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The destructive adventure of ISIS

Deliberate destruction and theft of cultural heritage has been conducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or IS – Islamic State) since 2014 in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The premeditated destruction targets various places of worship under ISIL control and ancient historical artifacts. In Iraq, between the fall of Mosul in June 2014 and February 2015, ISIL has plundered and destroyed at least 28 historical religious buildings. The valuable items from some buildings were looted in order to smuggle and sell them to finance ISIL activities.

isisISIL uses a unit called the Kata’ib Taswiyya (settlement battalions), tasked with selecting targets for demolition.

UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, branded the ISIL activities in this respect as “a form of cultural cleansing” and launched the Unite4Heritage campaign to protect heritage sites threatened by extremists.

Although Libya, Syria and Iraq ratified the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict in 1957, 1958 and 1967 respectively, it has not been effectively enforced.

Mosques and shrines

In 2014, media reported destruction of multiple, chiefly Shiite, mosques and shrines throughout Iraq by ISIL.  Among them were Al-Qubba Husseiniya Mosque in Mosul, JawadHusseiniya Mosque and Saad bin Aqeel Husseiniya Shrine in Tal Afar, Sunni Ahmed al-Rifai Shrine and tomb in MahlabiyaDistrict and the so-called Tomb of the Girl (Qabr al-Bint) in Mosul. The Tomb of the Girl, reputed to honour a girl who died of a broken heart, was actually believed to be the tomb of medieval scholar Ali ibn al-Athir.

In June 2014, ISIL bulldozed the shrine of Fathi al-Ka’en.

On 24 September 2014, the Al-Arba’een Mosque in Tikrit, containing forty tombs from the Umar era, was blown up. On 26 February 2015 ISIL blew up the 12th century KhudrMosque in central Mosul.

In Mosul, ISIL also targeted several tombs with shrines built over them. In July 2014, ISIL destroyed one of the tombs ofprophet Daniel (located in Mosul) by implanted explosives. On 24 July 2014, the tomb and mosque of the prophet Jonah was destroyed with explosives. On 27 July, ISIL destroyed the tomb of Prophet Jirjis (George).

On 25 July 2014, the 13th-century shrine of Imam Awn al-Din in Mosul, one of the few structures to have survived the 13th-century Mongol invasion, was destroyed by ISIL. The destruction was mostly carried out with explosive devices, but in some cases bulldozers were used.  In March 2015, ISIL reportedly bulldozed to the ground the Hamou al-QaduMosque in Mosul, dating back to 1880. In the same year ISIL ordered the removal of all decorative elements and frescoes from mosques in Mosul, even those containing Quranic verses that mention Allah. They were regarded by ISIL as “an erroneous form of creativity, contradicting the basics ofsharia”. At least one imam in Mosul opposing that order was shot to death.

ISIL also destroyed Sufi shrines near Tripoli, Libya, in March 2015. The shrines were destroyed by sledgehammers and bulldozers.

In June 2015, it was announced that ISIL had blown up the ancient tombs of Mohammed bin Ali and Nizar AbuBahaaeddine, located close to the ruins of Palmyra.

On 16 June 2014, it was reported that ISIL elements had been instructed to destroy all churches in Mosul. On 26 July, it was announced that ISIL blew up the Virgin Mary Church in Mosul with several improvised explosive devices.

On 21 September 2014, the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor, Syria was blown up by ISIL militants.

On 24 September 2014 ISIL militants destroyed with improvised explosive devices the 7th-century Green Church (also known as St Ahoadamah Church) belonging to the Assyrian Church of the East in Tikrit.

In early February 2015, ISIL blew up the Al-Tahera Church in Mosul, which dated back to the beginning of the 7th century and was among the oldest churches in the city.  On 9 March 2015, according to the Iraqi government official DureidHikmat Tobia, ISIL destroyed the 10th-century Chaldean Catholic St Markourkas Church in Mosul.

As of 5 April 2015, ISIL destroyed the Assyrian Christian Virgin Mary Church on Easter Sunday in the Syrian town of Tel Nasri. “As the “joint forces” of Kurdish People’s Protection Units and local Assyrian fighters attempted to enter the town”, ISIL set off the explosives destroying what remained of the church. ISIL held the church since 7 March 2015.

Another church in Mosul, which was reportedly “thousands of years” old, was blown up by ISIL in July 2015. According to Kurdish sources, four children were killed when the church was destroyed.

On 21 August 2015, the historic Mar Elian monastery near Al-Qaryatayn in the Homs Governorate was destroyed by ISIL.


Ancient and medieval sites

On 27 January 2015, ISIL had reportedly bombed large parts and expanses of the Nineveh Wall in al-Tahrir neighborhoodof Iraq.

In the Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah, ISIL publicly ordered the bulldozing of a colossal ancient Assyrian gateway lion sculpture from the 8th century BC. Another lion statue was also destroyed. Both statues originated from the Arslan Tasharchaeological site. The destruction was published in the ISIL magazine, Dabiq. Among the lost statues are those of MullaUthman al-Mawsili, of a woman carrying an urn, and of AbuTammam.

On 26 February 2015, ISIL released a video showing the destruction of various ancient artifacts in the Mosul Museum. The affected artefacts originate from the Assyrian era and from the ancient city of Hatra.  The video in particular shows the defacement of a granite lamassu statue from the right side of the Nergal Gate by a jackhammer. The statue remained buried until 1941 when heavy rains eroded the soil around the gate and exposed two statues on both sides.  Several other defaced items in the museum were claimed to be copies, but this was later rebutted by Iraq’s Minister of Culture, AdelSharshab who said: “Mosul Museum had many ancientartifacts, big and small. None of them were transported to the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. Thus, all artifactsdestroyed in Mosul are original except for four pieces that were made of gypsum”.

On 5 March 2015, ISIL reportedly started the demolition of Nimrud, an Assyrian city from the 13th century BC. The local palace was bulldozed, while lamassu statues at the gates of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II were smashed.[31] A video showing the destruction of Nimrud was released in April 2015.

On 7 March 2015, Kurdish sources reported that ISIL had begun the bulldozing of Hatra, which has been under threat of demolition after ISIL had occupied the adjacent area. The next day ISIL sacked Dur-Sharrukin, according to the Kurdish official from Mosul Saeed Mamuzini.

The Iraqi Tourism and Antiquities Ministry launched the related investigation on the same day. On 8 April 2015, the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism reported that ISIL destroyed the remnants of the 12th-century Bash Tapia Castle in Mosul. As of early July 2015, 20% of Iraq’s 10,000 archaeological sites has been under ISIL control.

Following the capture of Palmyra in Syria, ISIL was reported as not intending to demolish the city’s World Heritage Site (while still intending to destroy any statues deemed ‘polytheistic’). On 27 May 2015, ISIL released a 87-second video showing parts of the apparently undamaged ancient colonnades, the Temple of Bel and the Roman theatre. On 27 June 2015, however, ISIL demolished the ancient Lion of Al-lat statue in Palmyra. Several other statues from Palmyra reportedly confiscated from a smuggler were also destroyed by ISIL. On 23 August 2015, it was reported that ISIL had blown up the 1st-century Temple of Baalshamin. On 30 August 2015, ISIL demolished the Temple of Bel with explosives. Satellite imagery of the site taken shortly after showed almost nothing remained.

According to the report issued on September 3, 2015 by ASOR Syrian Heritage initiative, ISIL also destroyed seven ancient tower tombs in Palmyra since the end of June over two phases. The last phase of destruction occurred between August 27 and September 2, 2015, including the destruction of the 2nd-century AD Tower of Elahbel, called “the most prominent example of Palmyra’s distinct funerary monuments”. Earlier, the ancient tombs of Iamliku andAtenaten were also destroyed.

According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, ISIL blew up the Arch of Triumph in October.


On 22 September 2014, the United States Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the Department of State had partnered with the American Schools of Orient Research to “comprehensively document the condition of, and threats to, cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria to assess their future restoration, preservation, and protection needs”. In 2014, the UNESCO’s Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict condemned at the Ninth Meeting “repeated and deliberate attacks against cultural property… in particular in the Syrian Arab Republic and the Republic of Iraq”. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokovacalled the destructions in Mosul a violation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2199, and the destruction of Nimrud a war crime.

The Independent in UK lists the following as the world’s heritage sites in ruins?

1 Palmyra

The ancient city of Palmyra was once one of the most well-known tourism spots in all of Syria. The site, which predates Islam by hundreds of years, had become a center for trade by the 1st century AD – its existence is even recorded in biblical texts. It has been controlled by the Isis since May.

“The art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, is a symbol of the complexity and wealth of the Syrian identity and history,” the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, said in a recent statement, adding that extremists were seeking to “destroy this diversity and richness.”


The Iraqi fortress city of Hatra is believed to date back to days of the Parthian empire in the 3rd or 2nd century BC., and later became the capital of the first Arab Kingdom.

The city, known for its huge walls, flourished during Mesopotamian era and bears the influence of both Roman and Persian empires. Video released in March by the Isis showed the group using sledgehammers and even guns to destroy carvings and statues.

  1. Ashur (Qal’at Sherqat)

Ashur, also known as Assur, is city in modern-day Iraq that dates back to the third millennium and it later became the first capital of the Assyrian Empire. The city was associated with the god Ashur, and became an important religious city.

Ashur was first declared in danger by UNESCO in 2003 due to the planned construction of a dam that would have flooded its ruins.

  1. The ancient city of Aleppo

Located at an important point along trading routes since the 2nd millennium BC, Aleppo has had a rich history and has the architectural legacy of a variety of different empires, religions and time periods.

The city has a variety of different buildings of historical importance, including its famous citadel, a large fortified palace that dates back thousands of years.

Unlike some other sites on this list, Aleppo remains an inhabited and major city, and since the Syrian war began in 2012 it has been divided between rebel forces and government troops.

The city became a target for the Isis during the summer. A number of important sites in the city have been damaged during the fighting – for example, the famous minaret at the 11th century AD Great Mosque of Aleppo was destroyed in 2013.

  1. Samarra archaeological city

The archaeological city of Samarra in Iraq, once the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, is considered an especially important historical site by UNESCO as it is the “only surviving Islamic capital that retains its original plan, architecture and arts, such as mosaics and carvings.”

The city is well-preserved as it was abandoned relatively early, and only 20 percent of it has been excavated so far.

  1. The Crusader castles

Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din are two castles in Syria that date back to the period of the Crusades and represent an important mixture of European and Near Eastern influences.

However, both have been the scene of heavy fighting: In 2013, rebels said that they had just managed to defeat regime troops fighting in the walls of the Crac des Chevaliers, though the Syrian army retook the castle in 2014.

  1. Ancient city of Damascus

Damascus is the capital of Syria and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, with some excavations showing the city was inhabited as early as 8,000 to 10,000BC.

The city became the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate and has been important to Arab culture since. Within the walls of the Old City UNESCO says there are 125 protected monuments, including the Umayyad mosque, still one of the largest mosques in the world.8. Ancient city of Bosra

Bosra was once the capital of the Roman province of Arabia and still features a 2nd-century Roman theater within the Old City walls. It contains a number of monuments from theNabataean, Byzantine and Umayyad periods too.

The city, however, has been the site of considerable fighting during the Syrian civil war, putting many of the Old City at risk.


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