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