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In recent years, when ISIS destroyed and looted various sites in their stronghold of Syria and Iraq; important to almost every religion and culture – and then started selling items on Facebook – it saddened many a historian, archaeologist, and religious leader across the world. Many of these sites are UNESCO world heritage sites, and important for their historical and cultural significance.
The idea of looting is older than we know, what with graverobbers looting the belongings buried with the dearly departed for as long as we have a history, and with some early accounts going back to at least 1,700 B.C.E., if not earlier. The cradle of civilization – what was known as Mesopotamia – was looted rampantly, and it continues to this day by people affected by the regional wars and economic stress.
Founded in 303 B.C.E., and home to an early Christian church dating back to C.E. 230 – the earliest known to man – Dura-Europos, which translates to Fort Europos, was built atop a cliff on the Euphrates River banks. Inside the church is a baptistry, courtyard, and a meeting hall, while displaying a variety of Christian scenes in paintings. One truly important painting is that of Jesus’ miracle of walking on water.
Another site that ISIS captured in 2014, it’s been the target of “extremely heavy looting.” Another casualty of the Syrian war, the Syrian army was able to recapture the site in 2017, although researchers are unsure as to how damaged it is, and how much of the actual church still stands today. Luckily, more than 12,000 relics were preserved after the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters and teams from Yale excavated them in between 1920 and 1940 and are housed at Yale University’s Art Gallery.
Nimrud is an ancient Assyrian city located in what is today’s Iraq. It eventually became the Assyrian Empire’s capital, after Ashurnasirpal II moved the government there from Ashur. Featured prominently in the Book of Genesis, Nimrud (also called Kalah or, in the Hebrew Bible, Calah) was one of the most important trade centers of the Empire. In addition to being named after Nimrod, Noah’s great-grandson – yes, the same Noah who built the Ark – Nimrud is believed to have been “one of the first cities built after the Great Flood.”
Around 630 B.C.E., Nimrud fractured, broke into pieces, was invaded by the Babylonians, Medes, Persians, and Scythians in 625 B.C.E., and then burned in 612 B.C.E., when it was abandoned for more than 2,000 years. Archaeologists found Nimrud and started excavating the city in 1845 – but originally believing it was Nineveh.
Fast-forward to 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq and all sorts of people, local and not, looted the city. According to reports artifacts that the National Museum of Iraq housed were also plundered. Later in 2014, ISIS invaded, and took over the city, destroying and looting it in the process until 2016 when Iraqi forces retook it.
Nineveh is another Assyrian city in what is modern-day Mosul, Iraq, in existence since at least 6,000 B.C.E. Because Nineveh is located on a fault line, it frequently succumbed to earthquakes – and still does – damaging many of the ancient buildings. Nineveh suffered the same fate as Nimrud in 625 and 612 B.C.E, what with being invaded by the same forces and burned to the ground.
Nineveh is biblically important for a number of reasons. The Bible mentions the city in a Book of Nahum prophecy that supposedly predicted the city’s destruction. Nahum said of the city that it was:
“…The city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims.”
The tomb of Jonah is also located in Nineveh, and the Book of Jonah describes how the city was “spared the wrath of God.” Nineveh also appears in the books of Zephaniah and Tobit, as well as the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
ISIS invaded and occupied Nineveh at the same time Nimrud fell to the terror group. But, the group retained the city until 2017, a year after Iraqi troops took back control of Nimrud. The terrorists looted and destroyed the tomb during their occupation. But this may have been a blessing in disguise, as the looters dug tunnels that uncovered a palace and ancient inscriptions.
The first city captured by ISIS in 2013, a United States-led coalition was able to retake Raqqa, the city that served as their capital until 2017. While not technically a biblical site – at least not for Christians — Raqqa is a religious site important to Islam. Specifically, the Ammar bin Yasir Mosque and three of its shrines to important religious figures were destroyed. This Mosque is “a Shiite pilgrimage site.” Also damaged were parts of the Old City, important to the culture because it served as the Abbasid capital during 796 and 809 C.E., as well as the Museum of Raqqa.
Housed at a heritage site built in 1861, the museum itself was founded in 1981 and was home to over 7,000 ancient artifacts from Syria and the surrounding areas. ISIS was not kind to the museum. According to reports, the group looted “practically every artifact and valuable… (sic)” the museum held and sold them to help finance their operations.
Other ancient cultural sites ISIS destroyed and looted
Although ISIS was driven out of many of its former strongholds, the devastation left behind is almost unimaginable. Sites like Palmyra, one of the oldest and important trade sites in the region, and part of the Silk Road, were blown to bits, and are now nothing but rubble.
Hatra, a city with Roman- and Greek-influenced architecture, was also part of the Silk Road. It served as the capital of an independent state (kingdom) at the time and was destroyed by ISIS with sledgehammers – and ISIS released videos to prove their work.
Between the civil wars and ISIS, it seems we may lose these important archaeological and biblical sites forever. For more, see our second article, 5 Biblical sites destroyed by looting in recent years.
Featured Image: Screenshot via YouTube Video