The destruction and looting of art and historical sites in Syria is "the worst cultural disaster since the Second World War,” according to anthropologist Brian L. Daniels.
The human losses are devastating: At least 210,000 people have died in the ongoing battle between the Assad regime and the Syrian rebels. ISIS has joined the violence and exploited the instability in the country, taking control of large parts of northern and eastern Syria.
And now, in the unofficial war over Syria’s cultural heritage, art is the main casualty. As of September 2014, five out of six of Syria’s Word Heritage sites had been destroyed including Aleppo’s 12th century Umayyad mosque.
ISIS’ ruthless participation in the Syrian conflict only increases the danger to Syrian art and history: In ISIS controlled Mosul, Iraq, art, music, and history have been removed from school curriculum. In February, ISIS released a video of its fighters smashing ancient statues and artifacts in the Mosul museum in an effort to weed out “heresy,” prompting the UNESCO Director-General to call for an emergency meeting with the Security Council to advocate for the “protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage as an integral element for the country’s security.”
But war hasn’t been able to destroy Syria’s sacred music. Before the war began, punk rocker and photographer Jason Hamacher recorded some of the world’s oldest spiritual music for the first time, preserving it for antiquity. To learn more about how this drummer became an art preservationist in Aleppo, read Kimberly Burge’s “Songs Before the Cataclysm” (Sojourners April 2015).
While in Syria, Hamacher recorded an authentic Sufi chant, later included in his album, Ancient Sufi Invocations and Forgotten Songs from Aleppo:
In 2010, when Hamacher asked one of the Syrian Sufis who performed the chant what the song meant, he responded: “This is how we fight terrorism!”
A military-only strategy can’t stop ISIS, explains David Cortright in “The Power of Peacebuilding” (Sojourners April 2015). It will take a firm understanding of ISIS ideology, a renewed diplomatic push to end Syria’s civil war, support of grassroots movements in Syria, and much more.