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ISIS destruction of artifacts linked to group's end-of-times beliefs, KU expert says

Friday, February 27, 2015

LAWRENCE — Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, posted an online video Thursday of its militants ransacking Mosul's central museum and destroying priceless thousand-year-old artifacts.

The action has drawn ire from the international community, particularly anthropologists and leaders of the Association of Art Museum Directors, Archaeological Institute of America, Society for American Archaeology and the American Schools of Oriental Research.

John Hoopes, University of Kansas professor of anthropology, is available to discuss issues surrounding destruction of ancient artifacts. Hoopes researches ancient civilizations.

Q: Why would ISIS do things like this?

Hoopes: ISIS represents a group of radical religious fundamentalists who are certain that we are in the "end times" and are undertaking what they believe are fulfillments of doomsday prophecies. For them, the destruction of these ancient sculptures, artifacts, manuscripts and books is not only the fulfillment of commands to destroy idols but literally "the beginning of the end."

ISIS has been funding its operations in part through the sale of antiquities that can be stolen and easily transported. As priceless art treasures, they are sold to private collectors and dealers for huge sums of money. However, objects that are too large to transport become the object of destruction in order to demonstrate their devotion and commitment to bring about an end-of-the-world scenario.

Q: How widespread of a problem is it?

Hoopes: The looting of antiquities at archaeological sites is a worldwide problem. However, the destruction of museum collections of ancient artifacts is, fortunately, rarer. Museums have been targeted in Afghanistan and in Iraq, one of the worst episodes being the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad following the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

What is more difficult to control is the looting of ancient archaeological sites, especially the ruined cities of Mesopotamia, and the sale and destruction of objects from those places. ISIS is seeking to control all of what was once ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers that represents the "Cradle of Civilization," and to wipe out all traces of its history prior to the birth of Islam in the Medieval period (the seventh century).

Q: You said there is not enough public awareness surrounding this type of destruction. How would we approach a solution to stopping this?

Hoopes: Worldwide awareness and condemnation of the destruction of what is really not just the cultural property of Syria and Iraq, but also the world's cultural heritage, is the first step. Political and economic sanctions against ISIS would be next. An essential approach is to contain ISIS and prevent its ideology from spreading to a larger area. ISIS will soon occupy territory that includes the ancient city of Babylon, which has already had heavy impact from military activity. If ISIS gains control of Baghdad, it is likely that the Iraq National Museum and its priceless ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and other treasures will be looted and destroyed.

If ISIS ideology and political influence spreads to other countries, such as Jordan or even Egypt, an incalculable number of ancient sites and artifacts will be in grave danger. However, violent military solutions are likely to result in even more destruction of cultural heritage. It is a complex problem. Stopping people who believe that they are following commandments of the Prophet in fulfilling ancient prophecies of the end of the world and the destruction of civilization, thereby hastening the end of all humanity, is a cultural and ideological challenge.

For more information or to interview Hoopes, contact George Diepenbrock at gdiepenbrock@ku.edu or 785-864-8853.