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Ancient sites under the hammer by region's armed groups

Ancient sites under the hammer by region's armed groups
4 min read
19 August, 2016
From the Islamic State group to the Syrian regime, armed gangs and jet bombers are destroying Islamic sites in the Middle East and the region's cultural legacy.
Ancient temples in Palmyra were blown up by IS militants in Syria [Getty]
From Mali to Afghanistan, Syria to Iraq, armed militants and armies have turned their sights on the priceless vestiges of peoples' cultural heritage, which they deem to be "un-Islamic" or the fair casualties of war.

On Monday, the International Criminal Court opens the trial of a militant charged with war crimes for the destruction of shrines at the World Heritage site of Timbuktu in Mali.

The following are examples of world cultural heritage destroyed or damaged during recent conflicts, or dynamited by armed groups following a non-mainstream, extremist version of Islam that deems monuments linked to ancient religion – and other more recent sites – to be blasphemous.


The fabled desert city of Timbuktu – named as the "City of 333 Saints" – was for months attacked by militants bent on imposing their brutal version of Islamic law.

In June 2012, al-Qaeda-linked militants destroyed 14 of the northern city's mausoleums, important buildings that date back to Timbuktu's golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries as an economic, intellectual and spiritual hub.

The reconstruction of the shrines began in March 2014, relying heavily on traditional methods and employing local masons. Several countries and organisations financed the reconstruction, including UNESCO.

Work finished on the site in July 2015, and a ceremony marking the completion was held on February 4, 2016


More than 900 monuments or archaeological sites have been looted, damaged or destroyed by the regime, rebels or militants in Syria, where a devastating war has raged since 2011, according to APSA, the association charged with protecting Syrian architecture.

In September 2015, Islamic State group militants destroyed two of the most important temples in the UNESCO-listed Syrian city of Palmyra as they pressed a campaign to wipe out some of the Middle East's most important heritage sites.

They include the ancient city's most famed shrine, the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, blown up a week after the destruction of the temple of Baal Shamin.

Other notable sites damaged or looted include Dura-Europos in eastern Syria, once known as the "Pompeii of the desert", Apamea, Ebla and Tal Ajaja.

However, the IS group is not the only one responsible for ravaging Syria's heritage, with all sides in the fighting said to be involved looting and destroying ancient sites.

"Two thirds of the ancient city of Aleppo have been bombarded and set on fire," according to UNESCO.

Most of the damage has come from the regime's indiscriminate shelling and bombing of rebel areas, which has ravished large parts of Aleppo, Hama and Homs.


IS has carried out a campaign of "cultural cleansing", razing part of ancient Mesopotamia's relics and looting others to sell valued artefacts on the black market to oil its brutal war machine.

In a video released by IS on 26 February 2015, militants were shown using sledgehammers to smash pre-Islamic treasures in the museum in the country's second city Mosul, sparking global outrage.

Thousands of books and rare manuscripts were also burned in February in Mosul's library.

According to the Iraqi government, IS militants on 5 March 2015 bulldozed and blew up Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian city south of Mosul.

They also attacked Hatra, a Roman-period site, in the northern Niniveh province.


Several mausoleums have been destroyed by armed groups following the overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

In August 2012, Islamist hardliners bulldozed part of the mausoleum of al-Shaab al-Dahman, close to the centre of the Libyan capital.

The demolition came a day after hardliners blew up the mausoleum of Sheikh Abdessalem al-Asmar in the western city of Zliten.

In 2013 suspected Islamic extremists destroyed the centuries-old mausoleum of Murad Agha in Tripoli, but the tomb inside withstood the attack.


In March 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of two huge 1,500-year-old Buddha statues in the eastern town of Bamiyan, because they were judged to be "anti-Islamic".

Hundreds of members of the Taliban from across the country spent more than three weeks demolishing the gigantic statues carved into the side of a cliff.

In 2003 the cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley were put on UNESCO'S world heritage list.


Armed Islamic groups in the 1990s destroyed several sanctuaries which dotted Algerian soil.