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CHICAGO – The fingerprint of ISIL has become easy to identify: Barbaric spectacles, made even more visible by prolific social media campaigns. We’ve seen it most recently in Paris, Beirut and Egypt.
Yet, ISIL’s brutal reach also extends deep into world history, as the group seeks to destroy the future of some communities and the past of others.
“ISIL is very deliberately targeting and destroying the most important cultural monuments of the ancient civilizations of Iraq and Syria,” said Gil Stein, the director of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.
For more than a year, ISIL has systematically destroyed ancient works of art in parts of Iraq and Syria, home to some of the world’s most valued archaeological sites.
“It is a form of cultural cleansing,” said Evan Ryan, the leader of a State Department-funded program tracking ISIL’s campaign against ancient heritage sites. “These sites have stood from millennia and now they’re being blown up.”
The artifacts that aren’t destroyed are looted and sold through middlemen to the black market, according to the State Department. They’re often smuggled along the same routes taken by refugees fleeing Syria.
“These items … are blood antiquities,” Ryan said. “They're actually financing ISIL's terror.”
ISIL refers to many of the artifacts as false idols and claims they are incompatible with their ideology.But Stein says that religious argument doesn’t hold up.
“No one's worshipped these things for [1,500] years,” Stein said. “They're viewed as ancient art…people don't feel any kind of religious connection to them.”
For some curators in the region, the effort to preserve the artifacts is matter of life and death. In August, ISIL fighters killed Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad after he refused to reveal the location of treasures in the ancient city of Palmyra.
“It cost him his life,” Ryan said. “… He really cared, and he felt this is worth protecting.”
By some estimates, the world’s stolen antiquities market is worth more than $2 billion. Even more disturbing is who the buyers are in this market, with the biggest purchases coming from the United States and United Kingdom, according to experts at the Oriental Institute.
“The people who buy it are driving the demand,” Stein said. “That demand is driving the looters.”
And it always has. Since the days of the ancients, conquering forces have looted and plundered. But the scale of ISIL’s so-called crusade is unprecedented.
“We have to recognize that it’s a political struggle,” Stein said. “ISIL is cloaking political ends in religious terms.”
What ISIL is doing in polarizing the world also makes deciding how to respond even more difficult, Stein says.
Now, the sacred monuments and art we use to remember our earliest history may be disappearing for good.
“Civilization …was invented in Syria and Iraq,” Stein said. “Destroying that is destroying our own shared heritage.”