In a cozy office, one wall covered with shelves holding an impressive collection of art books, the afternoon sunshine streaming through a small window, art history professor Brandelyn Andres sits at her desk. There is a neatly paper-clipped stack of students’ papers placed next to a generously pencil-marked desktop calendar. During a quiet stretch of office hours in the final weeks of the busy semester, I sat down with Professor Andres to discuss the so-called Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS and ISIL), and its destruction of religious and cultural sites, the impact of their actions on art history and the importance of the preservation of art.
In the last three years, the global community has seen an increase in the destruction of religious and cultural works of art in Iraq and Syria by this militant group. Since 2014, the world witnessed the looting and destruction of the Mosul Library and Museum, Mosque of the Prophet Yunus, Dura-Europos, Nimrud Palace, Temple of Baalshamin, Monastery of St. Elian, Mar Behnam Monastery, the Imam Dur Mausoleum, and most recently the Roman amphitheater and tetrapylon in Palmyra. IS claims the destruction of ancient sites and religious works are religiously motivated, but ancient artifacts and cultural treasures have disappeared into the international art market funding the group’s operations, suggesting ulterior motives in their efforts in destroying these cultural sites and the selling of antiquities.
Lacey Medina: Along with the destruction of other religious works, IS has destroyed historically significant Islamic work as well. Is the looting of cultural and religious art simply a way for ISIS to fund their operations or are they destroying these works as an attempt to elicit a reaction from the world?
Brandelyn Andres: I think it’s a bit of both; I always fall into this trap myself. We have heard they are looting these places to get things to fund and then at the same time they are trying to spread this religious message. When it comes down to it, I don’t think this damage is religious expression. I think it’s masquerading and expressions of dominance because this is a common warfare practice; to take away peoples’ culture and remove that sense of agency so that they are easier to dominate and control. In the end, that’s what they’re doing. It’s just the religion is a convenient disguise for that activity.
They want to get peoples’ attention as well. That’s what I think is really happening. Look at the practice of looting these objects and selling them. If they truly had an issue, they would not be selling them. They’re using them for profit, which to me indicates this is not necessarily completely religious space. I’m sure there’s some of that in there, but you can look throughout history and see all sorts of groups of people that use religion as a way to take power.
LM: Are there any online resources or print resources that are reporting on this issue?
BA: You know it’s hard to say because I see what comes across my sphere, but I’m not really out there actively looking for this information. So, there might be attention being given to it, but I really can’t say.
Architecturally, we don’t really express our religious views in that way anymore; it’s not something we think about now. What happens when more of those structures are gone?
The traditions are lost.
That’s the thing, too, I think people don’t realize. The practice of religion and the expression of religious beliefs, and the beliefs themselves, change over time. You take away those expressions and they’re gone. And I agree; we don’t see the same investment in religious artistic expression as we did in the past. Those soaring gothic cathedrals with the glass windows that told biblical tales, we don’t see that as frequently anymore, and I think it’s because there are other forms of communication available to us now. Back then that was it. They didn’t have the printing press, television and internet, so there are different modes of expression, but those historical ones are very important and we lose this [when religious structures are destroyed].
And I’ll say one other thing about targeting art. Art is very powerful. People know that, and you can see the ways in which art truly has power. For groups seeking power, it’s smart to target something that has that potential to communicate.
LM: Do you see an increase in digital cataloging because these structures are being destroyed? If [cultural and religious artifacts] are being sold on the Black Market, is it possible they won’t be returned to public viewing? Do you think there’s a sense of urgency?
BA: There’s not a lot we can do, but there is certainly an effort for people to do something. Art historians are not sitting by and throwing their hands up in the air, but again it’s very limited. There are a lot of strict rules regarding taking art work and cultural objects out of countries without permission. Even in times of warfare, we are ethically and professionally still held to those standards. What museums are trying to do is work together to get as much of this stuff out and to circumvent these rules; just to temporarily take work in. You’re not supposed to take work into your collection if it does not have a provenance or a record of where it’s coming from, and it’s very sensitive, for example World War II. All of the things that happened with art, people stole it, looted it -- it makes it even more sensitive. So these institutions are trying to take as much as they can into their collection to protect it. The issue is getting the objects out of Syria and these other places we cannot. For example, Palmyra and its architecture -- we can’t move it. There’s nothing we can do. In the end, the architecture that’s been damaged, all we have now is any sort of old photographs or old scholarship. Any sort of new knowledge we can gain from these structures is now gone. People are certainly trying to do what they can to protect these objects, but we can’t go in.
LM: I know it’s a big question, but why is art preservation important? Why is it important to do what we can to stop the further destruction of religious art by these groups?
This is our history. This is our culture. It’s not just Syrian history, or Islamic or Christian. This is a part of the cultural fabric of all of humanity. There are so many similarities in art in terms of the motivation for production, the messages these works are trying to communicate, and the ways in which they communicate it. You can’t really separate art out. It is all just a part of humanity. These objects, for example this minaret that dates to the 11th century; at the turn of the millennium, this structure was being built, and now it’s gone. Or the colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan that the Taliban blew up; a 175-foot tall sculpture carved out of rock is now gone. So especially now, in times of technology when we don’t write on paper, where we don’t communicate in these tangible ways, it goes away and what do we have left to speak to our history as humans? I’ve said this in class, this stuff belongs to us. That minaret belonged to all of us. We absolutely need to preserve and save these things. It teaches us about our history and our culture, and it speaks to a certain time and a place and it’s really hard to see those things disappear forever; this idea that some person or group gets to dictate what things stay and what things go. As a global community, we should care about all the things that are happening in Syria; the way people are being killed and the way these people’s culture is being erased in the way that it takes away our understanding of humanity’s history.