The destruction of history (EPQ) 

Working title –

Analysing the safeguarding of historic sites in the Middle East and North Africa.

(looking at how areas and objects are protected and their historic significance) 


The MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa) is an area of dynamic heritage and culture. Home to “the cradle of civilization” the area saw the growth of the world’s first urban areas – influences are still recognizable in the 21st century. The artifacts from such civilizations are scattered across the globe in countless exhibits, galleries and places of worship. They are considered by many as part of their own cultural identities. Even those with no hereditary links have found themselves devoted to the conservation and protection of these ancient works of Art.

It is this personal connection which has now made these places targets for radical groups and disreputable governments. Following the rise and destruction of such organizations, within the last ten years, ancient sites have become battle fields for both physical and cultural attacks on national identity. Such attacks have become preludes to the eradication of their people; therefore the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime.

“It’s important for us to remember history, it’s important for us to remember that before the holocaust the Nazi’s raised Warsaw, before the killing fields of Cambodia they also destroyed cultural heritage, before the genocide in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia we saw absolute wantant, intentional destruction- intentional on both sides”  -Matthew Bogdanos, Author of thieves in Bagdad.

Map of MENA (Middle East and North Africa)

The Middle East has a diverse history, making a wide range of cultures vulnerable to the growing extremist groups now dominating much of the area. From byzantine to Roman; Egyptian to Assyrian, its geo-political position has allowed the Middle East to become a hub of trade for over 3000 year. There established trade routes provided Europe with spice and cloth form the Far East and Africa (being a ‘bridge’ to Asia). The confluence of the cultures over the millennia resonates in unique art and architecture found across the region. The most well-known influence from ancient history, the Romans (concentrated on the spread of influence and trade) built major cities along the northern coast, providing access to the eastern Mediterranean.

However in more recent times the Near Middle East has attracted the attention of 19th century empires – the building of the Suez Canal and the development of the tourist industry sprung an interest in not only trade but history and culture.

Since early exploration these archeological sites have been recognized for their global importance. These places have not only been unique examples of early civilization but have become test beds for new technology benefiting the global archeological community. The rates of discovery, mapping and standard of preservation have all been improved by technologies developed in places such as Cairo. Along with the use of new archeological technology, 21st century uprising have made cultural relics a target for modern warfare. In many cases, sites have been intentionally reduced to rubble.

Cultural heritage is found in many forms but is placed in three main groups by UNESCO; Monuments, Groups of buildings and Sites. For this study I will be looking at sites in MENA.

Sites – works of man or the combined works of nature and man, and areas including archeological sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view.

This study looks at why historical monuments are being destroyed and the difficulties in their safeguarding. With views from the world leading archeologists and international leaders who are dedicating their lives to the protection of these historic sites.

The Impact of ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as ISIL or ISIS) has followed a policy of cultural attack. Since 2014 the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq, Syria and Libya has seen the loss of at least 28 historical/religious buildings across Syria and Iraq.

Targeted by the Kata’ib Taswiyya unit (settlement battalions), churches, mosques, shrines, ancient and medieval sites are all marked as possible targets. This cultural culling is part of a fight against polytheism (worship of multiple deities) and the depiction of human form – both considered crimes according to Islamic law. As of July 2015 IS has taken control of over 2,000 archeological sites, leaving them at the mercy of the Kata’ib Taswiyya.

Areas of occupancy –

The area contains over 110 different ethnic and minority groups including the Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds and Cirtassians. Sharing a common anthropological ancestry they are collectively known as central or Levantine Semitic. Referring to their geological position it broadly encompasses the countries of Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey. Most of these countries have ISIL operating within its borders.

Within ISIL’s territories lies some of the world’s most valuable archeological findings and religious relics. The most valuable cultural sites are recognized by UNESCO world heritage for their significance and rarity. By looking at their historical and cultural significance we can determine or contrast IS’s Kata’ib Taswiyya response. The Preservation of these sites is held at the heart of UNESCO’s policies, established in 1972 in an international treaty ‘the convention’. 

UNESCO seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural Heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.”

However the protection under UNESCO can increase the risk of demolition. This attack is meant, in part, to shock western society, but is primarily part of an ideological battle. Other than a fight against polytheism many of the artifacts and sites were unearthed during the ‘golden age’ of archeology. This is to say that modern radicals now see these 3000 year old works of art as shows of western Supremacism simply because they were discovered by them. The display of Levantine relics in museums across the world, but especially in Europe, is results of this ‘golden age’ as Empirical nations spread influence into MENA claiming ‘trophy’ finds such as L’aiguille de Cléopâtre in Paris.

Between Syria and Iraq 10 locations are UNESCO world heritage sites, 9 are under ISIL control. Some of these structures are too late to save and many more are left unlisted.  According to their list of world heritage in danger (38 COM 7A.12) all 6 of Syria’s UNESCO sites are in danger. In order to protect these monuments UNESCO has put in place a series of laws, policies and appeals which are accepted by all reputable governments worldwide.


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