Taking the Islamic world back to year zero

Taking the Islamic world back to year zero
Feature: Extremists from Tunisia to Afghanistan have used Islam to destroy the ancient legacies left behind by their forefathers.
5 min read
02 March, 2015
Extremists in the Arab world have followed the Taliban's lead and destroyed historical artefacts [AFP]

In 2000, the world pleaded with the Taliban who were planning to destroy two giant Buddha statues in the Bamiyan area of Afghanistan. Islamic scholars issued fatwas exhorting the importance of keeping such antiquities for future generations.

Such efforts were brushed aside by the Taliban. For days, they pounded the statues with artillery shells until they finally dynamited them to smithereens.

The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was neither a victory in the face of an invading Western force or a way of undermining the significance of such idols to their believers. Yet, in a land that for years had been torn apart by tribal, ethnic and sectarian conflict, such logical arguments were bound to fall on death ears.

Narrow-mindedness, intolerance and flawed ideas about Islam have triggered similar responses from extremists in the Arab world. 

One sign of this is the Sufi shrines that have been defaced and vandalised in North Africa by Salafis with no reservations about waging war on their fellow Muslims.

This week, the ignorance of extremists reached a climax with the destruction of Assyrian statues in Mosul museum. With irreplacable historical treasures smashed to rubble, we lost a vital part of Iraq's past and cultural mosiac forever.

Looting Raqqa Museum

It is almost 15 years after the Taliban's destruction of the two Buddhas, but the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS) operating in Syria and Iraq have taken up this sacrilegious role with gusto.

IS militants have destroyed countless churches, monasteries, shrines and places deemed sacred by Syrians and Iraqis.

There has been a definable campaign by the extremists in Syria and Iraq to destroy the legacy of some of the world's earliest and most illustrious civilisations. This is the land where words were first inscribed, the wheel was invented, and the first man-made laws written.

Unlike the Taliban, however, the IS group have also realised that it is sitting on a mine of wealth with the rich number of historical antiquities it posseses in its "caliphate".

The group doesn't require any expertise to excavate such valuable as most of these ancient artefacts can be found in museums or storage in Mosul, Raqqa and other cities under its control.

Some of these articles are categorised and arranged in museums, as if ready for the taking.

Raqqa Museum was the first such site to fall under IS control. The main museum building dates back to 1861 and consists of two floors containing hundreds of ceramic pieces, pottery, decorative adobe items and stone necklaces from Roman, Byzantine and Islamic eras.

     IS realised that it is sitting on a mine of wealth with the rich number of historical antiquities in its 'caliphate'.

The museum also includes a special section for popular heritage from the Raqqa province of Syria.

Nevertheless, the most precious among the museum's treasures are the mosaics and frescoes uncovered by Syrian archaeologists in the Hawijah Halawa area of the city that date back to the fifth century.

Kingdom of Arbaya

The Mosul Museum of Civilisation was built in 1952 and is divided into four quarters displaying antiquities from the Assyrian era through to the Islamic age.

It also contains a public library that is home to the personal collection of manuscripts and literature by Iraqi linguist Father Anastas Karmali.

The linguist donated his collection to the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, at the time, who in turn donated it to the Mosul Museum of Civilisation.

Local sources have reported that IS fired the museum's staff and turned the place into a zakat, or alms, centre.

This is the second time the museum has been looted since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. During the invasion and subsequent chaos that ensued, Iraq lost nearly 17,000 pieces, most of which could not be recovered despite huge efforts to track them down.

The city of Mosul, at the centre of the Nineveh province and built on the site of the ancient capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire, contains 1,600 uncovered archaeological sites.

Nineveh includes the village of al-Hadar, which was the site of the ancient Seleucid city of Hatra.

Remnants of the 2nd century kingdom of Arabs, or Arbaya, according to the the Aramaic spelling, also form a ring in the province. The kingdom is best known for the story of King Jathema al-Abrash, or Zahran, who was killed by Zenobia, the famous queen of the Palmyrene Empire.

Also in the province is the ancient city of Nimrud, also known as Calah and Kalhu, which was the second Assyrian capital after Ashur, and established by King Shalmaneser I in 1273 BC.

Covert war

According to The Times and Wall Street Journal a number of rare artefacts that were stolen from churches in Syria, Raqqa museum, and other archaeological sites are now in the possession of private collectors in the UK, EU, China and the Arab Gulf.

Arab media outlets appear less interested in the fate of our looted heritage than the major Western newspapers.

A few days ago, the Wall Street Journal published an investigative report about a "commando" archaeology team in the region. This volunteer team of archaeologists, activists and supporters reside in a hotel in the Turkish city of Gaziantep and are tasked with tracing, monitoring and documenting the whereabouts of the stolen artefacts, along with monitoring this illegal trade.

They call themselves the Monuments Men after the US film starring George Clooney about a group of academics whose mission it is to save European art pieces from falling into the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

Seeing how IS gains a reported $100 million annually from this trade, the second largest income for the group after oil, the Monuments Men are also making a vital contribution in the war against extremism in the region, and perhaps prevent the rollback and hijacking of our region's history.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.