LONDON — Twenty-five prisoners with their hands bound behind their backs were lined up along a stage which had been constructed two millennia before. Stunning Roman colonnades in Palmyra, besmirched by the black flag of ISIS, bore witness as a row of child-soldiers simultaneously raised handguns until their weapons were level with the backs of the captives’ heads.
Video of the execution-style murders, published online Saturday, was just the latest sickening act carried out in the name of the so-called Islamic State. The barbaric cult has killed thousands and appears hell-bent on destroying some of the world’s most cherished historic sites, which are clustered in Iraq and Syria.
Earlier in the week it emerged that ISIS thugs had begun to smash the remains of the Semitic city of Palmyra, which stands in the ruins of modern Syria and can be traced back to the Neolithic era, thousands of years BC. Images posted online appeared to show eight statues from the most important classical site yet seized by ISIS being destroyed.
In the face of this destruction Britain will deploy a crack team of Indiana Jones-style rescue archeologists to help restore and protect antiquities in the cradle of civilization.
A specialist emergency response corps will be trained by the British to identify and protect the most valuable remains of early civilization using the latest archeological technology that can be deployed on site in disaster conditions.
Dr. Jane Moon, one of the few Western archeologists active in Iraq, has already begun to train local archeologists. Her team from Manchester University is one of just three foreign units operating in the country outside the safe haven of Kurdistan.
“Iraq is where civilization began; this is the country where people learned to write; learned to live in cities,” Moon told The Daily Beast. “I would never save a stone head over a real one, but people do need their heritage… It’s wonderful to see the British government taking an interest and investing some thinking power and resources in it.”
Those resources will be used to establish a cultural protection fund designed to safeguard the heritage of countries, including Iraq and Syria, where conflict and heinous acts of cultural destruction have damaged vital clues about the origins and development of humanity. Elite teams of rescue archeologists will be primed to enter damaged sites as soon as they have been secured.
The cultural savagery of ISIS, which is recorded on video and then sent around the world, has been the driving force in Britain’s decision to act. The photos posted online this week purported to show two men with sledgehammers wrecking statues that were taken from the ruins at Palmyra; it was unclear if the icons had been smuggled out by activists to preserve the priceless relics or whether looters were hoping to cash in.
Peter Stone, secretary general of Blue Shield—the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross, told The Daily Beast that looting was one of the greatest dangers to the exquisite archeological sites in the region. The dual ISIS approaches to ancient relics may seem diametrically opposed but a little well-publicized destruction helps to increase interest and urgency in the antiquities market, further driving up demand for the dwindling supply.
Stone welcomed an increase in well-trained archeologists in Iraq and Syria but suggested the fight back against looting must begin in the great auction houses of New York and London.
“Where we have to deal with looting is not there at source, but back at market in the rest of the world. The Sotheby’s and Bonhams, who claim that they are selling legal antiquities—the word illegal and illicit is up for grabs in a way, but what they are doing is creating a market for people to buy this stuff and at least a proportion is going back to buy the guns and ammunition that are perpetuating the fighting,” he said.
“We need to get those who collect antiquities in the rest of the world to realize what they are doing. Many of the people who are buying, and all of those who buy on the illicit antiquities market, if they buy stuff from ancient Mesopotamia, they are almost certainly helping to fund ISIS.”
Further details of the British government’s response to the crisis will be hammered out at an unprecedented cultural summit to be held this summer where representatives from the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, UNESCO, and the Red Cross will advise on the cultural fund, which officials said was likely to be delivered unilaterally by Britain.
“Recent conflicts, particularly in Iraq and Syria, have highlighted how vulnerable the world’s cultural heritage is and protecting that culture is a priority for this government,” said Britain’s finance minister, George Osborne, in an emailed statement.
A British Museum spokeswoman said the program “to establish a specialist corps or archaeologists able to carry out emergency heritage management” was already underway. The institution is working with museums in Baghdad, Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan, and Basra in southern Iraq to begin setting up the units.
Moon, whose current program in southern Iraq has been running for three years, said it was great to hear that further assistance was on the way, even if none of them were likely to resemble Harrison Ford. “If you knew my colleagues from the British Museum, they do not look anything like Indiana Jones!” she said. “I do know archeologists who you could compare to him but not any of the BM people, believe me—very much a suited bunch.”
Iraq was a world leader in archeology up until the Gulf War in 1990, when leading experts began to flee the country or cease working amid dangerous conditions. A quarter of a century later, most of the experts have died, retired or moved into exile.
“They desperately want our help,” said Moon. “We are so welcome there, it’s extraordinary considering all the things that happened. I wondered going back in 2012 whether we’d be welcomed back but they welcomed us with open arms, they can’t wait to get other foreign expertise in.”
Ground-penetrating radar, water sieves, and DNA technology are among the Western developments that can be shared with a new generation of Iraqi archeologists, who are desperate to preserve antiquities for their global importance but also local pride.
Peter Stone said it was extraordinary just how much significance was placed on historic monuments by communities, even when they were under terrible strain. The Blue Shield executive, and professor at Newcastle University in England, visited Japan in the aftermath of the Fukushima earthquake. In a village on the coast, where three-quarters of the buildings were destroyed, the community’s first request—once water and electricity were reconnected—was for their historic buildings to be restored. “That was their priority, their priority was re-establishing the footprints on the map for the rest of their community to be built around,” he said.
That, of course, is one of the reasons ISIS strikes against the cultural landmarks of the society they want to destroy. “Extremists don’t destroy heritage as a collateral damage, they target it systematically to strike societies at their core,” said Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO at a speech in London last week.
“This strategy seeks to destroy identities by eliminating heritage and cultural markers.”
She described it as “cultural cleansing.” Other analysts have claimed shock value is the real aim of ISIS destruction, which included drilling and hammering artifacts at the Mosul museum, now that their videos of brutal executions no longer secure as much airtime on TV news around the world.
The so-called Islamic State claims that the destruction is a continuation of the historical Muslim approach. “People worshipped idols in the past and they were destroyed and buried and then archeologists came along and they dug up that association with Allah… and put it on display,” Anjem Choudary, an ISIS supporter in London, told the BBC.
The treatment of cultural icons by the ISIS marauders does fit into a long history of destruction of vanquished peoples led by Islamic and Christian conquerors, among others. Stone said there were similarities with Pol Pot’s destruction of Cambodian temples, the Nazis’ burning of art and books, and the Protestant Reformation in England.
“It’s a difficult thing to suggest one group are a throwback to the past but some people within ISIS believe that what they are doing is correct for their religious beliefs,” he said. “Now I find that bizarre and amazing, but just as I would have found those Puritans in the New Model Army, who were whitewashing churches and lobbing heads off statues, equally bizarre.”
While the Puritans are now confined to the history books, Choudary warned that ISIS have only just begun their quest for cultural destruction: “I do believe that when Egypt comes under the auspices of the Khalifa there will be no more pyramids, no more Sphinx, no more idolatry in the public arena.”
We are going to need an awful lot of Indiana Joneses.