1. Iraq’s earliest Christian monastery has been destroyed by Isil extremists. Satellite imagery recorded by DigitalGlobe for the US-based Associated Press apparently shows the complete destruction of Mar Elia (St Elijah) monastery. This seems to have occurred in September 2014, three months after the site on the southern outskirts of Mosul was seized by Isil forces.
The monastery is believed to have been founded by Mar Elia in 595. It was severely damaged by Persian invaders in 1743 when the monks living there were massacred. The buildings were partially restored in the early 20th century. Some damage occurred during the 2003 Coalition invasion and the subsequent US occupation.
If the near-total destruction of Mar Elia is confirmed, 16 months after the event, it is worrying that it went unreported, since it suggests that other Christian sites may have also been destroyed without publicity. The Isil propaganda videos showing the destruction of archaeological and religious sites only began to be released in early 2015. Erica C.D. Hunter, a specialist in Eastern Christianity at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, describes the loss of Mar Elia as “another devastating incident of destruction of Christian sites in Iraq”.
The American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by Isil extremists in August 2014, wrote about Mar Elia for the Washington, DC-based Smithsonian magazine in 2008. The monastery, he said, was then being conserved “for future generations of Iraqis who will hopefully soon have the security to appreciate it”.
2. Debunking the ISIS Antiquities Funding Myth
Commentary by Kate Fitz Gibbon, December 6, 2015. Ben Taub’s New Yorker article, The Real Value of the ISIS Antiquities Trade, blows apart the State Department, Department of Justice, and Antiquities Coalition claims that ISIS is raking in tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of antiquities.
Some archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists have spoken out to agree with Taub: Neil Brodie and Derek Fincham have disowned the ludicrously exaggerated numbers claimed by federal agencies and appear ready to abandon the claim that ISIS is receiving significant funding from looted
Why promote this phony story in the first place? One obvious answer is that much ISIS funding is coming from illegal oil sales from captured infrastructure laundered through Turkey; distracting attention from ISIS’ illegal oil sales suits US officials concerned about diplomatic and military relationships in the region. Another reason is that it is expedient for anti-art trade activists to associate art dealers and collectors – and even museums – with the horrors of ISIS’ terrorist activities.
Both Fincham and Brodie refer to using phony numbers to influence public and government opinion. Fincham’s post entitled, Inflated estimates bring bad attention too, states: “These large estimates, which are perhaps meant to shift the needle of public action, may induce some to loot, thinking wrongly that there is a much bigger reward based on these reports. One hopes this would give pause to even the hackiest of art crime scholars.”
Brodie too acknowledges that the archaeological lobby has spun their tale of ISIS financing to further an anti-trade agenda:
“There is an opinion within the archaeological community that highlighting the financial importance to ISIL of the antiquities trade will make it an issue of national security and ensure a strong government response.”
(Brodie’s and Fincham’s comments about false appearances and overvalued antiquities echo what the Committee for Cultural Policy has been saying since last April. See, for example, Masterpiece Theater: Homeland Security Returns Antiquities to Iraq, April 1, 2015))
Other interests are certainly served by promoting a Big Lie. Archaeological hardliners such as the Antiquities Coalition have used the phony narrative about a 100 million to multi-billion antiquities trade to promote passage of H.R. 1493/S.1887, the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act. ISIS is a handy excuse for encouraging passage of this law that creates a new and unnecessary bureaucracy. The new committee could place blanket import restrictions on art from any country where there was civil unrest without input from all stakeholders. Although ostensibly proposed in response to looting in Syria, a draft law to create this new cultural committee was in the works before ISIS began its destructive campaign.
Why are State Department careerists and the Department of Justice so willing to promote the ISIS/antiquities myth? Why give potential aid to the enemy by distracting the press and the public from the real sources of ISIS funding? Brodie’s statement above is the key: “…highlighting the financial importance to ISIL of the antiquities trade will make it an issue of national security and ensure a strong government response.”
There is a long history of bizarrely exaggerated claims against the art trade, going back more than a decade. The media has failed again and again to question these dangerous fallacies, as Ivan Macquisten pointed out in his article Less box ticking, more research – the survey and statistics crisis. Macquisten uses the example of phony claims about a multi-billion dollar illegal antiquities trade to illustrate his article, saying that “Questionable survey marketing and lazy journalism threaten the media, public debate and the legitimate art and antiques trade.”
There is a hidden agenda behind adoption of a story that promotes the Big Lie of ISIS’ funding through antiquities – the denigration and destruction of the legitimate international trade in art. US energies should not be wasted against ephemeral enemies. We should aim – swiftly – against the real targets who are providing funding for ISIS.