Constantine called for the desolation of pagan temples. Christian-era Egyptians defaced pharaonic monuments, and built churches in the ruins; Muslim-era Egyptians defaced the Christian churches in turn, and stripped the pyramids for stone to build Cairo. The Aztecs plundered Tula, to absorb the legendary Toltec prestige. The Inca plundered Moche sites for pornographic ceramics. The Mongols looted everybody in reach, and threw enough books into the Euphrates to turn the river black with ink. Mao had his Cultural Revolution, Lord Elgin burned the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing, the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Goths scattered the ashes of the Julio-Claudians and stripped Rome of its antique treasures, and Titus razed Jerusalem. The Islamic State’s ravaging of Palmyra and other ancient sites is part of a long and inglorious tradition.
This does NOT make it all right.
The declared motive behind all this vandalism-on-steroids is ideological, straight out of the Prophet’s playbook: to cleanse the Caliphate of all traces of idolatry and apostasy (Sufi and Shiite monuments have been major targets, not just pre-Islamic antiquities). It is abundantly clear, however, that the usual-suspect motives—power, greed, and terror—are more at the heart of these crimes against heritage. Behind the very public and propagandistic destruction of Roman temples, Sufi tombs, and Assyrian tells, the territory of the Islamic State is being systematically mined for archaeological treasure, to be sold on the black market to help fund the Caliphate’s war of expansion.
And a vendor, of course, implies a buyer. Shockingly, artifacts which almost certainly come from the sites looted by the Islamic State are already showing up in the antique shops of Europe.
Who would be unethical enough to buy into this evil business? Apparently, far too many are willing to hold their noses and slap their money down, and thus the trade in “blood antiquities” goes on.
As an archaeologist, I’m enraged by the destruction, not just of the visible monuments, but of the archaeological record, the incalculable loss of information that occurs when unexcavated deposits are ripped apart by treasure-hunters. But even more sickening is the use to which the proceeds will be put. Collectors and dealers in antiquities, snapping up these bargains, will essentially be investing in ISIS—and so, becoming complicit, not just in the devastation of a priceless heritage, but also in mass murder, torture, enslavement, and rape.