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Mapping the Terrorist Threat to Middle Eastern Architecture

Culturally significant monuments and museum are being razed to the ground.

Last week, ISIS razed the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq. The St. Elijah monastery was 1,400 years old and stood in the South of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and a current ISIS stronghold. Unfortunately, it was just the latest casualty in the ISIS-led campaign to wipe out culturally and historically significant architecture in regions under their control; via The Associated Press:

Thus St. Elijah’s joins a growing list of more than 100 religious and historic sites looted and obliterated by IS, including hundreds of mosques, tombs, shrines and churches in recent years. The ancient monuments in the cities of Nineveh, Palmyra and Hatra are in ruins. Museums and libraries have been pillaged, books burned, artwork crushed.

The Washington, D.C.-based Antiquities Coalition, a group fighting to protect cultural artifacts and monuments around the wold, has been tracking such instances of “cultural cleansing” by terrorist organizations operating in the Middle East and North Africa. Using this data, they’ve now created the Culture Under Threat Map, which shows which heritage sites are under threat, and which ones have already been destroyed and damaged.

“Our knowledge of this problem is incomplete and often presented on a case-by-case basis,” says Deborah Lehr, coalition chair and founder, via email. “We wanted to create a visual representation of the full sweep of the problem—one that showed not only the extent of cultural crimes but also its intensity.”

Their map plots 700 museums (in yellow) and other architecture (in blue) designated as UNESCO heritage sites. The little red bulls-eyes on the map show the location of sites that were damaged and destroyed. This is architecture that ISIS and other violent groups have deliberately targeted since 2011, not collateral damage of the conflicts in the region. According to the coalition’s estimate, 230 sites have already been wiped out—including monuments from ancient, Greco-Roman, Islamic, and modern periods of architecture.

The map also shows hotspots where ISIS and other such groups have been particularly active, giving a sense of which sites in that vicinity might be under attack next. Here’s Lehr explaining via email why the threat to these monuments is a cause for global concern:

This brutal campaign not only represents an assault on humanity's shared cultural and religious heritage, but also damages the future foundations of peace, stability, and economic growth for countries that rely on their rich cultural heritage for a shared sense of national identity and for job creation and investment. Trafficking in stolen antiquities is also used to fund and fuel the terror campaigns of [ISIS] and other terror groups.

Complete as it is, the coalition map illustrates just a sliver of an incredibly huge problem. The heritage sites shown make up just a fraction of the 3-to-5 million important archeological sites in the region. “The ‘cradle of civilization’ is in imminent danger of destruction,” Lehr says.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.