Albertine Hamilton, State Library of Victoria

Heritage Destruction in the Middle East: Beyond the Media Hype

Deakin University Melbourne City Centre, Melbourne, 15 October 2015 

On Thursday 15th of October, the Middle East Studies Forum of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADRI-GC) coordinated a public half-day symposium at the Deakin University Melbourne City Centre: Heritage Destruction in the Middle East: Beyond the Media Hype. The symposium focused on the recent destruction of local heritage by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), with speakers addressing the various factors driving the destruction and the many challenges involved in mounting an effective response. Speakers included representatives from Deakin University, the University of NSW, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Technology in Sydney. Common threads throughout the day’s discussion included examination of the link between cultural heritage and identity; the systemic contradictions at the heart of ISIS and its ideologies, particularly in relation to idolatry or shirk; and the inadequacy of laws designed to counteract cultural heritage destruction, looting, and illicit trade.

Panel 1: Documenting and Interpreting the Destruction

Pilgrims gather for the Ashura ritual in Karbala, Iraq, January 19, 2008. Source: U.S. Army photo by Sergeant Nicole Dykstra, Wikimedia Commons.Recent attacks on ancient Middle Eastern monuments are not just a loss for architectural history, but represent cultural genocide: in the case of ISIS, the ethnic cleansing of the Shia Muslim, Christian and other minority groups across the Middle East. Dr Antonio Gonzalez from Deakin University described targeted destruction of the material culture, and thus the history of ethnic minorities, as synonymous with the destruction of both individual and cultural identity, drawing comparison with the devastation wreaked on his hometown of Cholula, Mexico during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 16th century. He then described a new iconoclastic model enabled by the digital age, a model popularly associated with the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 and their revival in holographic form, “spectacular performative iconoclasm”. Gonzalez concluded that such acts of iconoclasm are not expressions of hatred or ignorance, but of indifference, and expressed the need to analyse the bonds between cultural material and identity. Dr Taghreed Jamal Al-deen from Deakin University reiterated this view, reflecting on ISIS’s repeated iconoclastic attacks on Shia shrines and stressing the importance of safeguarding heritage as the glue that “binds us together as a community” (quoting Irina Bokovic, Director General of UNESCO). This point was illustrated by the Shia community’s determination to continue visiting these sites irrespective of real mortal danger.

ISIS’s rejection of shirk polytheism has not only resulted in highly fanatical sectarian violence and the widespread destruction of ancient monuments across the Middle East, but also in looting of archaeological sites and illicit trade in recovered antiquities. Dr Benjamin Isakhan from Deakin University described these activities as motivated not only by iconoclasm or propaganda but by financial gain. This is only one of many ideological contradictions: whilst the destruction of ancient monuments is presented as ethnic cleansing, ISIS readily seeks profit from idolatrous items small enough to be moved. In fact, Isakhan described this trade as one of ISIS’s largest revenue streams, reporting an astounding $30M profit from just one archaeological site in Syria alone. Comparing a map of Syria’s Dura Europos site from 2014 against an earlier map from 2012, he showed a landscape newly covered in pits: 75% of the site has been destroyed by looter’s holes. Isakhan described this activity as a commonplace yet highly sophisticated operation – sometimes perpetrated by ISIS members, sometimes by subcontracted locals – that uses traditional archaeological techniques with the intention to smuggle antiquities across borders that are porous or non-existent. Isakhan posed an interesting question: could ISIS be defeated if this revenue stream was cut off?

Dr Saba Bebawi, once a journalist in the Middle East and now Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology in Sydney, proposed a different tactic: stop sharing ISIS’s activities on social media and other channels. When analysing the relationship between destruction and documentation in ISIS’s activities, Bebawi noted that heritage destruction had burgeoned along with advances in social media capabilities – noting again the Bamiyan Buddhas as a pivotal turning point. Bebawi attributes this rise to an increase in audience reach and therefore influence, not only through social media, but also with mainstream media picking up on “trending” topics. Bebawi discussed the potentially self-catalysing effects of this relationship, stating that the destruction of monuments will always be “a frontrunner” on world news broadcasts (describing CNN as “the ISIS channel”) as it satisfies the demand for ‘news worthiness’ and provides ISIS with an international platform. Professor Tim Winter from Deakin University referred to this as the “pornography of heritage destruction”, and despaired that social media “is destroying heritage!” Bebawi suggested that heritage destruction would not be nearly so attractive a strategy if not for the potential it offers ISIS for global publicity. The destructive acts are calculated with the ‘share’ button in mind: by posting messages, images and video on social media, ISIS provokes both followers and detractors alike to share ISIS’s message, no matter whether the ‘share’ is in solidarity or outrage. Bebawi proposes that by resisting the compulsion to share, we might start to see a decline in this kind of destructive activity. 

Panel 2: The International Response: Challenges and Prospects

At the 2015 Cairo Conference: Cultural Property Under Threat, delegates discussed the prioritisation of initiatives to counter the illicit trade in antiquities, and agreed to stricter border controls and prosecution. Referring to Interpol’s list of “looted items” however highlights the fact that one cannot monitor or control a trade in antiquities that had until recently been buried, and as such, completely unknown. Once these items pass through porous borders, it is near impossible to identify their origins. For example, Dura Europos in Syria is an ancient polytheistic site that harbours early Greek and Roman heritage, which can be easily shipped to Rome and sold as local goods. The panel were divided on the subject of developing an international response to these issues: two speakers, Dr Andrew Jamieson and Diane Siebrandt, advocated for awareness promotion, while the other two, Dr Lucas Lixinski and Professor Tim Winter, favoured a revision of laws and regimes pertaining to the destruction of cultural heritage and the illicit trade in antiquities.

Dr Andrew Jamieson from the University of Melbourne discussed the actions of SHIRIN (, a global community of scholars active in matters of the Ancient Near East that was created in 2014 at the request of the 9th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East in Basel, Switzerland. SHIRIN brings together a large number of international research groups who were working in Syria prior to 2011 with the purpose of making their expertise available to wider heritage protection efforts. Priorities identified by the group tend to relate to what Jamieson describes as the greatest tragedy of all – the loss of antiquities’ contextual information due to destruction and looting – and includes the securing of sites, the development of heritage assessment reports, up-to-date maps of Syrian infrastructure, inventories of museum artefact holdings, and regular updates regarding the situation on the ground. Jamieson cited the National Museum of Aleppo as an example of the importance of this initiative: it was found almost entirely empty following plunder by ISIS. Although curators had the foresight to remove the most significant materials prior to the attacks, all remaining artefacts were destroyed. At this point it was revealed that the museum kept only a paper inventory of its collection, however it was not clear from Jamieson’s presentation whether these records were lost during the catastrophe or saved along with the items of greater significance. Similarly, Diane Siebrandt from Deakin University presented a case study of the international response to the looting of Iraq’s Mosul Museum. Again, their most significant artefacts were removed to a safe location before ISIS destroyed the remaining collection. In this case an initiative called Project Mosul was developed (, which creates 3D virtual models of lost artefacts using digital images and the help of a large international volunteer base.

Dr Lucas Lixinski from the University of NSW presented an alternative proposal that leans toward addressing gaps in the laws relating to heritage in contemporary armed conflicts. He briefly described the three main legal regimes: the Hague Convention of 1907, the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 1970, and the World Heritage Convention, 1972. Lixinski explained that these regimes were not built to deal with the changing nature of conflict, noting that “they don’t play well with each other”. Each of these conventions was developed independently and works within distinct bureaucracies. Lixinski’s primary concerns relate to the specificity of each convention. For example, the Hague Convention was built around the concept of territories: how can this work in a region with fluid borders like Syria? The World Heritage Convention does not accommodate situations of conflict: “too slow”. He suggests we ditch the law and take immediate action. He suggests a “Monuments Men”-type team, but with higher military ranking, hence more power. Only then should we attempt to redesign the laws to better accommodate the fluidity of borders and to be more coordinated at future “crunch times”. Similarly, Professor Tim Winter suggested a move away from a blanket acceptance of sovereignty.

Perhaps the most constructive initiative however – at least from this conservator’s perspective, was in response to a question from the audience. When asked “What can UNESCO do?” Dr Benjamin Isakhan suggested introducing “MOUs” (Memorandums of Understanding) between Australian institutions and those under threat in the Middle East, for example between Museum Victoria and the National Museum of Aleppo. When danger is imminent, a “pocket of money” could be drawn upon to ship the most significant and transportable items out of the country to Museum Victoria. The items could then tour Australia as a travelling exhibition, with proceeds going back to Aleppo to assist in their reconstruction efforts.

I would be interested to hear others’ thoughts on this. Could a practicable model be developed? For further discussion on the topic, feel free to contact me.