top of page

The destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East and North Africa

Image credit: Stijn Nieuwendijk (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Three years ago in June, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took up the pulpit of the 850-year-old Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City and declared the Caliphate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Famous for its leaning minaret, this mosque was the launchpad from which the ISIS Caliphate envisioned itself spreading across the planet.

In July, Mosul was declared liberated by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The closing stages of fighting were characteristically brutal, marked by the use of human shields and extra-judicial reprisals. When the Iraqis reached the site of the leaning minaret, they found only rubble; it had been summarily dynamited by the remaining militants.

The al-Nuri Mosque was only the latest victim in the long train of iconoclastic paroxysms ISIS has perpetrated against cultural heritage of the Middle East. Among others, they took to the Mosul Museum collections with sledgehammers, bulldozed the archaeological parks at Nineveh, Hatra, and Nimrud, destroyed the Temple of Baal in Palmyra on their first pass, the Tetrapylon on the second, and even fancifully threatened to destroy the Pyramids of Giza. The demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001 appears amateurish in comparison to the sheer scale of this apparently wanton program of destruction.

The pre-Islamic cultural heritage of the Middle East has often been the site of salafi-jihadist terror for a straightforwardly instrumental reason: they attract Western tourists. Four years before 9/11, two armed men entered the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor and shot 70 visitors. A similar, though far less lethal, incident occurred two years ago at nearby Karnak. Earlier the same year, gunmen opened fire on a bus full of visitors to the Bardo Museum in Tunis, which houses the antiquities of ancient Carthage. There, they killed 17, including one Australian.

However, these incidents took place at pre-Islamic cultural heritage sites, not to them. Luxor and the Bardo were targeted for the same reason as beach resorts like Souse, Dahab, and Kuta—a contamination that the presence of foreigners is imagined to represent. By comparison, Palmyra and Nimrud were empty when ISIS destroyed them; they were targeting stone, not people.

The main engine for this lunatic rage against masonry is regional sectarianism. Militant groups like ISIS ascribe to a radical jihadist interpretation of salafi Islam; in their puritanical quest to emulate the first generation of Muslims, militants have sought to extirpate all forms of shirk (idolatry) and bid’a (theological innovation) from Dar al-Islam (the Islamic world) as they imagine the Prophet did in the 7th century. Accordingly, they violently reject the Shia, Sufi and other Sunni traditions of Islam deemed disagreeable, as much as idolatrous infidels ancient and modern—if not more. This means destroying UNESCO World Heritage sites, Islamic or otherwise.

To that end, in 2006, Abu Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), bombed one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, Samara’s al-Askari Mosque, in an explicit attempt to foment a sectarian civil war. A decade later, AQI became ISIS, and the destruction of Shia and Sufi religious infrastructure in Iraq has gone into overdrive. Comparable sectarian destruction is being wrought across North Africa by both ISIS and Al-Qaeda (AQ). The former have destroyed Sufi shrines in their Libyan enclave around Sirte, and the latter’s affiliate, Al-Shabaab, has done the same in Somalia. In 2012, another AQ affiliate, Ansar Dine, destroyed much of the medieval ‘Golden Age’ Islamic architecture of Timbuktu, burning many of its manuscript archives in the process.

Such irreparable losses are distressing to contemplate in the abstract prism of culture, but it would be remiss to ignore the prosaic economic consequences. Both Morocco and Jordan, which have avoided the pervasive conflicts of their neighbours, have economies reliant on a large tourism sector that revolve around magnificent, globally recognisable historical sites like Ait-ben-Hadou and Petra. With every act of vandalism, enormous potential revenues in opportunity cost for the post-conflict economies of Mali, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have been obliterated.

However, the destruction is by no means limited to the battlefield. ISIS has received the lion’s share of publicity, but with oil revenues flagging and those from hajj pilgrims on the rise, the Saudis have destroyed an estimated 90% of the cultural heritage of Islam’s two holiest cities, both conspicuously absent from the UNESCO World Heritage list. In 2002 they demolished Mecca’s Ottoman-era Ajyad Fortress. It was replaced by the Abraj al-Bayt skyscraper complex with its gaudy Fairmont Makkah Clock Royal Tower, and in 2011 they announced a further expansion project worth $21 billion, focusing on the Grand Mosque itself. Over the course of construction, Muhammad’s house has been bulldozed, as has that of his uncle Hamza, whilst that of his first wife, Khadija, has been replaced by a public toilet block. Much the same has occurred in Medina, all in the name of the puritanical Wahhabism of the Saudi monarchy, which, while not jihadist, differs little from radical salafism.

The destruction of the al-Nuri mosque by ISIS was neither unique nor particularly surprising. It should serve to re-emphasise with compelling clarity that protecting the exceptionally rich cultural heritage of the Middle East and North Africa requires interested parties around the world to engage vociferously not only in contests of power, but also into the contest of ideas.

John Goldie is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

bottom of page