Islamic State creates videos of its destruction of ancient artifacts in Iraq and Syria for the same reason it records beheadings and other killings: to sow terror.
That’s why Hilary Gopnik, who teaches ancient Mediterranean studies at Emory University, showed only a blank screen when addressing specific Islamic State acts during a discussion on the loss of antiquities Thursday night, Jan. 28, in a packed lecture hall at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.
Gopnik, who talked about devastation at the archaeological sites at Palmyra and sister city Dura Europos in Syria and Nimrud in the Kurdistan area of northern Iraq, said Islamic State isn’t flattening ancient wonders strictly out of religious fervor but for financial reasons. Those oft-played videos of Roman-era ruins exploding help create a black market for antiquities because potential buyers convince themselves that they’re engaging in historical preservation by taking objects out of the war zone.
“They want you to react by saying, ‘Wow, I wish it were safe,’ ” Gopnik said.
Islamic State has a system in place for licensing or contracting grave robbers and other black marketers to pillage archaeological sites, she said.
“We lose every bit of context,” she said. “Our knowledge of the past is gone, and that’s what we can’t afford. We care about knowledge, not about things.”
The results on the ground have been devastating. Palmyra, which was a wealthy, largely independent Silk Road trading outpost at the eastern edge of the Roman Empire, has lost structures such as a colonnaded road, a temple to the god Bel and a gate built in honor of the Emperor Hadrian’s visit in the second century C.E. The suspicion is that the famous funerary busts lining burial chambers are being smuggled out in what Gopnik called a “diaspora of stone.”
The full extent of the pillaging might not be seen on the black market for a decade or so, said Gopnik and Melinda Hartwig, who curates Egyptian, Nubian and ancient Near Eastern art at the Carlos and who spoke about the problem of grave robbing in Egypt since the Arab Spring five years ago.
Aerial and satellite images in Egypt, Syria and Iraq tell the same story of destruction: ancient sites pockmarked with too many pits to count where looters have dug in search of antiquities.
“The only antidote to destruction is the dissemination of information,” Gopnik said, pointing people to resources such as the American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives (www.asor-syrianheritage.org).
Some examples of historical irony or karma have emerged:
• In Nimrud, the terrorists are destroying the remnants of Assyria, which had its first capital there and which built the world’s first empire by practicing state-sponsored terrorism from the ninth to seventh centuries B.C.E., Gopnik said.
• Islamic State flattened Ashurnasirpal’s palace in Nimrud last spring, but it was only a reconstruction because the original site had suffered so much damage during European archaeological digs in the 19th century. The reconstruction had involved extensive mapping and surveying, so it won’t be hard to rebuild again, Gopnik said. “Yeah, it’s terrible, but it’s OK because we have knowledge.”
• Ancient sites make up only about 3 percent of the archaeological destruction wrought by Islamic State, according to the United Nations. Shia sites (39 percent) and Sunni sites (17 percent) account for most of what has been lost.
• When scholars from the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Center trained locals in Dohuk, Iraq, part of Kurdistan, on historical preservation, the trainees insisted on practicing their skills on the city’s Jewish quarter, abandoned in 1950. “They represent a time when we could live together,” Gopnik said the locals told their instructors.
The systematic looting took a human toll in August when Islamic State killed Khaled al-Assad, the director of Palmyra antiquities since 1963, because he refused to reveal where he had hidden treasures from the city’s museum.
“He died defending his site,” Gopnik said. “I don’t think I could have done that.”