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'It Isn't Just ISIS' lecture examines Near East cultural destruction

By Leslie King | Emory Report | Jan. 19, 2016

The sharp rise in looting and the destruction of antiquities in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and the ongoing civil war in Syria is the topic of a talk Thursday, Jan. 28, at 7:30 p.m. at the Michael C. Carlos Museum Reception Hall.

“It Isn’t Just ISIS: Cultural Destruction in the Near East,” a free lecture open to the public, will be presented by Melinda Hartwig, curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern art at the Carlos, and Hilary Gopnik of Emory’s Ancient Mediterranean Studies Program.

By some estimates, approximately $3 billion worth of artifacts have been plundered. Looters have broken into museums and left thousands of empty pits at archaeological sites.

The evidence of this is very clear both from satellite imaging and on-the-ground eyewitnesses. The destruction of archaeological sites, cultural monuments, and museums is unprecedented but particularly severe in areas controlled by the Islamic State.

Hartwig will discuss methods Egyptologists and other professionals are using to protect and preserve antiquities, and reduce looting at archaeological sites.

Archaeologist Gopnik will discuss the history of cultural heritage preservation and destruction in the Middle East, with specific reference to the recently damaged sites of Nimrud and Palmyra, and will suggest ways that the past can be protected.

“Combat damage from indiscriminate barrel and tunnel bombs and military road construction by all sides in the conflict, as well as massive looting and deliberate destruction of sites, has decimated the ancient and modern cultural heritage of Syria and northern Iraq,” says Gopnik.

Efforts to protect artifacts, monuments

Hartwig and Gopnik will describe success stories in which artifacts and monuments were protected from some of the damage.

They will also discuss what is being done now to protect this heritage, including what many organizations are doing to try to mitigate the ongoing damage; the compilation of “no-strike lists” of cultural heritage sites for the U.S. military and its allies; the assembling of databases of damage to help eventual reconstruction efforts; and training and funding efforts for cultural heritage workers on the ground in Syria and Iraq.

“[These workers] are risking their lives on a daily basis — some have already been murdered — to safeguard the heritage of their communities,” Gopnik says.

She notes that these efforts need public support, not just for funding, but also "to demonstrate that our own cultural heritage communities — including archaeologists, academics, museum professionals and members, collectors and the museum-going public — understand and support the struggles of our colleagues and friends in peril."

“Looting and the illegal antiquities market not only destroy our few remnants of past societies, they undermine the fundamental cultural identity of modern communities, and their effects will reach far beyond the loss of material things,” Gopnik says. “Identity, pride of place, ties to ancestors, and religious traditions are all irreparably damaged by the destruction of cultural heritage.”