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 

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


Lack of infrastructure, civil unrest, and military conflict in Middle Eastern and North African regions have all contributed to the loss of cultural heritage in countries such as Syria, Egypt, and Iraq.

Destruction in Homs, Syria (2012).
Photo by Bo Yaser. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Cultural heritage is the gift left to us from past generations and societies, including physical artifacts and social practices, that we claim as our history.

Terrorist groups target cultural sites, inflicting damage and removing artifacts which they then sell as a means to fund their militant activities.

Bombs rip apart museums, there are calls for the destruction of pyramids, and the construction of dams threatens to wash away thousands of years’ worth of cultural heritage sites.

Museum corruption also contributes to the loss of cultural heritage. The economic stresses caused by war and terrorism have led citizens to loot antiques from historical areas and museum collections. Security guards and officials have been suspected of pawning items to compensate their low wages. In some cases, the United States military has also been accused of contributing to cultural heritage destruction. 

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 causing ‘major damage’ though digging, excavating, scraping, and leveling the ancient city.

Understanding all of the factors which lead to the destruction of cultural heritage will increase the success of organizations dedicated to preservation. Because destruction occurs in various forms with multiple, separate parties to blame, a singular approach to preventing destruction will never be able to fully address the issues introduced in these essays. Rather, a multilayered strategy would have the potential to more effectively reduce the losses of cultural heritage in the Middle East and North Africa.