The Targeted Destruction of Cultural Heritage

By Simurgh Staff

The targeted destruction and looting of tangible cultural heritage is used as a means to dominate local historical narratives, abuse resources for monetary gain, and deny local communities’ rights to the land.1 According to UNESCO, tangible cultural heritage is the physical spaces, objects, and architecture specific to a culture; this includes buildings, monuments, and artifacts.2 Armed conflict and economic hardship pose a serious and ongoing threat to cultural heritage sites in the Middle East. These phenomena have been newly labeled cultural terrorism. Cultural terrorism is the coordinated organization of looting operations or armed attacks against artifacts of heritage in order to make a political statement or for economic gain.3  

The targeted destruction of tangible heritage is devastating. In 2015, the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra was destroyed by ISIS militants. Measures were taken to bulldoze and bomb extraordinary sites in the city, including an ancient temple dedicated to the god Baal. According to ISIS’s publication, the online magazine Dabiq, the terrorist group seeks to destroy ancient cultural heritage because it poses a challenge to the loyalty and legitimacy of an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. 4 

Cultural property is also targeted by states as a tool to control the historical narrative about a community or country at large. For example, after the 1932 unification of Saudi Arabia under King Abdulaziz, many pre-Islamic sites such as the Nabataen necropolis (Madain Saleh in Al-Ula) were regarded as monuments to idols, which led to the targeted destruction of artifacts from pagan heritage.5 Saudi Arabia strictly controlled the historical narrative, shifting its focus exclusively on the founding of Islam in the 7th century as a way to unite the country and deny pagan influence.  

Sovereign states also destroy

cultural heritage sites,

to which their own people

are connected to,

in order to manipulate

or erase a historical narrative.

Not only has cultural property been destroyed to control historical narrative, it has been stolen and exploited for economic gain, such as the selling of artifacts on international black markets. Looting in Egypt has drastically increased since the 2011 revolution. Some believe that looting has increased as a result of Egypt’s deteriorating economy. In 2018 the inflation rate reached 20 percent, with about 40 percent of Egyptians are living in poverty—perhaps motivating targeted exploitation of tombs, burial sites, and museums.6 An estimated $3 to $6 billion worth of Egyptian antiquates were looted and sold between 2011 and 2014, fueling black market demand.7  

Iraq has also been a victim of deliberate destruction and theft of cultural property. Irreversible damage has been done in Mosul as ISIS dug tunnels under the city in search of antiquities to sell.8 ISIS also broadcasted their destruction of Hatra and a cemetery near Mosul in propaganda videos.  

“EU Delivers Aid Inside War-Ravaged Mosul”
Photo by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operation, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The destruction of historical sites and artifacts has become a popular tool for terrorists to gain notoriety in the international community. Sovereign states also destroy cultural heritage sites, to which their own people are connected to, in order to manipulate or erase a historical narrative. In a slightly less direct sense, looting is also a method of targeted destruction, with recent trends in Egypt show that it has been on the rise due to declining economic security. No matter who is destroying cultural heritage and by what method, the erasure of cultural heritage is disastrous. Tangible heritage tells stories of the past and validate historical narratives. Tangible cultural heritage gives people a literal way of connecting with the past…and the targeted destruction risks losing these stories forever. 

  1. The Impact of Armed Conflict on Cultural Heritage
  2. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): Tangible Cultural Heritage 
  3. Cultural Terrorism Has Swept the Middle East: The Systematic Destruction of Artifacts and Treasures Should Be of Concern to All of Us 
  4. Why IS Militants Destroy Ancient Sites 
  5. Unlocking a Kingdom’s Long-Hidden Treasures 
  6. Wigglesworth, Robin, Andrew England, and Michael Peel. “Businesses Stay Closed amid Fear of Looting.” Financial Times. January 31, 2011. Accessed May 02, 2019. 
  7. Report: United States- Egypt Memorandum of Understanding 

Why does the West care? Egyptomania, White Man’s Burden, and Orientalism

By Simurgh Staff 

Egyptomania is the total fascination with anything related to Ancient Egypt in popular culture and exists particularly outside of Middle Eastern societies.¹ The Egyptomania phenomenon has persisted for decades. It reveals itself in film, music videos, art, and fashion, through depictions of Egypt’s most famous symbols of ancient civilization such as mummies, hieroglyphs, and the pyramids.² The history of this Western popular culture phenomenon is engulfed in the mystical classification of Egypt’s antiquities and dates to Napoleon Bonaparte’s scientific expedition to Egypt in 1798. Bonaparte brought 400 ships and 54,000 men to Egypt, along with 150 scientists, engineers and scholars to collect cultural artifacts for study.³ When they returned to France, the first volume of the Description de l’Égypte was published in 1809, describing the discovery of tombs with in-depth descriptions of artifacts and cultural symbols. The European obsession with Egyptian cultural heritage began with this French conquest of Egypt. More recently, the origins of some Egyptian antiquities in Western museums have been exposed as stolen goods originally taken as cultural treasures and spoils of war.⁴ 

Egyptomania can describe part of the motive behind the preservation and reconstruction of historical sites by Western nations, Western based NGOs, and international organizations across Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. Historical sites may be preserved and antiquities appropriated to satisfy American and European fascination with the exoticism of the Middle East—orientalism. In a sense, museum attractions are a frontier through which culture becomes a public spectacle.

Preservation also serves as a tool to shift anti-Western narrative in the Middle East. “Hearts and minds” is a method of countering and preventing insurgent uprisings and terrorism for the purpose of reducing anti-American sentiment. Hearts and minds efforts encourage people to abandon support for opposition movements by appealing to their emotion or intellect. For example, a hearts and minds campaign may include cultural heritage preservation projects to demonstrate that the United States cares about the heritage of the people they are assisting. In 2003, United States General David Petraeus focused on winning hearts and minds in Iraq by rebuilding infrastructure and restoring religious sites in Mosul that were destroyed during the initial invasion during Operation Iraqi Freedom.   

Another motive behind the Western initiative toward cultural preservation in the Middle East is Rudyard Kipling’s idea of the “white man’s burden.”⁵ The white man’s burden is the idea that privileged, white people have the responsibility to raise up “uncivilized” non-white people for the betterment of the world. It describes the racist ideology of British colonialism as they took up the “responsibilities” of Westerners, indicating that they understood themselves as more civilized and somehow better than others across Africa and the Middle East. Colonialism promoted the advancement of the colonists’ own position—they profited while others suffered.  

The lure of Egyptomania and the Middle East as a mystical, exotic land is related to orientalism, a concept discussed by Edward Said in his 1978 book of the same title.⁶ Orientalism is a post-colonial theory which explores preconceived notions about the Middle East. Edward Said notes that Westerners see the Middle East through an orientalist lens based on art, novels, and textiles depicting its people as uncivilized, exotic, or mysterious. The artists behind those works popular in the west were often created by people who had never been to the Middle East who constructed the images based their own thoughts or how someone else described it to them.

by alittleblackegg,CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The continuation of Egyptomania, orientalist thought, and the white man’s burden could influence the way Westerns go about preservation projects in the Middle East. Regardless of the true reasoning behind preservation projects, the involvement of Western people and organizations is influenced by the past.

1. Fritze, Ronald H. Egyptomania: A History of Fascination Obsession and Fantasy. London: Reaktion Books, 2017. 
2. Brier, Bob. “Egyptomania: What Accounts for Intoxication with Things Egyptian?” Archaeology. 2004, 57(1): 16-22.  
3. Tignor, Robert. Egypt: A Short History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. p. 196-7. 
4. Cuno, James B. Whose Culture?: The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. p. 71–86.  
5. Kipling, Rudyard. Modern History Sourcebook: Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden. 1899. Accessed via
6. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.  

Authenticity and Fakes

Authenticity of museum objects becomes a big issue when fakes slip through careful research. This causes controversy, regardless of whether the museum knew of the fakes or not. Egyptian museums present themselves as a case study in object authenticity as this has not been simply a contemporary issue. Arguably, for as long as Egyptian artifacts have been considered valuable, fakes have appeared. However, the present has made authenticity an important topic to discuss when considering the preservation and destruction of cultural heritage. 

Forgery is used primarily as an economic means. Museums now face pressure surrounding the confirmation of the authenticity of their own objects. Fakes can be highly detailed and confuse even highly trained specialists. This was the case for a sarcophagus death mask at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where a dealer in Egypt had sold the piece to the museum with “proper” documentation to support its authenticity; it was later found that everything was forged with precise detail.1

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo dealt with a similar situation when a scholar questioned the authenticity of the Meidium Geese plaster wall painting.2 Francesco Tiradritti, an Egyptologist from Italy, argued that the geese within the painting could not have been in Egypt at the time it was created.3 This caused an uproar amongst Egyptologists. Dr. Zani Hawass, former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, argued that “This of course is completely false”, citing Tiradritti’s loose argument and lack of testing The painting was later proved authentic, but Francesco Tiradritti believes that there is possibly another painting hidden underneath the geese that only time and careful analysis will reveal.5 

Villagers in the village of Sheikh Ibad, Egypt have produced sculptures, which were bought indirectly by the Brooklyn Museum, that were mistaken as authentic Coptic Art (art made in Egypt between 200-700 CE).6 Without considering issues of inheritance, it is crucial for museums to be aware that a good portion of the Coptic Art coming from this village are fakes.7 The main source of confusion surrounding authenticity of these objects, which the Brooklyn Museum and the Egyptian Museum fell for, is the backup material associated with the pieces of work. Taking the fake Coptic Art as an example, multiple scholars and organizations have claimed that they were real without any legitimate documentation to support their assertions.8 

Authentic Coptic Vase owned by the Brooklyn Museum
“Censer”. CC BY 3.0

However, having fake artifacts in a museum’s collection is not always a bad thing. Many museums have used the accidental purchases as an opportunity to speak on this issue, bringing awareness to their visitors and educating on the issue of forgery that is associated with artifacts related to the cultural heritage of the Middle East.9  


  1. Fake Egyptian antiquities
  2. Egypt’s Famous ‘Meidum Geese’ Painting May Be a Fake
  3. The Meidum Geese Are Not A Fake
  4. Egypt’s Famous ‘Meidum Geese’ Painting May Be a Fake
  5. Egypt’s Famous ‘Meidum Geese’ Painting May Be a Fake
  6. The Meidum Geese Are Not A Fake
  7. Brooklyn Museum and Fake Coptic Art
  8. Brooklyn Museum and Fake Coptic Art
  9. Brooklyn Museum and Fake Coptic Art

The Impact of Armed Conflict on Cultural Heritage

Historically significant sites and objects of great cultural importance have been no exception to the effects of war. Their ruin becomes part of the casualties during times of armed conflict and political violence. Modern warfare and a lack of respect from intervening forces and countrymen themselves have led to the destruction of cultural heritage. 

Within days of the United States ground invasion of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, significant looting of museums in Babylon, Kufa, and Baghdad stripped the country of Mesopotamian relics. The U.S. converted the 4,000-year-old city of Babylon into a military base (Camp Alpha, 2003-2004) causing major damage though digging, excavating, scraping, and leveling the ancient city.1 The damage done to the city of Babylon is a dismal display of the effects war can have on cultural property. Unfortunately, Iraq is not an isolated case.  

US soldiers climbing the Ziggurat of Ur, near Base Adder in Iraq
2010, Spc. Samantha Ciaramitaro

Syria joins the list of national cultures distraught by the destruction of historical sites which has transcended even religious divides. The Crac des Chevaliers, which was once one of the best-preserved crusader castle in the world, has been destroyed by bombs in Syrian Civil war. This grand 11th century castle documented the evolution and influence of architecture in the Middle East during the time of the Crusaders. Each conqueror of Syria, including the Mamluks, made efforts to protect the castle despite its European Christian heritage.2 Saladin’s fortress (Qal’at Saleh El-Din) has also been desecrated. Mosques and other cultural sites have been the victims of civil war, bombing and intentional bulldozing, including Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque which has been diminished to rubble.  

Crac des Chevaliers prior to bombings
Photo by Bernard Gagnon, 2010. CC BY-SA 4.0

The multilateral approach to the war on terror, and that specifically with ISIS in Syria has invoked irreversible damage. Although destruction has garnered international attention, little effort is being put forth to restore heritage sites in the Middle East and North Africa. However, when more than 400,000 people have died3, how can you shift the focus away from the use of chemical weapons and mass civilian casualty to the protection of monuments?4 Disparaging attitudes and disrespect towards cultural heritage has in some ways permitted the indiscriminate bombing of historically significant places all over Iraq and Syria.   

Rubble in Syria, 2017

Political violence at large has led to destruction of cultural property, sometimes just because sites and the objects held within them were caught in the middle of a contested location. Political violence can be defined as the use of force to gain political power; it seeks to achieve a political objective through forceful tactics. This includes riots, civil war, terrorism, revolution, and coups.  

Egypt has fallen victim to cultural destruction during periods of political violence related to its internal strife. In 2014, Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art suffered extensive damage caused by a car bomb explosion meant to target the police station across the street. The museum holds 100,000 artifacts and a rare extensive collection reflecting Egyptian history. Egypt’s diverse national heritage reflects the development of humankind through Pharaonic, Coptic, and Islamic periods. Among the destroyed were dozens of artifacts from a collection dating to the Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171) and more than half a dozen manuscripts belonging to the Egyptian National Library and Archives.5  From 2011 to 2013 about 100 attacks were reported on Coptic churches in Egypt, especially targeting Upper Egypt which contains many monuments to the rich Coptic narrative.6  

  1. UNESCO Report. “Final Report on Damage Assessment in Babylon”. International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding of the Cultural Heritage of Iraq. 2009.
  2. Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din
  3. How Syria’s Death Toll is Lost in the Fog of War
  4. Gone: Syria’s Priceless Heritage Are Now Ruins of War
  5. Cairo Blast Rips Into Islamic Art Museum, Damaging Key Global Collection
  6. Churches of Upper Egypt

Exhibitions as Communications Tools

By Julianna Whalen

Museums and exhibitions communicate cultural messages that go beyond the art and artifacts that are displayed. Western exhibitions of Middle Eastern and North African cultural heritage speak to history, ownership, and agency. These displays of artifacts from other cultures have stirred controversy and criticisms.

Howard Carter inspects Tutankhamun’s mummy, 1922. 
The New York Times. Public Domain.
Howard Carter inspects Tutankhamun’s mummy, 1922. 
The New York Times. Public Domain.

American archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun (“King Tut”) on a British funded expedition to Egypt. The tomb of the young pharaoh escaped looting in antiquity, leaving it filled to the brim with precious artifacts. Tensions rose over ownership rights: were the findings Egypt’s property or the world’s property, as part of a shared global history?

Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Photo by Sracer357. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Photo by Sracer357. CC BY-SA 3.0

Fifty-five tomb artifacts journeyed to the United States in the 1970s as part of a traveling exhibition that communicated the tomb’s objects as golden universal art, rather than artifacts with historical significance1. The rhetoric and display tactics utilized by American museums on Tutankhamun’s treasures lacked any form of homage paid to their African-ness.2

The Metropolitan Museum of Art responded to backlash with a short publication titled “Tutankhamun and the African Heritage”.3 Despite uncomfortable questions and closed-minded narratives surrounding exhibition tactics, Americans embraced “Tutmania” in popular culture, ranging from t-shirts to Saturday Night Live skits.  

In 2013, the British Museum opened a pop-up exhibition titled Modern Egypt in Cairo. Displayed objects from the 20th and 21st centuries included a sewing machine decorated with Arabic script and a picture of Nefertiti.4 The British Museum later installed the same objects as a one-case-exhibition in their Egyptian galleries.5 Modern Egypt confronted the “what is Egypt?” question that emerged due to the original American Tutankhamun exhibition. The Modern Egypt exhibition also represented contemporary Egypt, as a way for the British Museum to avoid framing Egypt solely in a historical sense (with objects collected during British colonial rule).

It must be considered whether the British Museum is actually concerned about contemporary Egypt or if they are just looking to make themselves look better; the British Museum continues to display the Rosetta Stone despite Egyptian museum officials asking for its return for display in the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM).6 

Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq
Photo by Julianna Whalen
Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq
Photo by Julianna Whalen

Other western exhibitions have discussed the contemporary Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region through the lens of cultural heritage preservation and destruction. Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq at the Penn Museum (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) included artifacts from their collection and contributions from the University of Pennsylvania’s libraries. Contemporary art by Syrian-born Issam Kourbaj spoke to the Syrian refugee crisis.7 Video clips throughout the exhibition contrasted ISIS destruction with preservation efforts. The exhibition’s curatorial choices were shaped by a collaboration between archaeologists, curators, and cultural heritage preservation specialists from the United States and Syria.  

Damascus Opera House, 2010. 
Photo by Bernard Gagnon. CC BY-SA 3.0

Cultural heritage preservation has also been a focus of exhibitions within Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. In Syria, looted artifacts were displayed at the Damascus opera house in October 2018. The artifacts included in the exhibition spanned all of Syria’s history. While the exhibition featured hundreds of artifacts, more than 9,000 have been recovered after being looted.8 Chief of antiquities Mahmoud Hamoud reports that there are still thousands of missing archaeological pieces.9 The nature of the exhibition speaks to the ongoing process to recover Syria’s cultural heritage. 

Museums across Syria and Iraq that closed to protect their precious artifacts are beginning to reopen. The Mosul Museum hosted Return to Mosul, a five-day contemporary art exhibition, proving that “war didn’t kill Mosul and that, on the contrary, it’s living a full-on renaissance”.10 Twenty-nine artists’ works were featured in Return to Mosul, including Marwan Fathi, Hawkar Riskin, and Ahmed Mozahem. People around the world can walk through the exhibition via Google Arts & Culture; this curatorial choice communicates concern and awareness regarding accessibility. 

The National Library and Archives of Egypt reopened in 2019 after sustaining significant damage from a 2014 car bomb blast targeting the nearby Cairo Police Headquarters.11 Egyptian graphic designers Ghada Wali and Dalia Hassan Bahig rebranded the library in collaboration the reopening. Choices made in the rebranding process focused on contemporizing and increasing accessibility to the library’s collections. The rebranding project occurred under the Thesaurus Islamicus foundation and Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya Manuscript project.12 

The messages communicated by exhibitions can be explicit or implicit. Regardless of the way in which statements are conveyed, exhibitions of art and artifacts around the world have expressed messages about race, war, preservation, and destruction in the Middle East and North Africa. 

  1. McAlister, Melani. “‘The Common Heritage of Mankind’: Race, Nation, and Masculinity in the King Tut Exhibit.” Representations, no. 54 (1996): 82-83. doi:10.2307/2928693. 
  2. McAlister, Melani. “‘The Common Heritage of Mankind’: Race, Nation, and Masculinity in the King Tut Exhibit.” Representations, no. 54 (1996): 90-91. doi:10.2307/2928693. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Collecting Modern Egypt and Modern Egypt: On Objects that Represent the World 
  5. Collecting Modern Egypt 
  6. Egyptian Museum Calls for Rosetta Stone to be Returned from UK after 200 Years 
  7. Issam Kourbaj: About 
  8. Syria’s Recovered Antiquities Go on Display at Damascus Opera 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Mosul Museum Reopens with Contemporary Art Display Following ISIS Destruction 
  11. Graphic Designer Ghada Wali Rebrands The National Library of Egypt 
  12. Ibid. 

Accessibility: Cultural Sites During Conflict

By Julianna Whalen

During periods of conflict, archaeological sites and museums have reduced accessibility due to site closure, safety concerns, and lower tourism numbers. Protecting artifacts became a global priority after ISIS looted and destroyed thousands of artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq (in Baghdad) in April 2003. Many museums sent artifacts away for safekeeping—protecting them on-site when necessary—and shuttered their doors: anything to keep the priceless heritage safe.

Lion of Al-Law in the museum garden. Photo by Mappo (Marco Paolo Giuliano). Public domain.
Lion of Al-Law in the museum garden.
Photo by Mappo (Marco Paolo Giuliano). 
Public domain

Since 2015, many of these museums have started to reopen. Syria’s National Museum of Damascus opened one wing in October of 2018, proudly displaying a restored version of the ISIS destroyed Lion of Al-Lat.1

In Iraq, the Mosul Museum’s reception hall temporarily reopened with a six-day contemporary art exhibition early in 2019; Return to Mosul featured themes of home, return, and conflict. The exterior of the museum building is heavily damaged, however, and visitors stayed bundled up while inside the exhibit. 2  

“U.S. Soldiers...make their way up the reconstructed stairs of the Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq...” 
Photo by Spc. Samantha Ciaramitaro. 
Public Domain.
“U.S. Soldiers…make their way up the reconstructed stairs of the Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq…”
Photo by Spc. Samantha Ciaramitaro.
Public Domain

While sites are often closed for protective or preservation purposes, that is not always the case. The ancient archaeological site of Ur (located in southern Iraq) served as the modern location for Tallil Air Base—meaning that all visitors to the site needed permission granted by United States forces.3 In February 2007, Dr. John Curtis of the British Museum was invited by Dr. al-Husseini (the Iraqi Director of Antiquities) to visit Iraq and conduct a condition/damage report on Ur. Al-Husseini, after refusing a search by United States forces, was forbidden to enter the site, despite his credentials.4 Because of this incident, Dr. Curtis created a very quick, surface level report rather than an in-depth analysis.  

Reduced tourism also plays a role in cultural site accessibility during times of conflict. Iraq’s Babylon, once a bustling tourist site, has closed its museum, souvenir shop, and post office due to continually low visitation.5 In Egypt, the 2011 revolution marked the beginning of a rampant decline in tourism. According to CEIC Data, 11.5 billion visitors entered Egypt in 2010…by 2016, that number dropped more than 50%.6 Only recently have tourism numbers began to climb again. Khaled el-Anany, Minister of Antiquities, hopes for a continued rise: “‘My wish is for 10 times the tourists we have now. Americans are still nervous about Egypt and the whole region.’”7 

The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) under construction. 
Photo by Tom Sawyer. CC BY-ND 2.0.
The Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) under construction. 
Photo by Tom Sawyer. CC BY-ND 2.0.

Plans for the construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, and the Sphinx International Airport were delayed during Egypt’s unrest. With a budget of $1.1 billion, the Grand Egyptian Museum will be the largest archaeological museum in the world when it opens in late 2019 or 2020.8 

From closures to protect artifacts to military presence to reduced tourism, conflict related closures run the risk of damaging cultural heritage accessibility.

  1. Damascus Museum Reopens Featuring Millennia-old Lion
  2. Mosul Museum Reopens with Contemporary Art Display Following ISIS Destruction 
  3. Curtis, John. “Relations between Archaeologists and the Military in the Case of Iraq.” In Cultural Heritage, Ethics, and the Military, edited Stone Peter G., 192. Boydell and Brewer, 2011. 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. In Iraq, A Race to Protect the Crumbling Bricks of Ancient Babylon 
  6. Egypt Visitor Arrivals 
  7. Can Egypt Convince the World That It Is Starting Over? 
  8. Ibid. 

Contemporary Art Response: Iraq

By Simurgh Staff

Much of Iraq has become a stronghold for ISIS’s forces, profoundly impacting artists in the country. As a result of Iraq’s position under ISIS control, the museum and art worlds latched themselves to artists’ discussions of what destruction does to the heritage and culture of an area. With Iraqi museums and art heavily influenced by Western society, Iraqi artists must find a way to balance between their own cultural heritage and expression, ISIS violence, and Western influence on their culture. 

Destruction in Mosul.
“ISOF APC on the street of Mosul, Northern Iraq, Western Asia. 16 November, 2016.” 
Photo by Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 4.0.

“…war didn’t kill Mosul

and that, on the contrary,

it’s living a full-on renaissance.”

When ISIS forces took over Mosul, Iraq, they destroyed much of the Mosul Museum. When ISIS was pushed out of Mosul, the museum was able to reopen part of the building and install a contemporary art exhibition titled Return to Mosul.1 As the sole exhibition in a still-wrecked museum complex, Return to Mosul proves “‘that war didn’t kill Mosul and that, on the contrary, it’s living a full-on renaissance.’”2 Many of the works that were included in the exhibition demonstrate themes of conflict, culture, and revival.3 

Iraq, like much of the Middle East, has extensive global reach when it comes to culture. The widespread representation of Iraqi culture is the result of the constantly changing political and military spheres of this region.

“Pavillon de l’Iraq (54ème biennale de Venise). Walid Siti, Meso’” 
Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. CC BY 2.0

This is a concentration of Walid Siti‘ s art, which also considers loss of culture and its effects on family and community dynamics. His works are surreal, a style that reduces art into a dream-like and fantastical manner. “The idea is that when you lose something, you long for it and recreate it in a surrealist way, so that’s why the set becomes surreal, an imaginary landscape.”4 He seeks to produce metaphors that are historical in their roots and are transformed into something new, paralleling how contemporary Iraqi culture is being shaped.5 These metaphors draw upon the “…formal elements of architecture inspired by the cultural heritage and current rush to ‘reconstruct’ in the Middle East region.”6 

The international art community has provided safe platforms for Iraqi artists to showcase their art without restrictions and to bring awareness to the issues addressed in their work. At the 2017 Venice Beinnelle: Iraqi Pavilion in Italy and Iraqi Artists in Exile at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in the United States, Iraqi artists displayed works to challenge the “violent Iraqi” stereotype, while preserving their culture through contemporary art.11, 12 

  1. Mosul Museum Reopens with Contemporary Art Display Following ISIS Destruction 
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Land on Fire 
  5. Walid Siti: Artist Statement 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Iraqi Artist Makes a Point with Virtual Paintballs 
  8. Ibid. 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Ibid. 
  11. Ancient Iraqi Art On Display in Italy at Venice Biennale 
  12. Iraqi Artists in Exile