Armed with power tools, hammers and pickaxes, it took just minutes for ISIS to reduce a 3,000-year-old relic to rubble. It took even less time for the video of the famous Assyrian winged bull deities at the Nergal gates of Nineveh being vandalised beyond recognition, to be uploaded onto the internet by the tech-savvy propaganda wing of ISIS.
In addition to priceless relics, statues and documents, lost forever in the attack on the Mosul Museum, were five life-sized statues depicting the kings of Hatra. There are 27 known statues of Hatrene kings, so this represents a loss of 15 per cent of all the sculptures in existence.
‘We are currently living through perhaps the greatest period of heritage destruction that the world has ever seen,’ says Dr Benjamin Isakhan, a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Policy Studies and Convener of the Middle East Studies Forum at Deakin University.
Yet as the world watches on in horror, and archaeologists and anthropologists wring their hands in despair, a unique project, headed by Dr Isakhan will soon be used by governments, museums, NGOs and international bodies to halt the further destruction of ancient relics, and may even help create secure and peaceful countries in a part of the world that has almost always known conflict.
According to Dr Isakhan, the destruction of heritage sites in Middle Eastern countries occurs for a number of reasons. ‘One of the objectives of ISIS is to destroy symbols of alternative religions,’ he says. ‘Hatra, for example, is a city that has come under ISIS control and a lot of statues and relics have been destroyed because of the belief that representation of false gods or polytheism should be destroyed.’
‘We are currently living through perhaps the greatest period of heritage destruction that the world has ever seen,’
Shock factor is another undeniable motive. ‘ISIS has released videos of all kinds of humanitarian tragedies as well as heritage destruction because they know it gets a lot of airtime globally and allows them to get their message out.’
If the destruction of the world’s heritage sites is to be understood and addressed, says Dr Isakhan, it needs to be acknowledged that ISIS is not the only culprit.
He points to the US military’s use of the ancient Mesopotamian cities of Babylon and Ur.
‘The US went as far as to set up Pizza Huts and Burger Kings at the ancient site.’
Dr Isakhan’s research project documents not just names and dates of heritage destruction, but the social and political context in which it occurs, and this is the real game changer.
‘Saving the past for the future can only be achieved if researchers look deeply at the social and religious reasons why destruction occurs,’ explains Dr Isakhan.
‘If a state that is particularly heritage dense is going through a crisis,’ says Dr Isakhan, ‘we will know what to look for well in advance and will have the systems in place to move quickly.
‘All national identities are to some extent built on a cohesive and collective past. A collective narrative underpins our sense of nationhood, it’s why we want to live together, and work together for a common good – history is a very important thing. All nation states rely on the past to build a future.’