In those areas of Iraq and Syria controlled by the Daesh, residents are furtively recording on their cellphones damage done to antiquities by the extremist group. In northern Syria, museum curators have covered precious mosaics with sealant and sandbags.
And at Baghdad’s recently reopened National Museum of Iraq, new iron bars protect galleries of ancient artifacts from the worst-case scenario, The New York Times reported on Monday.
These are just a few of the continuing efforts to guard the treasures of Iraq and Syria, two countries rich with traces of the world’s earliest civilizations.
Yet only so much can be done under fire, and time is running out as Islamic State militants speed ahead with the systematic looting and destruction of antiquities.
In just a few days last week, officials said, the group, also known as Daesh or Daesh, destroyed parts of two of northern Iraq’s most prized ancient cities, Nimrud and Hatra. On Sunday, residents said militants destroyed parts of Dur Sharrukin, a 2,800-year-old Assyrian site near the village of Khorsabad.
Islamic State militants have called ancient art idolatry that must be destroyed. But they also loot antiquities on a large scale to raise money, according to officials and experts who track the thefts through local informants and satellite imagery.
“Everything is dealt with for its value,” said Amr al-Azm, a former antiquities official in Syria who now works with the Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq Project, an international consortium. “If it has propaganda value they exploit it for propaganda. If they can sell it, they sell it.”
Archaeologists and preservationists, used to battling mundane enemies like weather and development, lament that in areas held by the Daesh there is little they can do but document the destruction.
“A fool criminal can come with one hit of a hammer and destroy all our efforts, and we can do nothing,” said Qais Hussein Rashid, deputy minister for tourism and antiquities. “It’s a great grief.”
Some have even called for airstrikes, not the usual province of Iraq’s cultural elite. Rashid and his boss, the minister, Adel Shirshab, both called for American-led coalition warplanes to strike militants approaching other historic sites.
On Sunday, the officials took their latest step in seeking designation of the ruins of ancient Babylon as a Unesco world heritage site, hoping for a measure of protection by the United Nations.
Yet the prospect feels like thin armor given the damage wrought to other Unesco designated sites, like Hatra in Iraq, and, the Krak des Chevaliers crusader castle and the Old City of Aleppo in Syria. Those Syrian sites are victims not of the Daesh, but of four years of conflict between government and opposition forces, who shelled them and used them for cover.
Now, Iraq’s cultural institutions are “on the front lines against terrorism,” Shirshab said, fighting a “barbarian invasion that is targeting our heritage.”
But Iraq, he said, has survived “many invaders.”
He was not referring only to Hulagu Khan, the Mongol conqueror who razed the world’s greatest library and some of its finest buildings when he sacked Baghdad in 1258. (At the time, Baghdad was the seat of the Islamic caliphate, while today the Daesh is merely a self-declared caliphate.)
There was also the United States invasion in 2003, when American troops stood by as looters ransacked the Baghdad museum, a scenario that, Shirshab suggested, is being repeated today.
The American invasion alerted archaeologists to what needed protecting. After damage and looting at many sites, documentation and preservation accelerated. One result was that the Mosul Museum, attacked by the Islamic State, had been digitally cataloged. Items not seen destroyed on video were presumed looted, and a list has been passed to law enforcement, said Katharyn Hanson, a University of Pennsylvania archaeology fellow working with the consortium.
Around 2005 in Syria, Azm helped start similar projects amid fears that country would face the next American invasion. But the work was never finished, said Azm, who now opposes the Syrian government and teaches at Shawnee University in Ohio.
He oversees an informal team of Syrians he has nicknamed the Monuments Men, many of them his former students. They document damage and looting by the Daesh, pushing for crackdowns on the black market. Recently, the United Nations banned all trade in Syrian artifacts.