The Islamist destruction underway in Timbuktu (including the tomb of Sidi Mahmoudou, d. 955, and the doors of the Sidi Yahya Mosque, ca. 1400) raises a question: What is it about Islam that so often turns its adherents against their own patrimony? Consider some examples:
The destruction of Hindu temples in medieval India.
The doors of the Sidi Yahya Mosque, built ca. 1400, which were only to open at the end of time, smashed apart today by Islamists.
- The Mamluks using the Great Sphinx of Egypt as target practice and the Great Pyramid as a quarry.
- The Turkish destruction of churches in northern Cyprus since 1974.
- The Saudi destruction of antiquities in Mecca since the 1990s,
- The Palestinian sacking of the Tomb of Joseph in 2000.
- The Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha in 2001.
- Al-Qaeda's bombing of Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia in 2002,
- The pillaging of Iraqi museums, libraries, and archives in 2003.
- The destruction of an historic Malaysian Hindu temple in 2006.
- The destruction of L'Institut d'Égypte in 2011.
In addition, some intentions to destroy antiquities (Khomeini contemplated razing Persepolis, a grand mufti of Egypt banned exhibiting statues) might yet be realized. (On the other hand, the story about Muslims burning the ancient Library of Alexandria appears apocryphal.)
Finally, there is another pattern, turning non-Islamic holy places into Islamic ones. As I noted in 2001,
Moslems have habitually asserted the supremacy of Islam through architecture, building on top of the monuments of other faiths (as in Jerusalem and Ayodhya) or appropriating them (e.g. the Ka'ba in Mecca and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople) This pattern still continues - as recently as October , when it happened at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus.
Although these examples include both non-Muslim and Muslim artifacts, motives differ in the two cases: eliminating infidel remnants establishes the superiority of Islam, while eliminating Muslim ones establishes the superiority of Islamism. In both cases, the motive is foul and the results are, historically speaking, tragic. (July 2, 2012)
Islamists in the process of destroying a centuries-old Timbuktu shrine.
July 3, 2012 update I am adding a "top comment" endorsements to those commentators who provide other examples of Muslim destruction of antiquities, starting with S.C. Panda's information about Hindu temples post-1947. See these to flesh out the examples here.
July 11, 2012 update: Raymond Ibrahim writes today that "Calls to Destroy Egypt's Great Pyramids Begin."
July 25, 2012 update: Irfan Al-Alawi reports about "More destruction of Sufi tombs shows Islamists are not defeated" in Libya.
Oct. 30, 2012 update: The Saudi authorities are planning to raze Mohammed's tomb in Medina to build larger mosque – according to the not always trustworthy Russia Today Online.
A key Islamic heritage site in Saudi Arabia, which includes the Prophet Mohammed's shrine, is to get a regal makeover. The Gulf Kingdom plans a $6 billion expansion of Medina's holy Masjid an-Nabawi Mosque. … to start as soon as the annual Hajj pilgrimage comes to a close at the end of November. "After the Hajj this year, in one months' time, the bulldozers will move in and will start to demolish the last part of Mecca, the grand mosque which is at least 1,000 years old," Dr. Irfan Alawi of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, told RT. After the reconstruction, the mosque is expected to become the world's largest building, with a capacity for 1.6 million people. …
Concerns are growing that the expansion of Masjid an-Nabawi will come at the price of three of the world's oldest mosques which are located nearby. The expansion project is set to cost 25 billion SAR (more than US $6 billion), and will reportedly require the razing of the holy sites which date back to the seventh century.
The Saudis insist that colossal expansion of both Mecca and Medina is essential to make a way for the growing numbers of pilgrims. Both Mecca and Medina host 12 million visiting pilgrims each year and this number is expected to increase to 17 million by 2025. … The Washington-based Gulf Institute estimated that 95 percent of sacred sites and shrines in the two cities have been destroyed in the past twenty years. The Prophet's birthplace was turned into a library and the house of his first wife, Khadijah, was replaced with a public toilet block.
Feb. 11, 2013 update: "Syrian rebels loot artifacts to raise money for fight against Assad" reads the Washington Post article by Taylor Luck. One excerpt:
Since the onset of the conflict in Syria, the international community has expressed alarm over the fate of the country's diverse heritage landmarks and stunning archaeological sites, as rebel and government forces have transformed historical treasures such as the 1,000-year-old Aleppo souk and the crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers into theaters of war. As the war nears its third year, the United Nations and conservationists warn that Syria's historical sites face a new and more dangerous threat: a sophisticated network of smugglers and dealers prime among them members of the cash-strapped insurgency looking to capitalize on the country's cultural riches.
Feb. 16, 2013 update: Michael Curtis provides another take on this same issue today at "Islamists Eliminating History." His introduction:
A new form of warfare by Islamists is being waged. This new offensive is not only a military campaign for jihad and for the creation of Islamic states ruled by sharia law; rather it is explicitly for the elimination of the non-Islamist past—an ideological offensive to remove the memories, historical artifacts, monuments, buildings, or any other evidence of the history and contribution of Judaism, Christianity, and even the moderate forms of Islam to civilization. This offensive is potentially more dangerous than any violence or vandalism or acts of revenge directed against supposed enemies.
Apr. 1, 2013 update: The ancient Jobar Synagogue in Damascus was looted and burned to the ground as Syrian government and rebel forces blamed each other for the destruction. It is one of the oldest synagogues in the world; and while an inscription at the building read, "Shrine and synagogue of prophet Eliahou Hanabi since 720 B.C.," its actual date of founding is disputed.
More broadly, the two-year civil war in Syria has damaged or destroyed six UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites.
Sign at the Jobar Synagogue in Damascus.
Apr. 14, 2013 update: Abeer Ayyoub writes in "Hamas Military Wing Damages Gaza Heritage Site":
Earlier last month, amid overwhelming criticism from public figures and nongovernmental organizations, the military wing of the Islamic movement of Hamas, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, bulldozed a part of the ancient Anthedon Harbor in northern Gaza along the Mediterranean Sea. The Brigades damaged the harbor in order to expand its military training zone, which was initially opened on the location in 2002, according to Ejla.
The Anthedon seaport, which dates back over 3,000 years to the Mycenaean era, is considered one of the most important sites in the Middle East and is the oldest harbor in Gaza. It was designated an international heritage site by UNESCO in 2012. The location was discovered in 1997 on the space of 180,000 square meters. It contains mosaic floors with historical pillars from the Roman, Byzantine and Islamic ages.
May 5, 2013 update: More on Syrian destruction, this time on ancient castles now under fire in the civil war, from an article today in the Washington Post by Abigail Hauslohner and Ahmed Ramadan:
Modern Syria is dotted with medieval castles and citadels, many built high upon the ruins of earlier Roman or Mesopotamian dynasties in an archaeological landscape that experts say is among the richest in the world. But as the fortified structures gain new strategic purpose in Syria's devastatingly modern civil war, archaeologists worry that what withstood ancient armies and earthquakes may now fall victim to airstrikes, shelling and other forms of 21st-century warfare.
Because of limited access, archaeologists and other experts say it is close to impossible to confirm reports of damage and looting to Syria's castles and citadels, including the famed crusader castle Crak des Chevaliers, whose south wall has been nearly destroyed in the fighting, according to Syrian rebels.
But it is certain that they and many other historical and archaeological sites "have been affected by violent fights or occupation by armed forces for military purposes," said Veronique Dauge, chief of the Arab States Unit at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Both the rebels and the Syrian government have pledged publicly to protect the nation's ancient structures. But they are intensely battling for their control.
July 2, 2013 update: An inventory of manuscripts in Timbuktu finds, according to David Stehl of UNESCO, that "Of the 46,000 manuscripts that were held by the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, 4,203 manuscripts were either burned by the Islamists or stolen."
A manuscript at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu.
July 19, 2013 update: The Archaeological Institute of America reports from Istanbul that
Byzantine-era walls in the historic Yedikule Gardens have been damaged by earthmovers constructing a new park, according to a warning issued by the Istanbul branch of the Association of Archaeologists. "The area lies in a protected strip of land walls that are on UNESCO's World Heritage List and is also a part of the historical peninsula, which is protected," reads the report. Vegetable plots had been growing in the area, which is slated for a decorative pool.
Jan. 6, 2014 update: Arsonists destroyed an estimated 2/3s of the Saeh Library in Tripoli, Lebanon, on the grounds that its founder, Father Ibrahim Sarouja, a Greek Orthodox priest, had written an anti-Islamic article and that the library contained anti-Islamic materials. Founded in 1972, the library held about 80,000 books, meaning 50,000 were burned.
Jan. 25, 2014 update: In a variant on this weblog entry, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi writes in "Regional strife destroying historical Arab treasures" at Al-Monitor surveying the recent toil on historical artifacts. He begins with yesterday's truck bombing of the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, "destroying priceless treasures of the largest Islamic museum in the world in an attempt to target a state security bureau. Egypt's minister of antiquities declared that the museum had been 'completely destroyed'." But that is just the beginning:
In August 2013, looters stole or damaged 1,060 of 1,089 objects housed at Egypt's Mallawi Museum in Minia, killing a security guard. The following month 400 artifacts were recovered. …
Algeria's centuries-old Kasbah … is threatened with decay and neglect. …
In 2012, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula videotaped themselves destroying the ancient mausoleum of al-Ja'dani outside Jaar in Abyan province in Yemen. …
While Libya's National Museum in Tripoli survived the 2011 war largely intact, a "collection of priceless coins, jewelry and small statues" known as the "treasures of Benghazi" dating back to the age of Alexander the Great, were stolen from a bank vault in May 2011. Following the war, Libyan Salafists desecrated graves of World War II soldiers then turned their attention to historic Sufi shrines, many of which they ransacked, burnt down or bulldozed.
The Syrian civil war is taking a terrible toll:
Three years on, it is impossible to document the extent of the damage to the country's historical sites. A 2012 report by Time magazine found that rebels were looting and smuggling ancient artifacts to fund the war effort. As a result of the war, "all six of Syria's UNESCO World Heritage Sites have reportedly been damaged or destroyed." Aleppo was especially hit hard, losing its ancient market and parts of its historic Umayyad Mosque and citadel. In July 2013, the Syrian government launched an airstrike against the medieval Krak des Chevaliers castle, damaging one of its towers in an apparent attempt to target rebels.
In conclusion, Qassemi expects that this destruction "will likely persist as long as these states continue to witness civil strife and a lack of stable governments." Fair enough, except that the campaign against history started earlier and runs deeper than the current round of upheavals.
Jan. 31, 2014 update: More details on the truck bomb that went off in Cairo on Jan. 24, presumably intended for a police headquarters but also hitting the 111-year old Museum of Islamic Art across the street, "blowing out windows and sending metal and glass flying through its halls," killing 4 and injuring 76. The museum contains artifacts dating from the Umayyad to the Ottoman periods, a span of some 1,200 years.
Egypt's minister of antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim, said on Friday[, Jan. 31] that 74 precious artifacts had been destroyed and that 90 were damaged, but repairable. The museum had nearly 1,471 artifacts on display in 25 galleries and 96,000 objects in storage.
Cairo's Museum of Islamic Art was struck by a truck bomb, "blowing out windows and sending metal and glass flying through its halls."
In addition, several manuscripts and papyri of Egypt's National Library, housed on building's second floor, were also damaged. "The blast also burst a pipe in the fire-prevention system, causing water from the library to pour into the museum galleries below."
The New York Times article also reports on rampant looting in the anarchy of Egypt's post-Mubarak period:
Looters have dug a honeycomb of holes around the famous Black Pyramid of Dahshour, in Giza. They have stolen an entire minbar, or pulpit, from a Mameluke mosque near Cairo's Citadel, as well as beautiful brass details, marble plaques and wood inlays from some of the city's most splendid mosques. Last August mobs attacked the Mallawi museum in Minya, 190 miles south of Cairo, stealing 1,050 of the 1,089 artifacts on display, including Pharaonic statues and jewelry and Greco-Roman coins. …
While Egypt has always had its share of antiquity theft, now it's more frequent, more efficient and more outrageous. Thieves have struck Pharaonic, Greco-Roman and ancient Christian sites from Abu Rawash north of Cairo to Luxor in the south. And they're selling these treasures faster than ever, sometimes within hours.
"The last three years, there's been a drastic situation, where you see at every archaeological site excavating without permission," said Saleh Lamei Moustafa, a conservator of Islamic architecture. "They're even bringing loaders. There are only 300 in the antiquities police, armed with pistols, and they're fighting people with heavy weaponry."
Feb. 5, 2014 update: Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO's assistant director-general for culture, is appalled by the destruction of ancient Syrian sites such as Mari, Ebla, Palmyra, and Apamea. "All of them have been subject to this phenomena [of illegal digging], some of them to an extent that is unimaginable. Apamea - it's completely destroyed." The Associated Press continues that Bandarin "lamented the destruction of landmarks in the civil war including Aleppo's medieval marketplace and the 11th-century minaret of the Umayyad Mosque that was the ancient heart of Aleppo's walled Old City, as well as the looting of the Krak des Chevaliers, one of the world's best preserved Crusader castles."
Feb. 11, 2014 update: Ahmed Sharaf, director of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities museums division, reports on theft during the country's unrest:
During the previous period, waves of rioting caused a lot of losses, damages and museum thefts. On Jan. 28, 2011, the Egyptian Museum was broken into via the lighting rooms on the upper floor. The thieves then descended to the halls and stole 54 pieces, 28 of which have been recovered. On the day when the Rabia [al-Adawiya] sit-in was broken up, the Malawi Museum was broken into. Of its 1,079 pieces, 1,000 were stolen and 14 were destroyed. The police have recovered 900 pieces so far. And then there's the latest destruction to the Islamic Museum.
Feb. 12, 2014 updates: In a Counterpunch piece of propaganda for the Assad regime, Patrick Coburn documents some of the devastation wrought by the rebels against antiquities in Syria:
Islamic fundamentalists in Syria have started to destroy archaeological treasures such as Byzantine mosaics and Greek and Roman statues because their portrayal of human beings is contrary to their religious beliefs. The systematic destruction of antiquities may be the worst disaster to ancient monuments since the Taliban in Afghanistan dynamited the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 for similar ideological reasons.
Apr. 13, 2014 update: A retired Egyptian army general, Ahmed Ragai Attiya, has declared that St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai, dating from the sixth century, should be demolished and its 37 monks deported on the grounds that it and they present a threat to the country's national security. Oh, and he claims the building dates only from 2006.
St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai, dating from the sixth century.
May 22, 2014 update: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS), writes Ilan Ben Zion, has damaged antiquities in the parts of Syria they dominate. Its fighter appear, appear, in pictures made available by the Association for the Preservation of Syrian Archaeology,
to smash a 3,000-year-old Neo-Assyrian statue illegally removed from a nearby archaeological site. Another image shows a man placing his foot — an act of disrespect in Arab culture — on the face of the Assyrian statue before its destruction.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant allegedly at work destroying Syria's archeological past.
Last month, the Syrian antiquities authority said in a statement that it had received notice that artifacts that "appear to be the result of an unauthorized digging" had been plundered from Tell Ajaja, the ruins of the Assyrian provincial capital Shadikanni on the Khabur River, a tributary of the Euphrates. …
The destruction of Assyrian antiquities was not the first assault against Syrian archaeological treasures committed by ISIL. In January 2014, the radical Islamist group blew up and destroyed a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa, the Independent reported. The pristine Roman-style mosaic had only been discovered in 2007. Syria analyst Aymenn al-Tamimi, one of those who tweeted the images of ISIL smashing the idols in Hasakeh, also shared a photo of the Islamists taking a bulldozer to a statue outside a Raqqa museum.
June 17, 2014 update: A Saudi national has been arrested, accused of smashing three historic stone statues (60-100 centimeters high) and bronze statue (200-centimeter high) at the Senso-Ji Buddhist temple, Tokyo's oldest and one of its most significant temples. The Saudi embassy has condemned his actions.
July 7, 2014 update: The conquest by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria of Mosul and other regions of Iraq has led to an orgy of violence against historic edifices and artifacts, including the blowing up of Shi'i mosques, the bulldozing of churches, the pulverizing of shrines, and the plundering of museums. The repercussions of the ISIS victories will likely be deep and abiding.
July 24, 2014 update: In addition to the destruction noted above (see the July 7, 2014 entry), ISIS has now destroyed two sites in Mosul revered as the burial place of Biblical prophets, Daniel and Jonah (the one swallowed by a whale). About the latter:
"ISIS militants have destroyed the Prophet Younis (Jonah) shrine east of Mosul city after they seized control of the mosque completely," a security source, who kept his identity anonymous, told the Iraq-based al-Sumaria News. "The militants closed all of the mosque doors and prevented worshipers from entering to pray," the source said. A witness who did not wish to give his name said that ISIS militants "first stopped people from praying in it, they fixed explosive charges around and inside it and then blew it up in front of a large gathering of people," according to Agence France-Presse. An endowment official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, and Mosul residents told AFP it took the Sunni extremists an hour to rig the shrine with explosives.
The building was "turned to dust." In total, in and around Mosul, ISIS is now said to have destroyed or damaged 30 shrines and 15 husseiniyas and mosques.
July 28, 2014 update: An inspiring tale, for a change: ISIS militiamen arrived at the Crooked Minaret (al-Minara al-Hadba) in Mosul, built about AD 1173. The mis-shapen minaret has a role in the Middle East's folklore roughly equivalent to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Europe's (see the 10,000-dinar note, below). The ISIS thugs planned to blow it up. But "When fighters … loaded with heavy explosives converged on the site, Mosulis living nearby rushed to the courtyard below the minaret, sat on the ground and linked arms to form a human chain" and the ISIS troops backed off and left – for the moment. No one expects this to be the end of the story but, as the Associated Press says, it was "a startling show of bravery."
The Iraqi 10,000-dinar note shows the Crooked Minaret, which still stands - for now.
Aug. 24, 2014 update: Archaeologists and other academics, both in the West and in the Middle East, are doing their best to respond to the wanton destruction in Syria, reports Ursula Lindsey of the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Scholars can do little to stop the fighting and looting, but they have created blogs, websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts to monitor the destruction and raise awareness about it. By sharing excavation records, scholars outside the Middle East have helped their counterparts in the Arab world to compile online lists of missing or stolen objects.
Lindsy then provides specifics, such as the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology and Egypt's Heritage Task Force.
Sep. 2, 2014 update: Three co-authors write in "ISIS' Antiquities Sideline" about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's system to make money off of Syrian historical artifacts from a wide range of eras – the ancient Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods. They report that ISIS is involved in the illicit antiquities trade "in a way that is more complex and insidious than we expected." How the system works:
In general, ISIS permits local inhabitants to dig at these sites in exchange for a percentage of the monetary value of any finds. The group's rationale for this levy is the Islamic khums tax, according to which Muslims are required to pay the state treasury a percentage of the value of any goods or treasure recovered from the ground. ISIS claims to be the legitimate recipient of such proceeds.
The amount levied for the khums varies by region and the type of object recovered. In ISIS-controlled areas at the periphery of Aleppo Province in Syria, the khums is 20 percent. In the Raqqa region, the levy can reach up to 50 percent or even higher if the finds are from the Islamic period (beginning in the early-to-mid-seventh century) or made of precious metals like gold.
The scale of looting varies considerably under this system, and much is left to the discretion of local ISIS leaders. For a few areas, such as the ancient sites along the Euphrates River, ISIS leaders have encouraged digging by semiprofessional field crews. These teams are often from Iraq and are applying and profiting from their experience looting ancient sites there. They operate with a "license" from ISIS, and an ISIS representative is assigned to oversee their work to ensure the proper use of heavy machinery and to verify accurate payment of the khums.
In addition to the looting, ISIS seems to be encouraging the clandestine export of archaeological finds, which is primarily centered on the border crossing from Syria into Turkey near Tel Abyad, an ISIS stronghold. There is reason to suspect that ISIS has approved and encourages the transborder antiquities trade.
This system, the authors conclude, "provides ISIS with one of its many diversified income streams" and is also causing "irreparable damage to Syria's cultural heritage."
Related Topics: History, Islam
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