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International Journal of Cultural Property (2015) 22:16. Printed in the USA.

Copyright 2015 International Cultural Property Society


Editorial: The Destruction of Heritage

in Syria and Iraq and Its Implications
Alexander A. Bauer*

In the dozen years I have edited the IJCP, I have chosen not to write editorials, as
I have preferred to let the content of the journal speak for itself. As this issue
was going to press, however, a series of events unfolded that I felt needed to be
addressed. Over the past months, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS)
an armed militia with neo-medieval political aspirations in war-torn Syria and
Iraqhas undertaken a direct assault on the archaeological remains of northern
Mesopotamia, claiming that such art is idolatrous and thus forbidden in Islamic
law. While looting of archaeological sites has been widespread and systematic in
the region for at least the past two years, the destruction garnered international
headlines in February and March 2015 when IS put sledgehammers to Assyrian
statues and other artifacts in the museum of Mosul,1 then proceeded to bulldoze
and ransack the spectacular sites of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra, among others.2
The wantonness and scale of these destructive acts have been shocking, and certainly for anyone concerned with the preservation of cultural heritage, a terrible
tragedy. This almost immediately brings to mind parallels with the Talibans
destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, whose destruction fueled a resurgence of
arguments in favor of Western museums collection of antiquities in order to
save them from a similar fate.3 Of course, the Bamiyan episode was not so
straightforward, and in some ways, the efforts of Western organizations to intervene on the Buddhas behalf may have made matters worse.4 Arguably, the
destruction in Iraq and Syria is even more widespread, insidious, and complicated.
It is thus difficult to know how best to respond to it, and what the implications
of any responses will be.
In spite of the complexity of the situation, I want to address and critically confront three reactions that are likely to develop or be reinvigorated within current
debate on how to respond to such destruction. It is my hope that we can use these
terrible events to discuss new ways of approaching the issues of heritage acquisition
and preservation rather than fall back into old and counterproductive positions.
*Department of Anthropology, Queens College, CUNY. Email:


Buying antiquities from Iraq and Syria saves them

Many well-meaning collectors and collecting institutions5 feel that their purchase
of antiquitiesespecially from volatile regions where looting or other kinds of
archaeological destruction is a problemis preferable to leaving those items to
uncertain fates or to fall into the hands of people who might not care for them
adequately. In response to this claim, archaeologists tend to argue that an object
taken from its context is effectively meaningless, as the information it could impart
is lost and could very well be forged.6 Both views have a point. Archaeologists
(of which I am one) are correct to assert that objects with documented findspots
(ideally, from a controlled excavation, properly published) can tell us a lot more
than ones without such information. At the same time, it is also true that in the face
of destruction such as that caused by IS, we should all be thankful for the objects
obtained by collectors and collecting institutions that reside safely outside the conflict zone (more on this below).
That said, it is important that we not let our concern for Syrian and Iraqi heritage
cloud our judgment. Regardless of whether one believes that supply or demand
drives the black market in antiquities (and I believe that there is much good
evidence to support the demand-driven explanation; see, e.g., Elia 2001), it is
increasingly clear that terrorist groups and other organized crime networks
are using the sale of antiquities as a revenue stream.7 Several recent reports have
revealed that IS has been selling antiquities as part of its funding strategy, with one
report from July 2014 stating that they had raised $36 million from selling artifacts
from a single site.8 Even if this number is inflated, there is a great deal of evidence
that looting is being undertaken on an industrial scale in IS-controlled territory,
and that sales of artifacts are likely going to feed the coffers of that group. Collectors of antiquities must therefore be mindful of their potential complicity in
supporting groups such as IS, and that rather than saving heritage, collecting objects with questionable provenance (from northern Mesopotamia at least)
might in fact serve to support ISs violent and destructive agenda.

The destruction of antiquities cannot be compared with the

destruction of human lives caused by the wars in Iraq and Syria
The last decade or so of conflict in the Middle East and North Africa has brought
a great deal of attention to the vulnerability of archaeological sites and museums
in conflict zones. The looting of the Iraq Museum following the US-led invasion
in 2003, the destruction of sites in Afghanistan and Syria, and the concerns over
the Cairo Museum during the Tahrir Square uprising in 2011 each engendered
calls from archaeologists and lovers of antiquity for increased efforts to safeguard
sites and monuments. A growing number of archaeologists, however, have become
uneasy with concern over heritage preservation in the face of human devastation
and what Yannis Hamilakis has termed the military-archaeological complex of


archaeologists collaborating with armed forces to minimize damage to ancient

sites.9 They make the important points that acting to preserve cultural heritage
while neglecting the plight of living people is morally questionable, and that
archaeologists should speak out against all injustices (of war and otherwise), and
not simply the destruction of heritage. Neglecting people for the sake of objects
makes claims of idolatry seem not so far-fetched, and at the very least may reinforce
the notion among affected communities that archaeology and discourses concerning
world heritage are simply the latest constructs of Western imperialism used to
justify intervention in the region.10
But again, these issues are not quite so black and white, and to present the situation as either-or implies that human rights and archaeological preservation are
mutually exclusive. Moreover, doing so assumes a universal ranking of rights
that places the preservation of cultural expression and resources below basic
needs such as food, clothing, shelter, etc.11 Of course, we do not want to protect
objects at the expense of living people, but to minimize the significance of cultural
materials represents a static way of thinking that leaves no room for the importance of cultural meaning in promoting and securing human well-being, a way
of thinking that has been increasingly challenged in contemporary development
theory.12 Ranking rights in a universal framework risks being just another kind
of paternalism, not allowing room for those who would, as Sir Harold Nicolson
once infamously claimed, be prepared to be shot against a wall if I were certain
that by such a sacrifice I could preserve the Giotto frescoes.13 History and our
contemporary world is full of examples where people are willing to risk their lives
for the sake of preserving cultural monuments and objects: during the 2011 uprisings in Egypts Tahrir Square, for example, young protesters were instrumental in
securing the perimeter around the Cairo Museum.14 If freedom and opportunity
for cultural activities are among the basic freedoms15 of a good life, surely, then,
acting to safeguard cultural monuments need not be seen as incompatible with
efforts to secure the well-being of affected people.

The continued possession of world cultural treasures by Western

collectors and museums is justified because they are safer there
While many collectors and collecting museums see themselves as rescuing objects
that might otherwise be destroyed, the other side of this is that the same museums
resist calls to repatriate or return cultural objects to their countries of origin on
the grounds that they are safer in the museums display cases and storerooms than
in the country where the objects were discovered. The classic example of this is the
Elgin Marbles, the name often given to the sculptures that adorned the monumental Parthenon in Athens and were taken to England by Lord Elgin to be placed
on display in the British Museum, where they have been since 1816. Arguments
in support of the British Museums retention of the Marbles often cite the history
of social unrest in Greece as well as Athens terrible pollution (which has badly


damaged the sculptures that remained there) as reasons why they are better off in
London. Similar arguments are made in other cases, and certainly ISs destruction
of the monumental Neo-Assyrian palace gates at Nineveh and in the museum in
Mosul makes one thankful that similar gates stand intact in the Metropolitan
Museum, the British Museum, and elsewhere.
But just because objects are generally safer in Western international cities does
not justify the retention of all such objects over legitimate claims for repatriation.
As Lyndel Prott once pointed out in the pages of this journal, [t]he one-sidedness
of cultural internationalism looks far more like cultural imperialism, based as
it seems to be on the activities of those from wealthy countries with each other and
with poorer states whose cultural resources are flowing in one direction, without
an equal exchange.16 Separating communities from key products of their history
and symbols of their cultural identity, such as in the case of the Parthenon sculptures or the Afo-A-Kom (an object that meets the test that scholar John Merryman
termed essential propinquity17), perpetuates a kind of symbolic violence against
those communities that may not be worth sustaining for the sake of an objects
relative safety.18 And it doesnt give local communities a chance to show that they
can protect their own objects (as both the Afghanis and Iraqis did during the US
invasions of 2001 and 2003).
This is not to say that all objects should be returned to their places of origin or that
there is no place for collecting antiquities in any form. Among other issues, returning
all objects would serve to reinforce tribalism and concentrate rather than mitigate
risk of total cultural destruction. The circulation of objects, whether through loans,
exchanges, or a legal and regulated antiquities market, has the capacity to generate
important social relationships and promote values of sharing and understanding, in
addition to increasing the chance that at least some examples of each cultures heritage will survive into the next century.19 A true cosmopolitanism, which can act to
promote values such as tolerance and diversityas necessary today as evermeans
experiencing and understanding a range of cultures and ideas and is among the most
important features of human development.20 It is vital, however, that we do not react
to the recent destructive acts by IS by simply retreating into old and easy zero-sum
positions of us vs. them, and use their vandalism as an excuse to collect and retain
as many cultural treasures as possible. For such an approach would only serve to enrich
their pockets and accede to the clash of civilizations worldview that they espouse.
1. See Kareem Shaheen, Isis Fighters Destroy Ancient Artefacts at Mosul Museum, The
Guardian, 26 February 2015, (accessed 23 March 2015).
2. See Anne Barnard, ISIS Attacks Nimrud, a Major Archaeological Site in Iraq, The New York
Times, 5 March 2015, (accessed 23 March 2015).


3. Cuno 2006, 2008.

4. Meskell 2002, Bernbeck 2010.
5. For the sake of argument, I am making some generalizations about various interest groups in
these debates. I have elsewhere undertaken a more detailed discussion about the perspectives of these
different groups. Bauer 2008.
6. Gill and Chippindale 1993.
7. Campbell 2013, Borgstede 2014.
8. See, e.g., Oliver Moody, Isis Fills War Chest by Selling Looted Antiquities to the West, The
Times, 17 December 2014,
(accessed 24 March 2015); Simon Cox, The men who smuggle the loot that funds IS, BBC News,
17 February 2015, (accessed 24 March 2015).
9. Hamilakis 2009.
10. Bernbeck 2010.
11. Streeten et al. 1981.
12. Sen 1992, 2004; Nussbaum and Sen 1993.
13. Nicolson 1944.
14. See Declan Butler, Egyptians Rally to Defend Cultural Heritage, Nature, 3 February 2011, (accessed 24 March 2015).
15. Sen 2004, 39.
16. Prott 2005, 228.
17. Merryman 1988, 495ff.
18. Barkan 2002.
19. Bauer 2008, forthcoming.
20. Sen 2004, 42; see also Appiah 2006.

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