instead of academic publication. She has testified to the United States’ Congress, attempting to put more restrictions on imports of artifacts to America. One of the most interesting way of preserving Syrian archaeological treasures is through 3D modeling. Bassel Kartabil, using photographs as a basis, created 3D Models of Palmyra, an ancient Semitic city that has been controlled by ISIS since March of 2015. The project attempts to recreate destroyed buildings and monuments through 3D reconstruction. Bassel Kartabil has since been imprisoned for his work on the project.

3D Structure created by the  New Palmyra Project

3D Structure created by the New Palmyra Project

The efforts and work to preserve the history of region is noteworthy. Through proper cataloging and reconstruction, the archaeological community hopes that these relics will not be lost to humanity forever.




2 thoughts on “The Fight Against Terrorism: Protecting Cultural Heritage Sites for Syrians and the Future

  1. The destruction of cultural heritage sites is an act of extreme cultural violence that aims to erase the material history of a group and ignores its deep significance for profit. Destroying monuments dedicated to prominent figures or religious beliefs is a direct action of terrorism. It should be treated as an atrocity of war because it is an act of dominance exercised by the power of of an oppressive group.

  2. It is horrible that ISIS is trying to destroy and sell ancient cultural artifacts and monuments. They understand that people can associate their identity with their perceived knowledge of the past, and ISIS is trying to rewrite Syrians’ conceptions of their history for by selectively destroying what does not fit into the agenda of ISIS and their ‘new Islamic caliphate’. It is important that archaeologists are taking action and attempting to record all the artifacts and sites ISIS is destroying – their work will ultimately have the greatest effects on preserving Syria’s past society and identity, rather than any military victory against ISIS.

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