On Friday I published the first half of this post, assessing the damage to the Mosul Museum’s Assyrian collection as well as to the lamassu at the Nergal Gate. This post will assess the damage to the second major group of artifacts: statues from the Roman period city of Hatra.
Hatra was a wealthy trading city located in the desert south of Mosul, one of several such cities which sprung up in the space between Parthia and the Roman Empire. Hatra, Palmyra, Petra and Dura-Europos all made their fortune as intermediaries, trading stops between east and west. All of these cities were client states of either Rome or Parthia, with Hatra choosing Parthia.
This made Hatra a target for Rome, and Trajan besieged the city during his Mesopotamian campaign in 114 AD but failed to capture it. Septimius Severus launched several assaults on the city during his invasion of Parthia in 198 which also failed. The heat, the open plain which made it difficult to approach the walls undetected, and the lack of any water or food in the area around the city kept Hatra safe from protracted sieges. Hatra was destroyed in 240, not to Rome but to the forces of the Sassanid monarch Shapur I during his campaign against the last Parthian client states that stood between himself and renewed war with the Roman Empire.
Hatra’s unique position between east and west produced an outpouring of art unique in the Parthian empire. Influences from east and west mixed to create a very naturalistic but still unmistakably eastern artistic style. Here gorgon heads adorned temples to Near Eastern gods alongside Aramaic inscriptions. Mesopotamian deities such as Shamash and Nergal were depicted alongside Greco-Roman deities such as Hercules. Classical nudes and statues adorned in ornate Parthian robes existed side by side. One statue of Apollo the Roman sun god even featured symbols of Shamash the Near Eastern sun god on his clothing.
The damage by ISIS to the artistic legacy of Hatra has been catastrophic.
This tragedy is compounded by the fact that Hatrene sculpture has been chronically understudied. Almost all of it was excavated in the 20th century and the finds never left Iraq. The primary publication of the finds is in an Arabic-language book often inaccessible in the West. Very few scholars outside of Iraq have had the opportunity to study the statues.
Statues of the Kings of Hatra
These statues represent kings of Hatra. The statue on the left is of an unidentified king of Hatra, dressed in a Parthian style and holding an acanthus leaf in his left hand and a piece of fruit in his right. Its museum number is MM5.
The statue on the right has been called “the finest of all the sculptures unearthed in Hatra.” An Aramaic inscription on the base of the statue reads “The Image of King Uthal, the merciful, noble-minded servant of God, blessed by God.” All other details about this king’s life, including the dates of his reign, remain obscure.
Both statues were seen in 0:08 being hit with hammers without much effect. At the 2:50 mark the statue of Uthal is shown being snapped at the base and toppled. At 2:59, the prelude to this sequence is shown as a man strikes the base. Three men attack the statue with sledgehammers after it hits the ground. Both statues are seen broken into numerous pieces on the floor.
At 2:53 a third statue can be seen being toppled. This is a statue of Sanatruq II, the last king of Parthia before the city was destroyed by Shapur I in 240.
This statue was reconstructed from several fragments, so it shattered easily when it hit the floor.
Another sculpture is seen being unwrapped at 0:38. This is a depiction of an unidentified Hatrene king holding an eagle symbolizing the ancient near eastern sun god Shamash.
We have 27 known statues of kings of Hatra, so the destruction of four of them represents a loss of 15% of all statues of Hatrene kings in existence.
The statue was toppled but it took a number of blows with a sledgehammer to dismember it.
Other Large Standing Sculptures
At 0:40 the video shows two sculptures in a museum alcove. The sculpture on the right is a statue of a Hatrene nobleman dressed in the Parthian style. This is one of the earlier Hatrene sculptures found and dates to the 1st century AD. Its catalog number is MM14.
The statue on the left is believed to be of a priest based on its clothing. It was missing its head when excavated.
Both statues were broken into several pieces by toppling them over forwards onto the floor (2:43 of the video).
In another alcove at 3:16 a headless statue can be seen, clutching a sword in his hands and wearing long pleated trousers and a cape. An inscription identifies it as a depiction of a certain Makai ben Nashri.
The statue is toppled sideways off its base and snaps in half when it hits an architectural element along the wall. When it hits the floor the legs break into several more pieces.
Greco-Roman Influenced Sculpture
Greco-Roman influences in Hatra can be seen in this headless statue of Hercules, shown being toppled to the floor at 2:48: However, a later shot of the room at 3:59 shows the statue has shattered into hundreds of fragments and numerous steel rebars are sticking out. This is very different from even the reconstructed sculptures in the video, which sometimes have rebar inside to support the reconstruction but never shatter like the Hercules statue.
Near the beginning of the video at the 0:32 mark an ISIS fighter is shown unwrapping a nude female torso, believed to be a depiction of Venus/Aphrodite. The camera cuts away before the statue is unwrapped and the sculpture is not seen again, however, it may be one of the broken objects in the background of the shot of the Hercules statue shown above at 3:59.
A small statue appears in the background at the 2:55 mark:
While still blurry, this view allows us to match the statue with fragments on the floor at 3:18 and 3:41 of the video. The actual destruction of this statue is not shown.
Update: Dr. Lucinda Dirven states that the statue published by Safar and Mustafa is safe in storage at the Baghdad museum, but many very similar Nike statues were uncovered at Hatra and not all of them have been published.
This statue of a seated goddess holding a sphere in her left hand first appears at 0:47 of the video. This statue was broken at 2:55 by being flipped off its stand and onto the floor, breaking off its head.
According to Dr. Lamia al-Gailani Werr and Dr. Lucinda Dirven this statue is a plaster copy of an original kept in Baghdad.
This still from 0:48 shows a number of Hatrene reliefs. The relief on the bottom shows the goddess Marten receiving a worshiper. The right relief depicts the goddess Maren. The upper middle relief depicts Marten again, and the relief on the far left depicts the moon god Barmaren.
Oddly, these reliefs appear undamaged at the end of the video:
Update: Dr. Lucinda Dirven suggests the mask is a cast made from a mask like the one seen below on the right. These type of masks seem to be built into the walls of the temple of Hatra and cannot be removed.
A large eagle is seen being toppled over and shattered. This eagle also matches architectural elements from Hatra.
Three small reliefs are shown being destroyed at 3:46. All are pulverized with sledgehammers and ripped out of the wall. All are from Hatra, the middle published by Safar and Mustafa, the right unpublished and the left is too blurry to be identified in the video but other pictures from inside the museum make it clear that it is a relief of a reclining woman.
In the background at the 0:32 mark a statue of a lion can be seen:
This lion was published by Safar and Mustafa.
Its final disposition is not seen in the video but it is likely one of the blurry piles of rubble in 4:02:
Update: Dr. Lucinda Dirven writes that this eagle relief was discovered during excavations at the north gate of the city and was not published until 1978.
There are some pictures from before the museum was destroyed, which may be of aid:
It is important to note that there are many more items from the Mosul Museum which were not shown in ISIS’ video. The Islamic art wing was not shown at all, and most of the Assyrian section does not appear in the video either. This does not mean that these artifacts have survived. Their destruction may have been cut from the video before release. Alternately, such items may have been smuggled out and sold on the antiquities market or may still be in the museum.
Regardless, from what we can see in this video the loss for the study the Roman and Parthian Near East is absolutely devastating.
Special thanks to Dr. Suzanne Bott for uploading many pre-destruction pictures of the Mosul Museum, Hubert Debbasch for providing photos from his travels, to Dr. Lamia al-Gailani Werr for information about replicas in the museum, and to Dr. Lucinda Dirven for more information about museum replicas and bibliographic information.
 Shinji Fukai, “The Artifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art,” East and West 11, No. 2/3 (June-September 1960): 142-144, pl. 2-3; Fu’ad Safar and Ali Muhammad Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God [Arabic title al-Ḥaḍr, madīnat al-shams] (Baghdad: Wizarat al-Iʻlām, Mudīrīyat al-Athār al-ʻĀmmah, 1974), 197-198, pl. 208-210.
 Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, 23, pl. 4.
 Fukai, “The Artifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art,” 144 pl. 4; Henri Stierlin, Cités du Désert: Pétra, Palmyre, Hatra (Fribourg: Seuil, 1987), 198, pl. 178; Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, 212, pl. 199.
 Michael Sommer, Hatra: Geschichte und Kultur einer Karawanenstadt im römisch-parthischen Mesopotamien
(Mainz: Zabern, 2003), 75, pl. 106; Lucinda Dirven, “Aspects of Hatrene Religion: A Note on the Statues of Kings and Nobles from Hatra,” 209-246 in The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2008), 220-221.
 Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 19, p. 75.
 Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 24, p. 78.
 Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 84, p. 110.
 Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 102 p. 125.
 Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 250, p. 256-257.
 Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 187, p. 198.
 Wathiq Isma’il al-Salihi, “Inscriptions from Hatra,” Sumer 34, No. 1 (1978): 69; al-Salihi, “Hatra – Excavations in the Southern Gate – A Preliminary Report,” Sumer 36, No. 1 (1980): 158-189, pl. 3-4 [both in Arabic]; Aggoula, Inventaire des inscriptions hatréennes (Paris: P. Geuthner, 1991), 155, pl. XXVI; Inscription published in: Basile Aggoula, “Remarques sur les inscriptions hatréennes (VI),” Syria 58. No. 3/4 (1981): 363-378; Aggoula, “Remarques sur les inscriptions hatréennes. XIII Ibr. IX, XIV, XX, XXI,” Syria 64. No. 3/4 (1987): 223-229; J.B. Segal, “Arabs at Hatra and the Vicinity: Marginalia on new Aramaic Texts,” Journal of Semitic Studies 31 (1986): 57-80; Klaus Beyer, Die aramäischen Inschriften aus Assur, Hatra und dem übrigen Ostmesopotamien (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998), p. 90.
Article © Christopher Jones 2015.
Yesterday ISIS released yet another propaganda video, this time showing what has been feared since the fall of Mosul last summer: the destruction of ancient artifacts of the Mosul Museum. By now most of the world has seen this video, which has been featured in all the world’s major news agencies. This post and those following it will attempt to identify what has been lost and assess the damage.
These ruins that are behind me, they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. The so-called Assyrians and Akkadians and others looked to gods for war, agriculture and rain to whom they offered sacrifices…The Prophet Mohammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.
The video then shows a montage of ISIS fighters toppling sculptures, smashing them with sledgehammers and using jackhammers to pulverize the faces of some statues.
Most of the destroyed artifacts fall into two categories: Sculptures from the Roman period city of Hatra, situated in the desert to the south of Mosul, and Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh and surrounding sites such as Khorsabad and Balawat. This post will focus on the Assyrian artifacts and a later post will discuss the artifacts from Hatra.
The Nergal Gate
The scene with the narrator was shot at the Nergal Gate, one of the gates on the north side of Nineveh. The entrance to the gate was flanked by two large winged human-headed bulls known as lamassu in Akkadian. The gate and its lamassu were first excavated by Sir Austen Henry Layard in 1849 but then re-buried. The left lamassu (seen above behind the ISIS narrator) was uncovered again sometime before 1892, and a local man paid an Ottoman official for the top half of it, cut it off and broken down over a fire in order to extract lime. The right lamassu remained buried until 1941 when heavy rains eroded the soil around the gate and exposed the two statues. The gate was later reconstructed around them and they have remained on display ever since.
The gate was built during Sennacherib’s expansion of Nineveh sometime between 704 and 690 BC.
The video stops at 2:26 to emphasize the sign which states that “this gate is related to the god Nergal, the god of plague and the lower world.” The left lamassu, already missing its upper half, does not seem to have been targeted. The right lamassu had its face chiseled off with a jackhammer, likely causing irreparable damage.
Here is a photo of the Nergal Gate prior to its destruction for comparison. There is no indication that the reconstructed gate itself was damaged. Here is a map of Nineveh showing the location of the gate.
Inside the gate there are two additional lamassu which were less well preserved than the lamassu on the outside of the gate. Both were heavily cracked, and the one on the left was missing his head above the nose and the one on the right was missing everything except its head.
The lamassu on the left was broken apart with sledgehammers into large chunks. The head on the right was broken apart with a jackhammer.
The Balawat Gates
The video briefly shows segments of the bronze gates of the city of Balaway (near modern Qaraqosh). Three such gates were excavated, two by Hormuzd Rassam in 1878 which are now in the British Museum, and another by Max Mallowan in 1956 which were put on display in Mosul. Rassam’s gates were built during the reigns of Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 883-859 BC) and Shalmaneser III (859-824 BC). Mallowan’s gates were also from the reign of Ashurnasirpal II.
The bronze bands held the wood beams of the doors together and attached them to the posts. The beams were decorated with ornate scenes from Assyrian military campaigns.
Around thirty panels from the Mosul gates were looted in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion before American troops were able to secure Mosul. The gaps where the looted pieces once sat can be seen in the image above.
Nothing in the video shows the gates being destroyed or damaged. As they are portable, it is possible they may be sold on the antiquities black market. To help recognize them if they appear, I add the following photographs of the Balawat gates found in the British Museum:
At 1:10 of the video, two additional lamassu can be seen. These are an earlier type with a lion’s body instead of a bull’s. They are not shown being destroyed although by the end of the video all immovable sculptures in the museum seem to have been destroyed so there is little hope for their survival.
At 1:19 a partially reconstructed relief identified by its sign as coming from Dur-Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad) can be seen. The city was constructed by Sargon II sometime after 716 BC and abandoned upon his death in 705. This sort of relief usually shows tribute-bearers seeking an audience with the king and in this case one of the supplicants is holding a model of a fortification.
UPDATE: Here is a better photo of the relief in the Mosul Museum sent in by reader Hubbert Debasch. This appears to be a heavily reconstructed but genuine relief from Khorsabad:
Similar scenes can be seen in reliefs from Khorsabad held in other museums, such as the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago:
Another relief from the Mosul Museum (1:26 of the video) shows a king kneeling before a god and goddess. Similar scenes are found in other Near Eastern art including on the stele of Hammurabi.
UPDATE: Prof. Paolo Brusasco has pointed out that the above image is a copy of the Maltai rock relief, which is carved into the side of a cliff near Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. It shows Sennacherib worshiping the gods Ashur, Ninlil, Sin, Anu, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar.
Another at 1:28 shows a siege scene where one soldier is counting the heads of enemy dead while others attack a fortified wall with scaling ladders:
Something seemed slightly “off” to me about both the color and the level of detail in this relief. Initially I believed it to be a plaster cast of a relief held somewhere else but I have not been able to identify an original. It is definitely in an earlier style typical of the 9th-10th centuries. This may be a replica.
Another relief shown at 1:42 shows a dying lion from the famous lion hunt reliefs of Ashurbanipal (r. 668-627 BC):
This is clearly a replica taken from the reliefs in the British Museum:
Today the British Museum issued a press release stating in part that “We can confirm that none of the objects featured in this video are copies of originals at the British Museum.” However, as can be seen from the above comparison this is not the case, as there is at least one that was either cast directly from the British Museum original or more likely was made as a replica in imitation of it.
At 1:43 the camera pans to a relief showing two archers and a battering ram:
Therefore, I believe it is safe to say that a number of the Assyrian reliefs seen in the video are not originals.
Statue of Sargon (?)
At the 1:44 mark the video showed a fallen, broken statue identified by a museum sign as a statue of Sargon II of Assyria (r. 722-705 BC):
The broken sections of this statue clearly indicate it is made of plaster. The shape of the statue and the pattern of folds in the robe resemble the statue of Ashurnasirpal II from the British Museum. However the hat on the above image means it is not a copy of that artifact, and the ringlets on the beard more closely match the following sculpture from the British Museum:
This statue may be a reconstruction based on an original base. Similar statues of the god Nabu were found at Dur-Sharrukin. It is not, however, a statue of Sargon II but merely one from his reign:
It is worth noting that in 2003 around 1,500 smaller objects from the Mosul Museum were relocated to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad in order that they may be better protected. Nevertheless, many statues otherwise too large or delicate to be moved remained.
When it comes to the Assyrian artifacts, by far the most important losses are the lamassu at the Nergal Gate, one of which was exceedingly well preserved. They were some of the few lamassu left in their original locations to greet visitors to Nineveh the same way they would have greeted visitors in ancient Assyria.
As for the items inside the museum, a number are replicas of originals held elsewhere, while others are likely genuine.
The destruction of sculptures from Hatra appears to be even more devastating, and I will have another post on this damage shortly.
 J.P.G. Finch, “The Winged Bulls at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh,” Iraq 10, No. 1 (Spring 1948): 9-18.
Article and relevant images © Christopher Jones 2012-2015.
While there have been fewer reports of ISIS destroying sites in the past several weeks, partially due to the battlefield reverses suffered by the group in Kobani, Diyala Province, Baiji and elsewhere, a steady string of reports have come out of Mosul in the past few weeks concerning the destruction of various aspects of cultural heritage.
The Associated Press reported based on sources inside Mosul that on January 31 that ISIS had confiscated over 2000 books deemed “un-Islamic” from the Mosul Central Library, the library of the University of Mosul, the library of the Mosul Museum, and the library of the Dominican order. The books were burned.
The Walls of Nineveh?
Towards the end of January, numerous unsourced reports surfaced that ISIS had destroyed the walls of ancient Nineveh. Most of the walls are unexcavated, so the reports likely referred to a famous reconstructed section which is not built directly on top of the ancient walls.
Fortunately, the reports were false and sources on the ground indicated that there was no evidence of any damage to the walls.
A number of reports have surfaced in Arab language media that ISIS has destroyed a number of Christian churches in Mosul. Rudaw reported on February 2 that a church called al-Tahira in Mosul was destroyed. Other sources reported that the church that was destroyed was Dominican or Syriac Orthodox.
No photographs or any other confirmation of these reports has surfaced. They remain unconfirmed.
Destruction in Tal Afar
In early January the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported based on information provided by the Iraqi government that ISIS fighters had blown up part of the medieval citadel in Tal Afar on December 31. According to other reports, ISIS previously used the citadel as a prison for several hundred women held captive while they awaited forced marriage to ISIS members.
Pictures surfaced in January which appear to show heavy damage to the walls of the citadel. The details of the pictures seem to match photographs of the citadel taken prior to its destruction and a reverse image search on Google Images shows the photos are indeed new. I believe they are genuine.
A New Video
Reports began to surface in mid-January on Arab language media that ISIS had destroyed the al-Fatih and al-Ummawiya mosques in the Qasim Al-Khayat neighborhood of Mosul on the pretext that they contained graves. ISIS has previously demolished the Mausoleum of Imam Yahya ibn al-Qasim in the same neighborhood.
On February 2, a video was posted to Archive.org showing the destruction of a number of sites around Mosul. The video began by showing the demolition of two mosques which are not identified by name in the video and have not been previously seen in ISIS videos. Their identity and location is unknown.
The video then shows a figure from ISIS standing in front of what media reports have identified as the shrine of Imam al-Muhsin, talking about the destruction, followed by a small mausoleum built inside a graveyard being blown up:
Earlier this month UNESCO held a major conference in Paris on cultural heritage destruction in Iraq and Syria. Headlining remarks by UNESCO director Irina Bokova emphasized that there is “no purely military solution” to the conflict and that bringing about peace will involve promoting ideological change. “To fight fanaticism, we also need to reinforce education, a defence against hatred, and protect heritage, which helps forge collective identity.”
To accomplish these ends, four ideas seem to have received prominent discussion:
1) Again emphasize the need to implement the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Properties in the Event of Armed Conflict, which has been raised by UNESCO before. The trouble is, there is pretty much zero motivation for any of the major actors on the ground in Syria to observe its stipulations.
2) Collect evidence for possible prosecution of people who intentionally destroy heritage sites as war criminals. This should be relatively straightforward in some cases, since ISIS has even released videos where its fighters talk about why they are destroying sites before they show footage of them being destroyed. Although any sort of international tribunal for war crimes committed in Iraq and Syria is a long way off, but the possibility of a trial for heritage destruction crimes is something that should be planned for.
3) An international ban on trading antiquities from Syria. This was imposed for Iraq back in 2003 and a similar ban might help in suppressing what statistical information tells us is a likely a booming trade in illegally excavated Syrian antiquities with claimed legal status. There has been some movement in this direction by the U.S. Congress. At the same time, many artifacts are smuggled into Turkey or Lebanon before export and documentation likely states they originated in those countries.
4) Bokova called for the creation of “protected cultural zones” around heritage sites in Syria, suggesting the Aleppo Citadel as a possible test case. UN Special Envoy to Syria Steffan di Mistura joined her, arguing such zones could be built through a “bottom up plan of action.”
This is itself a derivative of Mistura’s plan to promote local truces or “freeze zones” to gradually end the fighting in Syria. In an interview with the BBC, Mistura argued that ISIS has changed the balance of power in the Syrian conflict and the the stalemate between the Free Syrian Army and Assad’s forces has made both sides amenable to at least a local cease-fire and de-escalation in Aleppo which would allow them to focus on fighting ISIS.
I believe Mistura is somewhat misreading the strategic situation, as it seems that the Free Syrian Army is in trouble due to fighting a two-front war against both ISIS and Assad. ISIS and the SAA are currently not in contact on most fronts, and it would make the most strategic sense for the SAA to defeat the FSA first and ISIS later. This would also forestall any potential American-led intervention to topple Assad, since such an intervention would lead to ISIS taking control of all of Syria.
But back to heritage preservation, Mistura and Bokova’s proposals are certainly innovative and recognize the extremely localized nature of the ground-level conflict. As I have discussed previously, the war in Syria is now popularized. It is no longer a matter of Assad vs. The People but of Alawites, Syriacs, Shia and Armenians vs. Sunnis vs. Kurds, with each side represented by dozens of localized militias.
The popularization of an irregular civil war has been the subject of some of my previous academic work, albeit focused on the American Civil War in northeastern North Carolina. The model, I believe, is applicable to many conflicts:
At the beginning of the conflict, the region in question has committed partisans for both sides, but the majority of the people do not want to join either side and are just looking to survive the war with their lives and property intact. The people of the reticent middle become the arena where the ideological battle is fought. By joining a militia they can protect their homes, plunder their enemies, and avoid leaving their home regions. If they don’t join, they become targets for both sides while being protected by no one.
The effect is a process of double radicalization, as people are forced to pick a side to survive and attacks by one group provoke retaliation which forces more people seek protection from the militias. In North Carolina the divide was between secessionists and unionists. Both sides formed militias initially without the support of the Union or Confederate governments. Men who could command a following stepped up to take advantage of the situation and expand their own power. Leaders who could deliver on their promises and provide for their men became powerful, leaders who could not were deposed or their commands dissolved.
A corollary effect of this process is that it does not favor peaceful-minded, non fanatical people. To quote another author from another conflict:
He was not a fascist, though some of the more stupid of his men believed in a pure-race Bosnian Croat state. Darko was one of many in Bosnia who had tapped into their own darkness and found there bountiful power. The meek and humane were the war’s losers. The vanguard of those quick or bad enough to get with the new agenda reaped immense profits in terms of personal power and prestige. For certain, the driving forces behind the war were geared to nationalism. But many of the individuals prepared to serve these causes were simply murderous opportunists. On each side there were gangs of men whose ability and appetite for killing was used by the authorities regardless of their religious denomination.
The environment in Syria today favors this kind of leader, the kind who is able to assert his power by publicly eating the heart of an enemy soldier, beheading prisoners on videotape or riding around in a truck adorned with the body parts of dead enemies. In peacetime such violent men are useless, except maybe to the mafia. In the marketplace of violence in a chaos war like Syria they can wield tremendous power.
Now of course there are exceptions, such as the YPG and KRG forces who so far do not seem to be implicated in any heritage destruction (although they are attempting to secede from Syria, not drive others out of it). But overall, despite the fact that civilians are indubitably tired of the war, in many places actual power on the ground is in the hands of persons not likely to be disposed to exerting any effort to save cultural heritage.
I seriously doubt any side will voluntarily give up the Aleppo Citadel, which is both strategic high ground and a vital piece of territory for anyone seeking to control Aleppo, no matter its importance to their own or anyone else’s history.
Add to all this the issue of subsistence digging. People don’t loot only from avarice or destructive impulse. As Sam Hardy has pointed out, they loot when they have no other options and they need money in order to put food on the table. The UN declaring a space to be a protected cultural zone means little when you have nothing to eat. Without solving the humanitarian crisis, there is little hope for solving the archaeological crisis.
But wars end, and wars of the type found in Syria and Bosnia end sooner than others as all sides cannot sustain massive expense and heavy losses forever. The war in Bosnia ended when foreign intervention coupled with exhaustion drove all sides to the negotiating table. What emerged was a deeply divided nation with complex power-sharing arrangements. A similar result will be harder to attain in Syria as many of the factions involved are both far more nihilistic in their outlook and far more universalist in their goals than any faction in Bosnia. Mayhaps Syria’s best hope is for ISIS, al-Nusrah and other universalist Caliphate-seeking Sunni rebels to be overthrown and replaced by a less ambitious Sunni opposition that is not seeking a global struggle and is therefore willing to negotiate an end to the fighting. This seems like it will take several years at the earliest.
When it does happen reconstruction will be a long and arduous journey, of which cultural heritage and history education and international organizations will all undoubtedly be called upon to play a major part in building and rebuilding national identities.
However, these will not be the same identities as before. Pan-Arabism is gone and colonial-era borders may follow it to oblivion. The idea of using archaeology to reinforce a unified Syrian identity may be seen as an artifact of the Baathist regime. Heritage will not go back to functioning the way it did in Syria before the war. Nothing will.
What will replace it remains to be seen, but for now I will simply say this: archaeology is not dead. It will return. But it may return in a form not so easily controlled by Western interests, in ways UNESCO is not currently prepared to work with. International organizations dedicated to heritage preservation will hopefully take this into account in postwar planning. While I doubt UNESCO’s plan for protected cultural zones will bear any fruit in the short term, its emphasis on the local rather than the national may be a step in the right direction.
Postscript: Since I published this post, David Kenner at Foreign Policy has written an excellent article on attempts at negotiating local cease-fires in Syria. One study examined 26 local truces and found that such cease-fires were usually concluded when Assad forces had the upper hand, and the agreements were subsequently used to control the amount of humanitarian aid allowed to reach besieged areas. In other cases, as one UN official put it, “To be honest with you I personally don’t know if I agree to call them local cease-fires, or just local surrenders.”
 Anthony Loyd, My War Gone By, I Miss It So (New York: Penguin, 2001), 170.
At the beginning of 2013, the Syrian Civil War was not going well for Bashar Assad.
He responded to the protests of 2011 in the same way his father had crushed the 1982 revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood: with massive firepower designed to slaughter all opposition. But he failed. His savage military response only drove more recruits to the rebels and attracted foreign support to their cause.
By December 2012, rebels at seized control of almost all of northern and western Syria. Major military bases began to fall. Rebel forces had surrounded Aleppo and were making a strong push to take Damascus. In March Raqqa fell, the first provincial capital lost to the rebels. Casualties among the troops of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) ran into the tens of thousands. Thousands more had defected to the rebels. The SAA lost hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles.
Enter Major General Qassem Suleimani.
The commander of Quds Force, the covert action and special operations division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, traveled to Syria in early 2013 to take personal command of Assad’s military effort. He had spent most of the previous decade directing Iran’s covert war against the United States in Iraq. There, he had played all sides, providing arms to both Shia and Sunni rebel groups while manipulating politicians at the highest levels of the Iraqi government. In Syria, his task was much different. There was no foreign army to fight, only a country tearing itself apart.
Iranian advisers fanned out across Syria to re-train government troops into a competent fighting force. Regular supply flights brought in tons of weapons and ammunition from Iran to replenish the SAA’s depleted stocks. No longer would the SAA expend thousands of men and armored vehicles in frontal assaults to retake rebel-held territory. Suleimani’s new strategy was to identify and attack strategic points and highways which controlled movement throughout the region.
The first test came in April, when Hezbollah and SAA troops successfully recaptured the town of Qusayr, between Homs and the Lebanese border. Further successes in this region led to the recapture of Homs itself a year later. In the summer, counterattacks cut off and surrounded the rebels in Damascus’ suburbs with the help of massive chemical weapons attacks. In the fall, a further offensive along the roads to Aleppo lifted the siege of that city.
Key to this success was a new force founded in January 2013: The National Defense Force (NDF). The NDF is a local paramilitary militia, its members are recruited to defend their communities and cannot be forced to deploy elsewhere. In addition to being paid they are also allowed to keep loot captured from the enemy. Crucially, unlike Syria’s cosmopolitan army the NDF is recruited primarily from among the minority communities in western Syria who stand a substantial risk of being massacred in the event of a rebel victory: The Alawites, Syrian Orthodox Christians, Druze and Armenians.
By creating and training the NDF, Suleimani recast the war as an ethnic struggle for survival. Minorities could no longer remain neutral: either they joined the NDF or became targets for both sides. What was once a war to preserve the power of a dictatorship became a war for community survival against Syria’s Sunnis. If Assad fell or the SAA collapsed, the NDF would still exist, fighting against Sunni dominance and in support of Iranian interests in Syria.
The addition of 60,000 NDF troops in a defensive role allowed the armored formations and elite units of the SAA to go on the offensive in April 2013. It also changed the face of Middle Eastern war.
Iran had used the strategy before on a smaller scale. Suleimani based the NDF off the Basij, the Iranian militia set up in 1979 to protect the Iranian regime. A similar model was used in Lebanon in the 1980’s to establish Hezbollah. In the 2000’s, Suleimani oversaw the creation of a variety of Shia militias in Iraq known as the “Special Groups.”
After ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014, Suleimani traveled to Baghdad. The Iraqi Army had suffered heavy losses. Since the beginning of the year estimates for losses from death and desertion run as high as 75%. Like the SAA, the Iraqi Army has suffered from sectarian defections as its Kurdish members have joined the Peshmerga and its Sunni members have sometimes joined ISIS.
Hundreds of Quds Force advisers were again deployed to Iraq as the Special Groups revived and over fifty Shia militias began recruiting and parading through the streets of Iraqi cities. In July and August ISIS besieged the town of Amirli in Salah-ad-Din Province. Suleimani took command and coordinated a counterattack by the Iraqi Army, Kurdish forces and Shia militias which lifted the siege of the town.
The militias mean that any significant ISIS advance into Shia territory in Iraq will result in a well-armed popular insurgency, as will any ISIS or FSA advance into western Syria. The only way to prevent this is through genocide, a strategy ISIS has already pursued against the Yezidis in Sinjar. The same is true for any advance by the Iraqi Army or the SAA into Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria.
Therefore, by implementing a strategy which prevented the collapse of the Assad regime and the Iraqi government, Suleimani seems to have put both of them in a situation where they are also unable to win.
What does this stalemate mean for archaeology?
First, it means things could get a whole lot worse before they get better. Massacres and genocide are usually accompanied by attempts to erase the heritage of those people being driven out in hopes that they will never return.
Second, archaeology will have to come to terms with the fact that Arab nationalism is dead.
Archaeology was well supported by twentieth century nationalists as a source of pride and a potential unifying force. National museums and antiquities authorities supported excavations and research. Sites were protected both as economic tourist magnets and national symbols. But since 2011 this system is collapsing. The idea that the Arabic-speaking world has one unified identity from Morocco to the Persian Gulf was shattered into pieces as country after country tore itself apart. As the ideology which held post-colonial states in one piece vanished, people fell back on identities that pre-date the formation of the modern Middle East.
Suleimani did not invent the sectarian militia, he just turned into a vital instrument of military strategy. Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen are all failed states degenerating into a patchwork of para-states ruled by ethnic or religiously based warlord armies. All have their own bases of support and interests they seek to protect. They are the real powers ruling the ground in much of the Middle East.
Working with the Iraqi government to protect archaeological sites can only go so far if the real power on the ground is in the hands of a Kurdish politician or a Shia militia commander. Last month, Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund spoke at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and proposed working with some Syrian rebel groups:
But as the conflict escalates, we are increasingly aware that these documentation and goodwill efforts cannot have any immediate impact, and that the destruction is also escalating. This calls for involvement on another level. As I read that U.S. military advisers will begin to train moderate insurgents in Syria to better defend themselves against the tide of fundamentalist terrorism, one immediate thought would be to encourage the U.S. military to incorporate heritage protection into the training that is being offered to these groups and to the Iraqi army. The example of the famed Monuments Men has not been seen on any scale in military and peacekeeping operations since World War II . It should be reinstated as part of the training that our own troops receive, as well as part of our assistance offering in the region.
This approach is daring but also fraught with great risks. The environment that leads to the rise of warlords favors the rise of a type of leader who is able to command followers and control territory through a combination of patronage and violence. Archaeologists who work with such groups run the risk of being associated with questionable characters, or even have their work harnessed to promote sectarian causes. Financial pressures may make it irresistibly tempting for local strongmen to sell antiquities rather than preserve them. Finally, a close association with a para-state group may come at the cost of being blacklisted from working in certain countries or even run afoul of anti-terrorism laws.
But this is the world we live in, and any attempt to save antiquities on the ground will have to take into account who controls that ground. Obviously, archaeologists cannot work with groups like ISIS. But could other groups be more amenable to saving the region’s antiquities? Such a group would have to place a high value on their own historical heritage and have a general unity of purpose in seeking to create a functional political entity.
A possibility, therefore, could exist for archaeologists to liaison with the Kurdish YPG in archaeologically rich eastern Syria. Of course there are delicate risks here too. The YPG is on less than friendly terms with Turkey and has a close relationship with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who has waged a thirty year war for an independent Kurdish state in Turkey and is designated a terrorist organization by the United States, NATO, Australia and the EU.
Such work should proceed only with extreme caution and with limited objectives. Perhaps in the future as the front lines harden into states in everything but name more work will be possible. But with the changing nature of warfare in the Middle East new paradigms of archaeological engagement will be needed. And if we are going to use archaeology to help with postwar reconstruction, as Burnham and others at the Metropolitan Museum event suggested it can, we need to wrestle with how the Middle East is changing. I welcome a vigorous discussion on these topics.
P.S. – I realize this is a somewhat unusual post for this blog, and makes it seem that Gates of Nineveh is about to turn into Stratfor. But the changing political landscape of the modern Middle East affects the work scholars of the ancient Near East do in the present. Also, I even have some non-ISIS related posts in the pipeline for the coming weeks. Stay tuned.