ISIS' War Against the Past

The unrelenting, brutal war that ISIS is conducting in the Middle East confronts us daily with new modes of inhuman behavior

By Robert L. Cohn|September 17, 2015

The unrelenting, brutal war that ISIS is conducting in the Middle East confronts us daily with new modes of inhuman behavior. We have been horrified by videos of tortures and beheadings of captured Westerners and locals alike.

And not long ago ISIS released a film showing the drowning of men in a swimming pool while locked in a cage and the burning alive of prisoners locked in an automobile after an explosion set off by a gunshot.

On another front, shocking on a different scale, is ISIS’s war against the past, that is, its destruction of the cultural heritage of Syria and Iraq. Most recently, ISIS destroyed three first-century BCE funeral towers in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site..

Though the extent of the destruction that ISIS has wrought is not completely clear given lack of access to the sites, ISIS’s own videos, some eyewitness reports, and aerial surveillance tell a horrifying story. 

One video, for instance, shows an attack on the ninth century BCE palace of the Assyrian king Asshurbanipal II in the city of Nimrud. With sledgehammers, bulldozers, and explosives militants are shown destroying wall carvings and then the walls themselves. 

Similarly, precious sculptures and frescoes in the museum in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, are ripped apart with jackhammers and axes. Books and manuscripts in its library are burned.

There is also evidence of at least partial demolition of king Sargon’s eighth century palace in Khorsabad and of the traditional site of the tomb of the prophet Jonah. In Syria, reports on July 3, 2015, statues from the ancient city of Palmyra were smashed including a 2000 year old statue of a deity discovered only in 1977. Battles in Aleppo have also damaged or destroyed ancient ruins there. 

What is the motivation for this wholesale war on antiquities? ISIS claims to be acting in the spirit of the Prophet by smashing images whose existence insults the one true God. ISIS fighters view this as the righteous battle against the sin of shirk, idolatry.

Though this destruction is appalling, it does have a long precedent in the history of monotheistic religions. Indeed this iconoclastic imperative goes back at least to the seventh century BCE.

The biblical book of 2 Kings reports that king Josiah, following the dictates of the supposedly newly discovered book of Deuteronomy, smashes all images of gods, obliterates their shrines, kills their priests, and outlaws all sanctuaries outside Jerusalem.

Centuries later early Christians, observing the ban on pagan cults, pillaged what was left of the temples in the Roman Forum and eventually quarried and recycled their stones for new construction.

And much later Protestant Reformers vandalized and denuded churches of their images in England, while revolutionaries in France transformed churches and cathedrals into warehouses and convents and abbey churches into prisons or barracks.

For ISIS, the tradition of Muhammad destroying the idols in the Ka’aba in Mecca comes to justify its recent actions. 

Yet it would appear that ISIS’s motives are not wholly pure. Sites are destroyed only after those antiquities that can be salvaged are collected as the spoils of war and eventually sold.   

In a not altogether different way, the Popes who denigrated pagan ways also saw themselves as guardians of Roman antiquities long before Renaissance scholars became interested in the classical past and modern archaeologists uncovered it.

Interestingly Saddam Hussein, in contrast to ISIS, saw himself similarly as guardian and heir, in his case to ancient Babylonia. In May, 2002 he petitioned the Pergamon Museum in Berlin to return to Iraq a tower of the Ishtar gate of Babylon, which had been taken to Germany by its archaeologists just before World War I!

Despite this historical context, however, ISIS policies differ in a dramatic way. In the cases mentioned above zealots go after the icons of those rivals they seek to displace. As Brian Graham puts it, “The physical destruction of heritage is a fundamental aim of war, repression, and eradicating a people’s claim to territory.”

By means of cultural cleansing a dominant group seeks to deny the legitimacy of its rival and destroy the evidence of its former presence.

So biblical ideology sought to displace the Canaanites, early Christians their pagan pasts, and Muslims the “days of ignorance” before Muhammad. And in fact much of ISIS’s devastation is directed against sites of Sufi and Shi’ite sects whose forms of Islam ISIS considers illegitimate.

Still, what is distinctive about the catastrophic ruination of ancient sites in Iraq and Syria is precisely that they are of ancient, long dead civilizations that present no threat, no rivalry to any version of Islam. This attack on the past appears calculated, like the beheadings and other gruesome acts, to stick it to the West and provoke a “bring it on” reaction.” 

Insofar as the archaeological work that revealed these ancient sites and artifacts represented a Western encroachment into and violation of Muslim lands, it must now be countered. The ruins uncovered must be annihilated and buried forever. 

If, as Peter Fritzsche explains, ruins give evidence of possible historical arcs foreclosed by defeats, ISIS’s destruction of them indicates its fear of imagining any future but its own. 


Reuters. “Syria: More Antiquities Destroyed by ISIS in Ancient City of Palmyra.” New York Times, September 4, 2015, Middle East.

Abdelaziz, Salma. “ISIS publicly smashes Syrian artifacts.”, July 3, 2015.

Choay, Françoise.  The Invention of the Historic Monument. Translated by Lauren M. O’Connell.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Fritzsche, Peter. Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History.Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 2004.

Graham, Brian, G.J. Ashworth, and J.E. Turnbridge. A Geography of Heritage: Power, Culture and Economy. London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000.

MacAskill, Ewen. “Iraq Appeals to Berlin for Return of Babylon Gate,”, May 4, 2002, World news.

Romey, Kristin. “Why ISIS Hates Archaeology and Blew Up Ancient Iraqi Palace,”
National Geographic, April 14, 2015.

Image: One of the online images released by Islamic State militants on Aug 25, 2015, showing the explosion that destroyed the temple of Baal Shamin in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Kyoto via AP Images)

Author, Robert L. Cohn, is Philip and Muriel Berman Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Lafayette College, Easton, PA. His areas of scholarship include Hebrew biblical narrative and the Jewish experience in Poland. Most recently his chapter, "Stony Survivors: Images of Jewish Space on the Polish Landscape," appeared in E. Lehrer and M. Men, Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland (Indiana University Press, 2015). 


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