News Q&A

‘This Is a Genocide’: Art Historian Zainab Bahrani on ISIS’s Destruction of Cultural Heritage

Temple of Bel in Palmyra, destroyed by ISIS militants in 2015. COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Temple of Bel in Palmyra, destroyed by ISIS militants in 2015.


Last year, news outlets began reporting that the militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had begun bombing and bulldozing cultural heritage sites and artifacts, some dating back to ancient times. The losses this far include at least 41 major cultural heritage sites and monuments, with 34 percent destroyed in 2014 and 66 percent annihilated in 2015, with no signs of slowing. (This infographic provides an overview of the destruction.)

Pre-Islamic, Islamic, early Christian, and Yazidi sites in Libya, Syria, and Iraq have been demolished due to ISIS’s claims that such displays of creativity are a violation of sharia. Despite this statement, however, ISIS has reportedly been earning millions by selling artifacts on the black market—the FBI recently began an investigation into the provenance of some cuneiform tablets acquired by the Green family (of Hobby Lobby fame).

However, there have been global attempts to retroactively preserve the memory of sites that remain in danger (ISIS now controls an area of land approximately the size of England). One such method, developed by archeologists from Harvard and Oxford Universities in conjunction with UNESCO World Heritage, involves building a digital platform that can house an enormous database of archeological images. The images, taken by locals, will be captured on 5,000 inexpensively-made 3-D cameras.

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Dr. Zainab Bahrani, Edith Porada Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology at Columbia University and director of the Columbia University fieldwork project Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments, to ask about her perspective on the matter. In the past, Dr. Bahrani has been interviewed on this topic for Democracy Now!, and she recently delivered the keynote address at an Istanbul conference held to discuss possible solutions to save further heritage from destruction.

ARTnews: I heard from your colleague [Avinoam Shalem, Riggio Professor of Art History at Columbia] that you were just at a conference in Istanbul regarding this exact topic.

Dr. Zainab Bahrani: It wasn’t a normal academic conference—academic conferences are usually open to whoever in the field wishes to attend. This was an intensive workshop for a very small group of people from Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and the United States that we held in order to figure out what steps we can take to help.

Did you arrive at any solutions?

Well, we came up with a lot of ideas. Most of them involve collaboration with scholars in the region so we can take steps for conservation and preservation when the situation permits us to go there. As long as it’s so dangerous, though, it’s difficult to go in.

What do you think of partial solutions like the Million Image Database Project, created by archeologists at Oxford and Harvard [in partnership with UNESCO World Heritage]? Theyve developed a really cheap 3-D camera that locals can use to capture archival-quality scans of heritage sites before theyre destroyed. [The project is estimated to house 20 million scans by the end of 2017.] 

I appreciate all efforts that are made for the preservation of cultural heritage, but as far as I’m concerned, a 3-D model does not replace the original thing. Perhaps I say this because I am from the region and feel very strongly and closely tied to my cultural heritage, but I feel that when the original is destroyed it can never be replaced. Some of these losses can never be recovered and we just have to face that.

The director of UNESCO has called this destruction a form of genocide. What are your thoughts on this?

I absolutely agree with that. I gave an interview last spring with Democracy Now! in which I said this is a form of genocide and a form of cultural cleansing. I made the same argument the keynote speech that I gave in Istanbul last week—this is not just a destruction of cultural heritage, this is an attempt to erase the representation of groups of people. Thousands of years of history—whether Islamic, pre-Islamic, early Christian, or Yazidi—is being wiped out as ISIS attempts to rewrite it in its own vision. This is a genocide.


Dr. Zainab Bahrani.


Why do you think ISIS is so particularly intent on destroying these cultural markers? 

I can only decipher what I think is happening with cultural heritage because that’s my field. What I see happening is almost a fear of the past—if they didn’t feel so threatened by the past, why would they want to wipe it out? Their propaganda doesn’t work as long as a tangible past is around. Unfortunately, the more coverage this matter gets, the more they destroy, so I’m sort of opposed to the idea of focusing too much on their goals because I think we’re playing into their hands. They just want to slowly destroy one thing after another in order to get the world’s attention, and I’m not interested in giving them that kind of attention. The destruction of the monuments is really the least of it, though, because all of these people are being killed and displaced and tortured and taken into slavery.

They beheaded an antiquities conservator [Khaled al-As’a] because he wouldn’t lead them to artifacts.

They beheaded one archeologist and they have killed and enslaved hundreds of people, not to mention all of the displaced Iraqi and Syrian refugees that have been forced to leave their country. On a humanitarian level, you have to first think about the people—the heritage comes second, always.

I’m surprised that they’re blowing up Sunni sites, because ISIS is a Sunni faction, right?  

Purportedly. I wouldn’t call them real.

It’s interesting, though, that they aren’t exempting Sunni sites from destruction even though their propaganda touts Sunni ideology. 

If you were going to go by traditions of Islam, none of it actually makes any sense because Muslims aren’t supposed to destroy churches or synagogues. And ISIS isn’t just focused on the pre-Islamic past; they’ve also destroyed so many Muslim shrines, mosques, and what have you. They’re just kind of bulldozed everything in their way. I think we focus more on their destruction of pre-Islamic sites here in the States and in Western Europe, but they’ve actually destroyed a lot of Islamic and Christian and Yazidi and Sufi temples.

I was surprised by the Popes recommendation of little interference. Besides the fact that Christianity is one of the most powerful world religions, Christians have historically been incredibly aggressive about protecting their domain. 

The idea [of interference] is a nice one, but what could possibly be done? I’m also worried that certain religious minorities would be protected while some would not.

Another question, is, why is Europe so reluctant to take in displaced immigrants?

Has anything like this happened in history before on such a large scale?  

[This destruction] looks to be on a larger scale because of technology and because we have the ability to disseminate images online. But of course, people have done this before, in several historical eras.

Armenian Genocide Martyrs' Church in Deir Ez Zor, destroyed by ISIS militants in 2014. COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Armenian Genocide Martyrs’ Church in Deir Ez Zor, destroyed by ISIS militants in 2014.


Like during World War II?

World War II is a perfect example, but the [more recent] Balkan Wars in former Yugoslavia also involved the destruction of cultural monuments by one group against the other. The destruction of cultural heritage in warfare happened in all eras of art history and has taken different forms. Oftentimes monuments are destroyed as collateral damage, and sometimes artifacts are looted and sold. [The latter] is happening today, as is the destruction of cultural heritage as a form of psychological warfare.

To go back to World War II, you might remember that the biggest tragedy of World War II was the genocide against the Jewish population. But [the Nazis] didn’t just take them to camps and kill them—they did their best to destroy any personal property so that there would be no trace that Jewish people had ever lived there and were ever part of the population. What is happening now is quite similar.

Regarding the looting that’s going on, I’ve been reading about the FBI’s investigation into the Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby.

I read that article in The Daily Beast.

The cuneiform tablets they own probably came from these areas on the black market, right?

I don’t know where they got these tablets so I can only speculate, but from what I read they are Mesopotamian tablets, which means they came from Iraq. I cannot speculate who their middlemen were, but if they are cuneiform tablets from Iraq or Syria, they are illegal.

What I find interesting is that while news about this destruction will surface periodically, but this hasn’t been a major ongoing story. Do you think that the world’s reaction would be different if ISIS was bombing the pyramids in Egypt or temples in Greece?

I think there would be more outrage because in the West, people are more familiar with those sites. But the destruction of Iraqi and Syrian sites should absolutely be considered in the same way you would consider the destruction of a Greek temple.

The situation in the Middle East is obviously very chaotic right now, but did these sites used to provide a lot of tourist income for the local people?

There used to be more tourism in Syria than Iraq. Iraq has been occupied since 2003 because of the Iraq War, and the U.S. occupation only recently ended. During this time there hasn’t been any tourism, and before that there was an international embargo against Iraq so there was no serious tourism in the country since 1990. Syria has been open to tourism more recently, but there has been very little U.S. tourism since our political relations with Syria were not good. But European tourists in Syria were very commonplace, during holidays and such, but that’s all ended now.

Which sites are you most sorry to lose?

That’s such a difficult question—I’m sorry to lose them all! It’s devastating for those of us who have lived and worked there to see these sites destroyed. It’s even more devastating to know about the populations that are being displaced and to know that our colleagues there are in danger. These are the things that worry me most—I have to repeat this because there is no question that all of us who have lived there worry more about our colleagues and our friends there than we do about the sites.

Lion of Al-lāt in Palmyra, destroyed by ISIS militants in 2015. COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Lion of Al-lāt in Palmyra, destroyed by ISIS militants in 2015.


I read that ISIS controls 20 percent of Iraq’s 10,000 [cultural heritage] sites right now. How do you see this situation progressing in the future?

I think as long as ISIS continues to get attention they will continue to destroy more heritage sites. I don’t imagine they will stop. As to how I see it progressing, I only see it ending when ISIS is ousted from the region and defeated.

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