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"No history, no culture, no past": Why ISIS's destruction of ancient artifacts is so cruel

ISIS militants destroy ancient artifacts in Mosul, as captured in ISIS video
ISIS militants destroy ancient artifacts in Mosul, as captured in ISIS video

What does it feel like to have your history destroyed? What is it like to watch, helpless, as armed madmen take sledgehammers to some of the most treasured artifacts of your country's heritage?

Most of us will never know the answers to those questions, no matter how many images we see of ISIS's ongoing campaign to smash, burn, and bulldoze many of the ancient relics and archaeological sites under their control in Syria and Iraq.

The colossal statues at Nimrud, for example, had survived for over 3,000 years from their construction by one of the earliest civilizations on earth, until ISIS's militants bulldozed them to the ground. The winged statues are a symbol of Iraq's history as the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, and thus are relics of a global human history. Still, though, they have special meaning to Iraqis — as similar relics in Syria do for Syrians — that the rest of us can never fully comprehend.

But this quote below, from a Syrian writer living in exile, helped drive home for me just how devastating this experience has been for Syrians and Iraqis watching it in horror. The quote comes from Mohammad Rabia Chaar, who briefly returned to Syria during the initially peaceful uprising against Bashar al-Assad but now lives in Belgium. He was speaking to the New York Times' Anne Barnard about ISIS's destruction of ancient artifacts on the Syrian provence of Idlib:

"Go and see Idlib, how all the ancient hills have been destroyed and looted, how bulldozers are digging." he said. "The feeling of sickness is growing more and more, day after day, against these imperialist Muslims. Daesh wants people with no memory, with no history, with no culture, no past, no future."

Daesh is a derivation of the Arabic acronym for ISIS (the group rejects the label, which is part of why many now use it). ISIS's stated motivation for destroying the artifacts is that it considers them idolatry and thus a religious violation. This is part of an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, banning what they consider the worship of idols, that goes back to 18th-century Saudi Arabia and has continued in extremist groups today.

But what Chaar's quote drives home is that, for many Syrians and Iraqis, it is experienced as a kind of metaphysical loss; that it is a feeling of having one's very identity destroyed, left with an eroded sense of place and purpose. It's a kind of violence that can be difficult to fully comprehend, but one that will remain with Syrians and Iraqis long after these wars have ended.