In July 2014, ISIS destroyed the Tomb of Jonah, the biblical prophet revered in Judaism and Islam, which was in the Iraqi city of Mosul. (photo from news-centre.uwinnipeg.ca)
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is disconnecting the present population from its past, and they will stop at nothing to achieve this goal, including murdering civilians and destroying cultural, religious and historical sites that interfere with their beliefs.
These were the sentiments shared by Winnipeg-based archeologist Dr. Tina Greenfield, who has worked in the Near East and conducted fieldwork in Turkey and northern Iraq under the threat of ISIS. Her University of Manitoba biography says that she is co-director of the Near Eastern and Biblical Archeology Laboratory (NEBAL) in Winnipeg, and is actively analyzing animal bone collections from Tel es-Safi and Tel Burna in Israel, Ziyaret Tepe and Gol Tepe in Turkey, and several sites in Iraq. Her lecture at the University of Winnipeg – ISIS and the Destruction of Archeological Sites in Iraq – was held on April 23.
She prefaced her talk by noting that keeping the population safe is, by far, more important than the artifacts on which she has worked. She then outlined the level of destruction that has occurred to some of the world’s oldest cities, and how she narrowly missed the expansion of ISIS in Iraq last year.
“I’m going to try to add some dimensions into this, so you understand how important this region is and why we should care,” said Greenfield. “So, while I will be discussing the Islamic State and a bit of their history and mantra, I twist into it my own experiences working in this region for the last two years, specifically.
“Yes, there are archeological sites being damaged, but it needs to be put into perspective. There are lives being lost in this region on a monumental scale. While I’m an archeologist, I’m trying to give another perspective. The priority is keeping the people safe in this region.”
The area in question is bordered by Turkey in the north, Iran in the east, and Saudi Arabia in the south. Also in the region, once known as Mesopotamia, are Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Israel and parts of Egypt. In the past, said Greenfield, “Mesopotamia refer[red] to the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. It’s also referred to as ‘the fertile crescent,’ because animals and plants were domesticated in this region. It’s also known as ‘the cradle of civilization.’”
The world’s earliest cities were built in this area, and major empires emerged from here, as well. Additionally, of historical and biblical interest, the first writings of the story of a great flood also originate there, as do the foundations of mathematics, astronomy, literature and poetry.
“Of all the empires, archeological sites from this region, each one has been damaged from Islamic State,” said Greenfield. “I’m giving you a brief introduction, so you can understand when I show you the sites, what is being damaged.”
The Assyrian Empire stretched from 2000 to 611 BCE, she explained, with its height about 3,000 years ago. “This is arguably the earliest empire of the ancient Near East, and Ashur is the capital of this region,” said Greenfield.
“There were some 19th-century gentleman explorers who came from Europe to try and find evidence of the Bible; they ended up in northern Mesopotamia and they dug these magnificent sites. It was a bit of a competition, because one was from Britain and one was from France.
“They each brought these riches back and displayed them in the British Museum and the Louvre. Suffice it to say, there was an awakening [about this historical time period] and the Mesopotamians and Assyrians were ‘rediscovered.’” It is these places that have sustained the most damage by ISIS out of all the Assyrian sites during the last four years, she said.
The motives and tactics of ISIS are many, she suggested. “We’re talking about terrorism, kidnapping, horrific murders, spreading terror throughout the region,” said Greenfield. “It developed from Al Qaida in Iraq. ISIS took precepts of the organization and beliefs, and developed them even further. It views itself as the restorer of early Islamic learnings. It also believes that it will cleanse the region of anything idolatrous or offensive…. There are eight million Iraqis and Syrians living under the control of ISIS right now. They seek to purify and stamp out anything offensive, idolatrous, any religious manifestations that don’t fit into their general ideas.”
In early 2015, museums and archeological sites became targets of the ISIS advance. “They weren’t picky,” said Greenfield. They targeted “everything from mosques, to churches, tombs, literary hero statues and manuscripts. They don’t want to have any part of that in this new caliphate state.
“They’ve publicized over 50 percent of their destructions in print and on social media. This is highly choreographed, highly targeted. There is no surprise that they have specialists in media. They want to break the link of what they consider heretical association with ancient Mesopotamia, destroying cultural heritage from all ethnic beliefs.”
This conquering tactic “isn’t new,” however. “We can look at Egyptian temples with statues, with faces smashed out, conquerors coming in and declaring things are idolatrous and smashing them. But, this is on a level we’ve never seen before. It’s calculated, choreographed and very well managed.
She continued, “There is looting … they are taking artifacts from these sites and selling them. There’s a massive network from South America to Asia to Europe. They’re selling to finance their organization.”
It’s important to bear witness to the destruction, she added. “Several of my Iraqi colleagues are trying to document, taking their lives in their own hands, essentially, to see what actual damage has been done to these sites. They’re also, in association with international organizations, trying to desperately document sites that haven’t been damaged yet, because we never thought these sites would be damaged and look what’s happened.”
Greenfield recounted that she had received an email on the day of her lecture from someone asking her what they can do, saying this must be stopped and asking by what means it is possible. So, what can be done about the damage being done to the region’s – and the globe’s – historical sites?
It’s an “excellent question,” replied Greenfield. “What do you do? How do we counteract the social media frenzy right now? Do we share them with people? How do we not play into their hands? But, how do you keep people aware of what’s going on?
“ISIS wants the link severed. They want the people gone and the history gone. How do we fight all of that at the same time? In my very humble position, the only thing I seem to be able to do is to continue to go out there – like this September and October again – and document this stuff.”
Since 2010, ISIS has been recruiting within the local population by paying more than government positions. “So, if you’re sitting there as a youth who is completely unhappy with the situation that’s occurred already and you’re offered a lot of money, it’s a no-brainer,” said Greenfield. “They are portraying themselves, in a sense, like Robin Hood, stealing and giving out food, giving out houses. They’re saying they’re protecting their own. Absolutely … there’s this ideology that they’re taking care of their people.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.