Barbarians at the gates of civilization

James Harkin (“a British-Irish journalist long fascinated by Syria”) gives his eye-witness report of the destruction of ancient artifacts in Syria by the barbaric Islamic State. His article is published in the March 2016 print issue of Smithsonian magazine ( under the title, “Murdering History.” (Link below)

These Muslim terrorists have captured large areas in Syria and Iraq. In the process of civil war with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad some collateral damage of archaeological sites from both sides shelling has destroyed antiquities. But much of it results from activities related to Islamic fanaticism and looting to financially support the terrorists.

Mr. Harkin describes an editorial in the Islamic State’s English-language magazine Dabiq titled, “Erasing the Legacy of a Ruined Nation.” It invokes “Koranic scripture and the sin of shirk, or idolatry, to label everything pre-Islamic as profane, and it glorifies the destruction of ‘statues, sculptures, and engravings of idols and kings.’”

The vandals even attack Syrian archaeologists trying to preserve their precious cultural heritage. They are labeled kuffar: unbelievers. But all that is part of the evil Islamic strategy to enrage the kuffar “a deed that in itself is beloved to Allah.”

To further emphasize their message, a la Allah, they beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra’s 82-year-old director of antiquities, and hung his body from a column in the city. He was condemned as the “director of idolatry.” But it was believed that he was murdered for refusing to tell where his staff had hidden the antique loot.

Mr. Harkin’s detailed, vivid and sometimes frightening account of the “industrial scale” destruction and looting  in Syria, accompanied by incredible pictures, maps and documentation of the damage, is a masterful work of journalism. He has been covering the war there since it started, sometimes embedded with rebel forces. For this story he got permission from the Syrian government to go to the largest city Aleppo. Syrian forces had taken back the rebel occupied city in 2014. He had a military chaperon and an interpreter from the Ministry of Information.

Syria has six historical locations listed by UNESCO (a United Nations agency) as World Heritage Sites. As Harkin describes it: “The country, at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, boasts tens of thousands of sites of archaeological interest, from the ruins of our earliest civilizations to Crusader-era fortifications and wonders of Islamic worship and art.”

Last May (2015) ISIS savages overran a UNESCO site in Palmyra renowned for its Roman-era ruins. According to Harkin, the Islamic State “gleefully” shows videos on their “propaganda wing” of militants attacking priceless artifacts with jackhammers. The thugs rampaged through museum galleries with unique collections and blew up sites for “scarifying effect” in territory they control.

The Old City of Aleppo has been a battleground between armed rebels and the Syrian Army for three years where Harkin saw “some of the most archaeological destruction.” In the residential quarter of the city “almost everything we walk past is beyond repair.” It is estimated that “60 percent of the Old City has been destroyed.”

In Damascus Harkin was connected with the director of antiquities and museums, Ma’amoun Abdulkarim. He described to Harkin an “armed archaeological mafia” that work with the rebels to steal artifacts and thrive on the chaos.

Though they may be on different sides of the conflict, Professor Abdulkarim and some of his former students are “working together for the greater good.” Quietly, they removed Palmyra’s most important artifacts and statues to more secure places in Damascus just before ISIS invaded the city.

Palmyra was an ancient trade caravan oasis in the central Syrian Desert. When it became part of the Roman Empire it connected Rome with Persia, India and China. It has unique Greek, Roman, Persian and Levantine art and architecture. ISIS had pledged not to destroy Palmyra’s famous stone temples. But Abdulkarim didn’t believe them: “We can never trust their words… They are barbarians… If the army comes they will attack it out of vengeance.”

Abdulkarim and his staff had buried a 15-ton, two-millennia-old statue known as the Lion of Al-lat in the Palmyra city museum garden before ISIS came. The barbarians located the Lion statue and destroyed it. A few days after they murdered Khaled al-Asaad ISIS videos showed fighters rolling barrels of explosives into one of the best-preserved structures in Palmyra, the Temple of Baalshamin (the Phoenician sky god). They blew it up.

We know about massive destruction of historical buildings and artifacts during wartime, World War II being one of the worst cases, but they were not deliberately targeted. Combined with many other barbaric acts committed by the Islamists, targeted destruction of the remnants of early civilizations is unprecedented. But it should not surprise us. These barbarians will do any evil act anywhere at any time in the name of their religion.


About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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