ISIS militants strategically target archaeological sites, both of deep antiquity and those more recent. Many who live outside the professional world of archaeology or who have not taken an interest in keeping up with the science through popular outlets like National Geographic or local society journals may find this fact peculiar. Worse yet, some simply don't care or see the relevance of these attacks. Being an archaeologist and heritage professional myself, I'd like to take the time to discuss this and hopefully open up the topic for more general review outside the mainstream news.
Material heritage encompasses both fixed and movable items and places of cultural value. Typically, such things carry immeasurable stored value in how a particular culture or people conceive of themselves in the present, in this way exceeding their value in context for examining past cultures (ie. archaeology). With this definition in mind, one should begin to see why an organization like the ISIS (Daesh, or the Islamic State) would target material heritage to ensure evidence corroborates their revisionist ideas of history and Islamic culture.
Some sites they've visited irreversible damage upon include Khorsabad (an Assyrian palace of the 8th century BC), Nimrud (an ancient Assyrian city), several locations hosting antiquities in Mosul, the tomb of Jonah or Yunus (the Old Testament figure who was swallowed by a whale), and Hatra (the famous capital of the Parthian Empire that first defied and later joined Rome).
These are just a few sites in Iraq, but Syria's own rich material heritage has also come under fire as various parties occupy UNESCO World Heritage Sites and ISIS continues to strategically eliminate thousands of years of material history.
While shocking, this has also been a common result of warfare (indeed, the US demolished part of Babylon in 2003 when setting up a military base) -- the difference in this case is how Daesh presents it to the world, according to Margaret Van Ess, head of the German Archaeological Institute's field office in Iraq.
The following map, issued by the Institute for the Study of War, is useful for conceptualizing just how encompassing their behaviour is across Iraq and Syria:
Daesh early on proclaimed antiquities that didn't fit into their own narrow fanatical (Salafist Sunni) narrative idolatrous, and went to significant effort to bulldoze large portions (est. 60-80%) of UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Nimrud and Nineveh. While this was shocking to the international community and the Iraqi people, the most intense and complete destruction has more ironically been visited upon what ISIS militants call 'the near-enemy', which are bits of material heritage belonging primarily to Muslims of other sects: mosques, tombs, etc. Cultural erasure there has been deep, and affects more than just the distant past.
Considering the intense humanitarian crisis the area (and now surrounding regions and even continents) is still experiencing in 2017, some dusty old sites may seem trivial. I would argue that it is exactly the opposite -- the sites themselves represent cornerstones of shared identity. Moreover, the humanitarian crisis and the material heritage crisis are not a zero-sum game.
This area was the cradle of civilization, from which some of the first agronomies and permanent settlements emerged, and though it has long been an area rife with conflict outside the near-present (the Crusades, European colonialism, etc.), the evidence is stark that much of today's Western or Middle-Eastern civilizations owe themselves to deep cultural exchange in the region.
In fact, the Middle East in general has, for thousands of years, been a primary ventricle for cultural exchange between the West and East, from ancient Iberia to East Asia. To keep it short, I'll only discuss one example here: Hatra.
Hatra, located southwest of modern Mosul as our map shows, was established by the successors of Alexander the Great and over time became an Assyro-Babylonian capital that withstood the might of Rome and incorporated many features of Roman, Hellenistic (late Greek), and Assyro-Babylonian civilizations. It also became the site of the very first Arab kingdom, long before the rise of Islam.
Hatra is, according to UNESCO, a testament to the antiquity, diversity, and wealth of Arab and Iraqi identity. The evidence for a powerful, rich civilization that blended many cultures is clear. This made it a natural target for ISIS and the cultural cleansing plaguing the region. Luckily, Hatra's liberation has allowed UNESCO to start collaborating to begin assessing the damage and formulating a plan to help.
Beyond these sites being a source for national cohesion and unification of Iraq in rebuilding itself in the wake of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. occupation, and now ISIS, sites like Hatra are (and certainly should be) universally valued as objects of world heritage.
Mohammad Iqbal Omar, Iraq's Minister of Education, proudly proclaimed these places "pillars of civilization", and called on the international community to help Iraq preserve and restore them. Omar, in doing so, recognized the shared culture and value material heritage can represent as foundational measures of identity and commonality among twenty-first century peoples, even those at odds.
I have, most recently in my formal education, dealt with archaeology and its role in modernism, which is a lens for viewing history and culture. In the context of the Middle East (and many other places besides), archaeology has played a significant role in the formation of modern identities, from Egypt to Persia. By that I mean that various countries have used their material heritage resources to formulate cohesive national identities, appropriating deep history for the uses nation-building.
One useful author for reviewing this process is Phillip L. Kohl, who influenced me when I was conceptualizing my thesis on the subject as it pertains to Canadian identities. It is a common thing to see this argued as a form of colonialism, and whether this is the case or if this is negative (this isn't the place), we have -- very real -- identities to deal with as a result. More importantly, because of this process we can use archaeology and material heritage as tools in international diplomacy and reconciliation, as UNESCO's many efforts have begun to attest.