Archaeologists call it a new Dark Age.
The barbarians of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and its ancillary hordes are pulverizing and plundering millennia-old heritage sites, museums, and ancient artwork across Syria and Iraq. A Minnesota-sized chunk of the cradle of civilization is now occupied or under siege by these religious ultra-fundamentalists intent on forging an Islamic caliphate, governed solely by religious law. A proclaimed mission of ISIS is to “purify’’ areas under its control of carved images, non-Islamic texts, and architecture and monuments belonging to other ages and other faiths. The movement also destroys mosques, shrines, and holy structures erected by Muslims, past and present, whom they deem apostate or less righteous than themselves, especially the loathed Shiites.
The wonders daily assaulted by bulldozers, jackhammers, high-explosives, and homely pickaxes belong to Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine times, as well as to lesser-known recesses of the Bronze and Iron ages.
“The destruction is on a scale the world hasn’t seen since World War II, and it’s accelerating,” says Boston University archaeologist Michael D. Danti. “It’s certainly the gravest cultural emergency of our times.”
There is no upside to the cultural violence ripping the heart from the Islamic world. But there’s some grim comfort to be taken inasmuch as the pillage is being monitored — as never before in history — by satellites, covert cellphone imaging, GPS locators, and other technology. If ever there comes a day of reckoning, the world will possess hard evidence of the archaeological desecration done under the black flag of jihad.
Also bearing witness are secret networks of Syrian and Iraqi art historians, curators, and scientists risking their lives to chronicle the damage as it happens. They feed details to archaeologists, cultural activists, and intelligence groups outside the war-torn region. Meanwhile, the demolition has been dampened — if only to a small extent — by renewed international efforts to discourage trafficking in looted artifacts, including a stoutly-worded resolution issued last month by the UN Security Council that accuses ISIS of profiteering from looted antiquities.
“The destruction is at once a form of psychological warfare — ‘See our contempt for your treasures, world!’ — as well as a powerful recruiting tool,” says Danti, who also teams with the State Department to document the damage and find ways to deter it. “For anyone who cares about humanity’s cultural heritage, it’s heartbreaking.”
A chilling video released by ISIS last month showed bearded men in guerrilla garb using sledges, jackhammers, and pickaxes to shatter Assyrian artwork at the central museum in Mosul, Iraq. One of the sculptures was of a winged bull dating to the 7th Century BC. “These ruins . . . they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah,’’ states the voice-over by an unidentified ISIS militant.
The State Department, working with some 90 universities and museums, is the American agency most closely following the ransacking of heritage sites. The department is scrutinizing satellite images while compiling a map and detailed inventory of more than 1,000 “cultural heritage sites” either seriously damaged or at risk.
“At least, when the conflict burns out, we’ll be able to go in with a very good idea of places that need to be repaired or immediately protected,” says Susan Pittman, a spokesperson for the State Department. She estimated that 90 percent of culturally critical places lie in areas of ongoing conflict, displacement, or, worst, under the direct control of ISIS. The Islamic State’s long-term strategy is to gain control of immense territory and administer a puritanical Muslim entity that recognizes no law except those explicated by the Prophet Mohammed.
“They’ve made destruction of heritage a performance art — they blow up churches, mosques, museums, castles,” says Danti, who started his career at archaeological sites in Syria. “For too long, I found it paralyzing — too distressing to even follow on the news. But now I want to be a part of monitoring this outrage. This [high-tech, real-time] tracking of massive and calculated cultural destruction has never really been done before. The world may feel helpless now. But we’ll be ready to go when it comes to war crimes [trials].”
The savagery against common culture is sad and shocking in itself. Nearly as disturbing is that ISIS uses the show of destruction as a powerful recruiting tool — young aspiring jihadists from around the world, including the United States and Europe, are flocking to ISIS’s black banner by the thousands, seemingly as thrilled by the chance to wreak havoc as the hope of attaining heaven.
Colin Nickerson is a Globe correspondent.