ISIS, Heritage, and the Spectacles of Destruction in the Global Media

ISIS, Heritage, and the Spectacles of Destruction in the Global Media

By Ömür Harmanşah

Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 78.3 (2015)

Abstract: One highly prominent aspect of ISIS’s program of destruction in Syria and Iraq that has come to the media attention recently is their program of cultural heritage destruction that took the form of smashing artifacts in archaeological museums, iconoclastic breaking and bulldozing of archaeological sites, dynamiting of shrines, tombs, and other holy sites of local communities, and burning of libraries and archives. In this paper, I focus on ISIS’s destruction of archaeological heritage. I argue that this destruction can be seen as a form of place-based violence that aims to annihilate the local sense of belonging, and the collective sense of memory among local communities to whom the heritage belongs. Therefore, heritage destruction can be seen as part and parcel of this scorched-earth strategy described above. I also argue that the Islamic State coordinates and choreographs these destructions as mediatic spectacles of violence aimed at objects and sites of heritage, and these spectacles take place as re-enactments or historical performances that are continuously and carefully communicated to us through ISIS’s own image-making and dissemination apparatus that increasingly utilizes the most advanced technologies of visualization and communication. I will also pose questions about the relatively weak responses from the archaeological community around the world that rarely went beyond the stereotypical expression of “dismay” to ISIS’s heritage destruction. At the same time, I will try to answer the why and how of ISIS’s dislike of archaeological heritage in the context of late capitalism.

Introduction: In a recent article posted on al-Monitor, Massoud Hamed pointed out that in its recent activities, the Islamic State (ISIS) is implementing a scorched-earth policy in north-central Syria, in the region of Kobanê and Tell Abyad, located west of the Euphrates and adjacent to theTurkish border. The area mainly comprises agro-pastoral communities with largely a Kurdish majority.The Islamic State militants are reported to have emptied and demolished towns in this region, and are now targeting the countryside: the Islamic State has been burning agricultural fields to devastate the landscapes of livelihood and the sources of subsistence for these communities. Scorched-earth is a harsh, deeply historical military policy that aims to annihilate entire landscapes of livelihood and to deny basic human right to live for local communities even after the battle is over.

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