Oxford archaeologists are working to document the damage to Middle Eastern heritage as Islamic State pictures purportedly show ever-increasing destruction. Dr Robert Bewley explains how this information about the world's most vulnerable treasures will be available to everyone. 


Above: Pictures said to be the destruction of Nimrud in Iraq by Islamic State

By Dr Robert Bewley 

The Middle East and North Africa are home to some of the world's most spectacular archaeological sites. From Palaeolithic flint scatters to great Islamic cities; the heritage of this region is under increasing threat from sustained population explosion, agricultural development, urban expansion, warfare and looting.

The Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East & North Africa project (EAMENA) is based at the Universities of Oxford and Leicester and funded by the Arcadia Foundation. Our team of specialists interpret satellite images and historic aerial photographs to record and interpret the sites and landscapes that are under threat across this region.


Above: The aerial view of 2,500-year-old city of Apamea in Syria in 2012 after sustained attack

An open access database will be made available via our website (eamena.org) to increase awareness of the pressures on the region’s archaeology. By working with local archaeologists and other interested parties on the ground we aim to improve the protection of these sites, not only for the present but also for the future. 


Above: Tranquil Apamea in 2003 before the onslaught

The project could not have begun at a more timely moment; threats to archaeological sites have been highlighted by the high-profile activities of the so-called Islamic State.  Through the careful and targeted use of social media and short videos clips we have seen explosions at some of Iraq and Syria's most famous sites. 


Above: Colossal statue of a winged lion from Nimrud, found in the nineteenth century

At Nimrud in Iraq, explosions destroyed elements of the North-West gate of Ashurnasirpal II. Nimrud was an important Assyrian city dating from 1220 to 600 BC, built by Shalmaneser I, and became the capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire in the ninth century BC. We have also seen the mindless destruction of the wonderful stone-carved winged bulls dating from 800 BC at the height of Assyrian Empire.

At the ancient city of Hatra, also in Iraq,  the removal of carved heads from the walls of buildings was well-documented and broadcast throughout the world.  Hatra was built in the third or second century BC, and became a religious and trading centre in the Seleucid Empire but under Parthian influence. 


Above: From the Temple of Nabu, taken from Nimrud in the nineteenth century 

At the ancient Roman city of Apamea in Syria the systematic looting, for artefacts to be illegally traded, has left a totally devastated pock-marked ancient city. 

Yet these are just examples of the very visible and recognisable tip of a huge iceberg of destruction of archaeological sites and landscape across the region.  We estimate that there are over 3 million archaeological sites from Mauretania to Iran, and high proportion are either under immediate threat or are likely to be in the future.  This is an inevitable consequence of population growth and expansion, as well as conflict and warfare.


Above: the ancient Roman city of Apamea which has been looted and used as a garrison in Syria

The story of the impact on the heritage of the Iran-Iraq war, which started in 1980 and lasted eight years has never been told but I am grateful to Dr Paul Collins (Curator for the Ancient Near East at the Ashmolean Museum) for the image of Tell Ubaid in Iraq (below), a site dating from the late third millennium BC. The deep scars visible on the photograph are for tank emplacements and the summit of the Tell was used as an artillery platform, to repel an Iranian invasion. 

The aim of the EAMENA project is to make a first, simple record of the archaeological sites in the region, before much more is destroyed.  Archaeologists are used to working with ruins and the remnants of the past that have been left from previous generations.  We do, also, have a responsibility and a duty to protect and preserve these fragile but hugely significant remains for the current and future generations to enjoy and study.  Many sites have been destroyed without anyone knowing of their existence, which is why archaeological surveys of the kind we are doing are so important.

Tell Ubaid

Above: The damaged site of Tell Ubaid, a site 6 kilometres west of Ur in Iraq, dating from the third millennium BC

Apart from the information we are providing we are also encouraging the current UK government to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.  This convention was adopted following the massive destruction that took place during the Second World War. It provides a system to protect cultural property from the effects of international and domestic armed conflict. Parties to the Convention are required to respect cultural property situated within the territory of other Parties by not attacking it, and to respect cultural property within their own territory by not using it for purposes, which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage during armed conflict.  


Above: The ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud was shown being blown up in April 2015 by Islamic State fighters

In June 2015 Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said:

'The destruction of cultural property in conflict is a global tragedy. The repercussions of this destruction last long after the end of war, slowing reconciliation and stabilisation, and leaving a scar across communities. The ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention demonstrates the UK’s determination to protect heritage worldwide. In announcing new legislation to take this forward, we send a clear signal to those who threaten cultural assets: your crimes will not go unpunished.' 


Above: Syria's Unesco world heritage site of Palmyra, one of the greatest sites from classical antiquity, which has purportedly been destroyed 

The information from our project is designed to be used immediately but it is also required in those countries where there are more pressing humanitarian needs now (Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen for example).  When these conflicts are over there will be a time of re-building and reconstruction, using the information we are now compiling.

For further information visit the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa Project website

All images supplied by AFP/Getty, Shutterstock and Dr Robert Bewley


By Mo Hammered

Not in my name

By Nicholas Mellor

The destruction of such sites is not just a cultural loss but takes away a foundation stone that is often overlooked when it comes to stabilisation and nation building.

Sadly in conferences on security and stabilisation heritage is often overlooked and yet we have seen how important it can be in building the peace in former Yugoslavia, as a driver of tourism revenue and as an icon of a new and better era.

We have never had such powerful tools at our disposal for documenting such sites - and that was really brought home to me recently in Libya as highlighted in this blog http://2020education.org/profiles/blogs/6610757:BlogPost:3811

By Agnes Thambynayagam

Dear Dr, Bewley, The Roman Empire expanded through out the world when Portugal and Spain established colonies in the fifteenth century. Pope Leo wrote to King Manoel of Portugal on 30 January 1515, “You will enlarge the empire and the territories of the Christian commonwealth” (Pope Leo X -1515; Para 3, line 7). Roman Empire fell in the mid seventeenth century when the Dutch and the North Europeans captured the lands from the Portuguese and abolished Roman Christian religion. The Portuguese as well as the Dutch and the North Europeans occupied North Africa and the Middle East. What happened to the buildings built by the Portuguese in the 15th, 16th & 17th centuries. The Dutch and the North Europeans also built buildings. These pillars look very similar to the 16th century pillars in Vatican. Are you correct in your dates when you say the Apamea in Syria is 2500 years old? Agnes Thambynayagam, St, Antonys College, Oxford (2003)

By Edward Buendia

I am an artist and experiencing this part of world is one of my bucket list. I am a fast drawer and my detail is extraordinary. It would be a honer to document these historical sites, with my art. How can I get involve? I am an alumni from Christ Church College.

By Annick Manco

It is heart-breaking to see such wanton, ignorant and brutal destruction.
Can nothing more robust be done to repel these IS forces? If oil money is financing these attacks and campaigns ( against people too, let us not forget it), cannot a boycot be organized?

By Jacquie Robson

Not in my name either

By Daud Khan

Destruction of these sites fills me with sadness. The fact that these wanton acts are done in the name of Islam sends shudders down my spine. How can anyone consider this a " religious duty"? Incredible !!!