The Assyrians vs. Daesh: An Introduction to the Battle for the Ancient World

The current political situation in the Modern Middle East put Antiquities on the map. The Ancient World trends on Facebook and Twitter thanks to ISIS’ antics in Iraq and Syria. Note that for the remainder of the article I will refer to ISIS by their true name “Daesh” (al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham). For those unfamiliar with the Arabic language, not only does Daesh stand as the acronym for ISIS’ official name, it also stands as a play on words that means “to crush” and “a bigot.” The way Daesh treats Antiquities in the Middle East certainly supports their role as an organization that has been crushing the civilizations of the past. In March, a video circulated showing Daesh members smashing Assyrian statues in the Mosul Museum. Later that month, they destroyed what was left of the palaces at Nimrud and Nineveh, two Assyrian capitals located in Iraq. Those who kept track of Daesh’s treatment of ancient sites knew that they planted land mines in Syria’s Palmyra long before the monument reached national headlines. Last week Palmyra became the site of the brutalization of an esteemed Syrian archaeologist, and the victim of extreme damage when Daesh finally pulled the trigger to destroy the monument the global community grew to prize. With the Ancient World suddenly at risk, I have to ask myself is the study of the Near East obsolete? How can we recreate and repurpose its narrative in spite of Daesh’s war of intolerance against the civilizations of the past?

BC societies present themselves as an enigma to the modern day beholder; based on conversations with peers the Modern Middle East is a region that is likewise often misunderstood. Friends, family, and classmates have asked me on multiple occasions why is Daesh waging war on the pre-Islamic civilizations? The answer is in the question: they are pre-Islamic. As an “Islamic” state, the leadership and members turn to the earliest adherents of Islam as their ancestors and the basis for their heritage. One of Daesh’s goals is to return the Middle East to the age of the Caliphates. Medievalists and art historians consider the age of the Caliphates when the Umayyads and Abbasids ruled to be the Golden Age of Islam, where scholarly and artistic productions flourished and the Muslim world overshadowed the Western world with its achievements. That statement basically sums up the Western perspective of the Middle East. It ceased to exist in our history books after the Mongol invasions until around the 1950s when Pan-Arabism threatened Western interests in the region, 1979 with the Iranian Revolution, and in the last 13 years with the rise of terrorist organizations.

Daesh’s control of territories in Iraq and Syria puts them in a unique position with regard to Antiquities and the heritage of the pre-Islamic past. They occupy the region nicknamed “the cradle of civilizations.” The study of the Ancient Near East can never be obsolete because while we may identify ourselves in the Modern period based on borders and nations, the civilizations of Mesopotamia laid the groundwork for the modern world. The peoples of Mesopotamia discovered irrigation to cultivate the land. At the Temple of Mari in Syria they discovered plumbing to create fountains. A stele now housed in the Louvre immortalizes the first code of laws produced by Hammurabi and smaller kudurus attest to the organized system of land granting established during the Babylonian era. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells the tale of heroes long before the emergence of Greek mythology, and temples stand as proof that the societies pondered the existence of a higher power. Daesh may turn to the birth of Islam as the beginnings of their culture and history, but the pre-Islamic world that once ruled over the territories they now control are part of the global community’s heritage. The Caliphates ruled over an expansive territory that stretched from the Mediterranean to Central Asia. Likewise, 1000 years earlier the landlocked Assyrians expanded their influence to the Mediterranean, into the Caucuses, and to the border with modern-day Iran. By waging war on monuments that stood preserved for over 2000 years before their rise, Daesh is not only destroying sites of global importance but they are destroying a legacy that they could have chosen to be a part of and drawn inspiration from.

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