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The lost cradle of civilisation

Image Credit: Quentin Bruno (Creative Commons: Flickr)

Iraqi President Haider al-Albadi declared the recent destruction of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Iraq as a sign of the imminent demise of the Islamic State (IS) group.

The Great Mosque was named after Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, the Turkic ruler of Aleppo and Mosul who ordered its construction in 1172, and survived centuries of conflict and civil strife until IS demolished it with explosives – ironically the same mosque IS chose to declare their self-styled caliphate in 2014.

Symbolic as the end of a ruthless organisation, the loss of the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri is part of worrying trend – the destruction and looting of some of the oldest shrines, churches, mosques, statues and monuments in Syria and Iraq.

The architecture and artefacts date back millennia, before Islamic rule and the fascinating Mesopotamia period – described as the cradle of civilisation for, among other things, the beginnings of complex urban centres.

The rate of destruction of historical artefacts has increased in the 21st century; the cultural heritage of the region has been pillaged and destroyed by armed ideologically driven groups and black market opportunists, or suffered incidental damage from the ongoing civil war in Syria and the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

These pieces attest to a period of polytheism and the birth of Islam, to a millennia-old melting pot of Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, the Greeks, the Sassanians, the Persians, the Romans and the Arabs.

The impact of European Crusaders in the region is memorialised in the spectacular medieval Krak des Chevaliers military fortress, and the Ottoman Empire also made its mark with its occupation and restoration of many of the region’s pieces. All these cultures co-existed and clashed in a historian’s paradise.

Preservation of these contributions to an ever-changing society serves to remind us of a time in Syria and Iraq where respect for different cultures or at least tolerance of cultural heritage was valued.

Extremist groups in Syria and Iraq have contributed to the mass destruction of cultural heritage for propaganda and ideological reasons. IS and other similar groups in Syria follow a Salafi Ideology that seeks to return Islam to a time similar to that in which the prophet Mohammad lived. The two fundamental beliefs driving this widespread desecration are belief in monotheism and in eradicating dedications to polytheism – after the prophet Mohammad who destroyed depictions of pagan deities in the Kaba following his conquest of Mecca.

This intolerance, this jihad, against other cultures’ and times’ religious artefacts has produced similar conflict-driven cultural heritage destruction in Yemen, Egypt and in Afghanistan the notable case of the destruction of the 53- and 35-metre-tall Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban, labelling them false idols.

IS has made special efforts in targeting Shiite mosques and shrines (The IS predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq was accused of destroying the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in Iraq to provoke sectarian conflict) and Christian and Assyrian churches and monasteries in Iraq – a campaign of bulldozers and explosives has denied Iraqis much of the rich history that they rightly should take pride in.

In Syria, the city of Palmyra, the UNESCO world heritage site, was subject to destruction and pillaging after IS routed Syrian government forces and took control. IS destroyed the polytheistic Temple of Baalshamin and desecrated the Temple of Bel among others, and blew up parts of the 13th century Palmyra castle upon on their retreat from the city.

Palmyra, wider Syria and Iraq (post-US-led invasion) have all suffered from increased looting which is symptomatic of state-instability and the inevitable accompaniment to these formal acts of destruction. Described as the ‘Pompeii of the desert’, the ancient city of Dura-Europos in East Syria was ransacked with an estimated 70 per cent of it destroyed by looters during the civil war.

Maintenance or restoration of historical sites and pieces is vital to rebuilding a post-civil-war Syria. Before the civil war, tourism to visit some of the oldest sites in the region accounted for 14% of the country’s GDP. Syria is home to six UNESCO world heritage sites and Iraq, four. Iraq’s GDP is less dependent on tourism but in a resource driven economy the preservation of cultural heritage plays an important role in broadening what is a resource-reliant economy.

Intolerance and conflict across the Middle East is destroying or damaging a rich regional history at a frightening rate, threatening to wipe out not just the precious things but a desperately needed economic asset, and threatening to deny future generations their rich heritage. Winston Churchill famously said that “history is written by the victors” but the continuing conflict in the Middle East demonstrates that history, sadly, is easily erased by bulldozers and explosives.

Mathew Wilson is an International Relations Master's student with a strong interest in national security, strategy and intelligence.

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