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Cultural Heritage Falling Prey to Conflict

by AFP
The empty seat of a Buddha statue destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Shah Marai—AFP

The empty seat of a Buddha statue destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Shah Marai—AFP

Extremists have targeted heritage sites across the world, raising fears about the safety of priceless artifacts.

The fall to Islamic State group jihadists of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on Thursday has raised fears for the fate of the world heritage site and its priceless artifacts. The jihadists have become notorious for demolishing archaeological treasures since declaring a “caliphate” last year straddling Iraq and Syria. The U.N. cultural organization UNESCO has expressed concern that Palmyra could become the latest loss of world cultural heritage to conflict.

Following are examples of world cultural heritage targeted by Islamist extremists:


The I.S. has carried out a campaign of “cultural cleansing,” razing part of ancient Mesopotamia’s relics and looting others to sell valued artifacts on the black market. In a video released by the I.S. on Feb. 26, militants are shown using sledgehammers to smash statues in the second city Mosul, sparking global outrage.

According to antiquities officials, around 90 objects were destroyed or damaged, most of them originals. Thousands of books and rare manuscripts were also burned in February in Mosul’s library.

In July 2014, the I.S. rigged the Nabi Yunus shrine in Mosul—revered by both Muslims and Christians as the tomb of the Prophet Jonah—with explosives and blew it up. According to the Iraqi government, I.S. militants on March 5 also bulldozed and blew up Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian city south of Mosul.


Extremists have destroyed several mausoleums, claiming such sites go against their interpretation of Islam. In August 2012, Islamist hardliners bulldozed part of the mausoleum of Al-Shaab Al-Dahman, close to the center of the Libyan capital.

The demolition came a day after hardliners blew up the mausoleum of Sheikh Abdessalem al-Asmar in Zliten.


The fabled desert city of Timbuktu, named as the “City of 33 Saints” and listed by UNESCO, was subjected for months to brutal Islamic law. In June 2012, Al Qaeda-linked militants destroyed 15 mausoleums, important buildings that date back to the golden age of Timbuktu as an economic, intellectual and spiritual center in the 15th and 16th centuries, UNESCO reported. Reconstruction started in 2014.


In March 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of two 1,500-year-old Buddha statues in Bamiyan, after judging them to be anti-Islamic. Hundreds of members of the Taliban from across the country spent more than three weeks demolishing the gigantic statues carved into the side of a cliff.

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