In the foreword to Catastrophe: The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past, Gil J. Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, writes that “when we think of the awful consequences of war, the deaths of the soldiers and civilians always remind us that futures have been destroyed[.] But war in the third millennium AD has brought us an entirely new and different horror – the destruction of an entire past.”
In 2003, the world’s attention was focused on the looting of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad. The 15,000 stolen artifacts had, for the most part, been “scientifically excavated and carefully recorded and identified by trained professional archaeologists and museum staff.” Thus, there existed the scientific knowledge of their archaeological context, or a means to reconstruct “how an ancient civilization developed and functioned.”
Archaeological context refers to the “immediate material surrounding an artifact such as gravel, clay, or sand; its provenience or horizontal and vertical position within the material; and its association with other artifacts.” But once an artifact is ripped from the ground by looters and/or terrorists, context and association with other artifacts is irretrievably lost. In essence, the wholesale destruction of the artifacts being stolen or totally demolished results in a “creeping annihilation of an entire culture.”
As a result of the looting of the Iraqi National Museum, a web-accessible database was established to document the destruction and theft of the artifacts. The database is accessible here. Though “as many as 5,000 objects were reported to have been recovered[,]” other pieces will “remain difficult if not impossible to recover.”
Fast-forward to ISIS, that “JV” organization that Obama so nonchalantly dismissed. How is it being financed? What does an Islamic caliphate have to do with the wholesale destruction of historical and cultural artifacts? And are we seeing an instant replay of Nazi looting of museums less than a hundred years later vis-à-vis Islamic jihadists?
According to the Guardian, in June 2014, the seizure of 160 computer flash sticks that “included names and noms de guerre of all foreign fighters, senior leaders and their code words, initials of sources inside ministries and full accounts of the group’s finances” was a key discovery into the workings of ISIS.” Amazingly, in a mere three days, “ISIS [had] seized control of Mosul and Tikrit.” Before Mosul, ISIS cash and assets were $875M. After ISIS robbed banks and looted military supplies, total cash and assets rose to $1.5B.
ISIS’s massive cash flow comes from the “oilfields of eastern Syria which it had captured in 2012, the smuggling of raw materials pillaged from the crumbling state, as well as priceless antiquities from archaeological digs.”