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Why ISIS Hates Archaeology and Blew Up Ancient Iraqi Palace

With a video showing an Assyrian palace's destruction, the Islamic State wants to establish itself as heir to a legacy of "idol destruction."

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The ancient site of Nimrud, one of Iraq’s cultural treasures, is shown being destroyed by explosives in a video recently released by ISIS.


On April 11th, a brief video appeared on social media and quickly became the subject of international news headlines and the target of global condemnation.

It was exactly what the Islamic State (ISIS) wanted.

The roughly seven-minute video shows the destruction of what experts confirm is the Northwest Palace at Nimrud, built in the ninth century B.C. by the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II. (Learn more about the Northwest Palace at Nimrud.)

An online video shows ISIS militants using sledgehammers, a bulldozer, and explosives to destroy ruins at the ancient Iraqi city of Nimrud.

While reports from early March that the site was destroyed by bulldozers proved to be incorrect, experts tell National Geographic that the events recorded in the video most likely occurred some time between mid-March and early April.

“Whenever we take control of a piece of land, we remove the symbols of polytheism and spread monotheism in it,” a jihadi tells the camera before the structure is destroyed with explosives. (Read about ISIS’s destruction of cultural heritage.)

WATCH: National Geographic Archaeologist Fred Hiebert responds about ISIS destruction of antiquities and historic sites. 

By invoking the sins of shirk, or idolatry, the Islamic State is trying to establish their legitimacy as the proper heirs to the legacy of earlier “destroyers of idols,” including the prophets Abraham and Muhammed, says Christopher Jones, a PhD student at Columbia University who has been documenting damage to ancient sites in Iraq at the Gates of Nineveh blog.

The Islamic State’s notion of shirk not only applies to pre-Islamic sites like Nimrud, but also any Islamic heritage that does not follow their strict Sunni interpretation of Islam, as well as sites belonging to the region’s religious minorities, including Yazidis, Kurds, and Christians. (Who are the Yazidis?)

In fact, the majority of cultural and historical sites destroyed by ISIS are associated with Shia and Sufi Islamic sects, says Michael Danti, professor of archaeology at Boston University and co-director of the Syrian Heritage Initiative (SHI) at the American Schools of Oriental Research. The Initiative works with the U.S. Department of State and has to date documented around 80 “deliberate destructions” of sites in northern Iraq.

Their primary target is what they refer to as the ‘near enemy,’ being anyone other than Salafist Sunni Muslims. After that they target pre-Islamic heritage.
Michael Danti

“A lot of what [ISIS is] trying to do is stoke sectarian tensions and proliferate conflict,” Danti explains. “Their primary target is what they refer to as the ‘near enemy,’ being anyone other than Salafist Sunni Muslims. After that they target pre-Islamic heritage."

“This video is directed at the local population,” Jones agrees, noting that the jihadis in the Nimrud video and earlier footage depicting the destruction of cultural heritage address their audience in Arabic and repeatedly invoke the Koran. If the target audience for the video was international, he points out, “ISIS has plenty of guys who speak English.”

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Why ISIS Hates Archaeology

While using the destruction of cultural heritage to demonstrate their “piety” and stoke division within local populations, ISIS also sees the practice of archaeology as a foreign import that fans Iraqi nationalism and impedes their ultimate goal, in which modern nations of the Middle East are subsumed into a wider caliphate encompassing the entire Muslim world.

An article on the destruction at the Mosul museum in a recent issue of Dabiq, the online magazine of the Islamic State, makes its position clear: “The kuffār [unbelievers] had unearthed these statues and ruins in recent generations and attempted to portray them as part of a cultural heritage and identity that the Muslims of Iraq should embrace and be proud of.”

According to ISIS, 'these monuments should not be excavated and restored, but viewed with 'disgust and hatred.'

According to ISIS, pre-Islamic sites represent nations of idolaters that have been destroyed “for disbelieving in Allah and His messengers.” These monuments should not be excavated and restored, but viewed with “disgust and hatred.”

A side benefit of the destruction of archaeological sites is the outrage it provokes in the global community, which the article states is “a deed that in itself is beloved to Allah.”

ISIS counts on the angry international reaction to the destruction of pre-Islamic sites, says Danti. “They use it to tell the local population, 'Well, they're reacting to the destruction of these ancient idols, but do they really care about you, or your local mosque or these other issues that are affecting your life right now?"

"You just have to be really careful with it,” he says, pointing out again that the majority of cultural attacks by ISIS are against Islamic sites. “We don't want to play right into their propaganda."

A Convenient Distraction and “Come and Get Us” Provocation

The release of the video on April 11th may also be associated with developments in the larger conflict in Iraq, Danti observes, pointing out that the destruction at Nimrud deflects attention from the recent defeat of ISIS at Tikrit.

In addition, the Islamic State may be leveraging the event to influence an ongoing disagreement between Iraqi and U.S. Coalition over combat strategy. The Iraqi government wants to direct anti-ISIS efforts to Anbar Province in the west, while the U.S. Coalition wants to continue pressing north to Mosul. The site of Nimrud is south of the city.

The release of the video on April 11th may also be associated with developments in the larger conflict in Iraq

"If the Iraqi military were considering to continue north towards Mosul, this is [the Islamic State’s] way of saying 'We've got this scorched earth policy and we're blowing up these sites right in front of you,'” Danti suggests. “It’s a sort of 'come and get us' bit of bravado. “

Follow Kristin Romey on Twitter.

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