Threats to Cultural Heritage in Iraq and Syria
The damage and looting of historic sites in Iraq and Syria, which have been preserved for millennia, have destroyed irreplaceable evidence of ancient life and society. Further damage to these countries’ treasures increases the loss of their common heritage and cultural legacies of universal importance. Fragile sites and buildings have suffered as collateral damage to battles, targets for purposeful ideological destruction, and prey for systematic looting:
- The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has proudly trumpeted their destruction of many of the most historic monuments of Islamic architecture in Mosul, including the tomb of Nebi Yunus/Prophet Jonah, which is sacred to Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
- The Syrian regime’s indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes, notably on the historic centers of Homs and Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, have decimated or irrevocably damaged large areas of these historic sites.
- The medieval castle Crac des Chevaliers, also a World Heritage site, dating to the 11th century, has been severely damaged and scarred by war.
- Looters, exploiting the vacuum of government control in ISIL-run territory in eastern Syria, have destroyed the ancient Roman city of Dura Europos, where pagans, Jews, and Christians once lived and worshipped side-by-side.
- In Raqqa, ISIL publicly ordered the bulldozing of a colossal ancient Assyrian gateway lion sculpture dating to the 8th century BC.
As the international community responds to the wanton destruction perpetrated by extremists in Iraq and to the brutality and suffering facing the Syrian people, we also recognize that preserving these countries’ cultural heritage is a critical step towards reconstruction, reconciliation, and building civil society.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced September 22, 2014, that the Department of State has partnered with the American Schools of Orient Research (ASOR) to comprehensively document the condition of, and threats to, cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria to assess their future restoration, preservation, and protection needs. Findings are posted weekly at: http://www.asor-syrianheritage.org/
In Iraq, the United States government has provided nearly $33 million since 2003 for a broad range of cultural heritage projects, including infrastructure upgrades to the Iraq National Museum, establishment of a cultural heritage preservation training institute in Erbil, and site management planning and conservation work at the site of ancient Babylon. The Department of State also partnered with international organizations to develop the Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk to enable customs officials to identify and detain objects from Iraq that are particularly at risk of looting, theft, and illicit trafficking. Since 1990, the United States has restricted the importation of cultural property of Iraq and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance.
For Syria, the Department of State sponsored the publication of the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk to alert international customs authorities to the illicit trafficking of Syrian artifacts and produced a map featuring 1,000 important museums, historic buildings, and archaeological sites to raise awareness of threats to Syrian cultural heritage.
We urge all parties in Iraq and Syria and the international community to respect and protect archaeological, historic, religious, and cultural sites, including museums and archives, and reaffirm that all those who destroy important cultural property must be held accountable.