ISIS seeks to control the country’s future by destroying its Christian past.
Jan. 18, 1932. Dura-Europos, Syria. Block M8. Perched high above the Euphrates River, Clark Hopkins reflected on a momentous day of excavations in the desert of eastern Syria and penned the following in his diary:
In the fresco room in front of the tower south of the Main Gate the dirt came off one section and showed 5 people in a boat—2 standing below, one on a bed on the shore. Above, a god on a cloud...
Over the next three days, Clark Hopkins and Henry Pearson, professors from Yale University’s departments of classics and fine arts, would dig, scrape and brush away 1,700 years of the past. The cosmopolitan city of Dura-Europos, a fortified crossroads that connected western Syria to Mesopotamia during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, had already yielded abundant art and artifacts. But this room seemed unique. Working with their Armenian foreman, Abdul Messiah, the professors found that each wall of the rectangular room on this block held paintings: on one a shepherd with a flock of sheep; below this a male and a female figure near a tree and a serpent. Shortly thereafter, the first inscriptions were found amid the frescoes, one of which read, “Christ, remember me, the humble Siseos.”
Suddenly the paintings took on a stunning symbolism. That “god on a cloud” was not an image from Syrian, Greek or Roman mythology. It was one of the oldest depictions of Jesus Christ, seemingly hovering, arm outstretched, over a man in need of healing. Hopkins, Pearson and Messiah had uncovered the world’s oldest extant Christian church—dating from about the year 250.
They were looking at the only church walls to survive from before the rule of Constantine, opening a small window into the era before imperial support for Christianity, before wealth flowed into the church coffers, indeed at the exact time the emperor Decius was enacting the first general persecution of Christians. These four walls held the answer to a centuries-old question: Outside of the catacombs in Rome, what did early Christians paint on their walls?
During my years of writing a book about the excavation and interpretation of this building, there has been a distinct change in the questions people ask me about it. Until about a year ago, the main question was, “What new is there to say about such an old discovery?” But now the first question everyone asks is, “What has happened to the site—did they...destroy it?”
The answer to this question is both no and yes. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has certainly been to Dura-Europos in the past two years. The only reason they did not destroy the church is because they could not: its walls were removed by the Yale excavation team decades ago. Several of the panels remain safely on display in the Yale University Art Gallery. Similarly the synagogue discovered down the street from the church—arguably the most important extant synagogue from the ancient world—was removed decades ago and is housed, at least for now, in the National Museum of Damascus.
So ISIS could not destroy the monumental third-century Jewish and Christian buildings from this city. But satellite photographs from 2014 do show extensive looting of the site, which all but destroys it for future archaeological purposes. The Geospatial Technologies Project, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, performed a detailed analysis of high-resolution satellite imagery and found that “Dura-Europos has been subjected to extremely heavy looting. Inside the ancient city wall the disruption was so extensive that counting of individual looting pits was impractical.” As of April 2014, they estimated that 76 percent of the city had been looted, and this does not count roughly 3,750 individual looting pits outside the city walls. In one satellite photo from 2014, four vehicles were present in the otherwise deserted city, suggesting that looting was ongoing—a fact corroborated by on-the-ground reports.
At first glance, the looting of small artifacts might seem to run counter to ISIS’s tendency toward destruction. This seeming contradiction invites us to reflect on their cynical and shortsighted strategy for dealing with the cultural patrimony of Syria. On the one hand, ISIS has been intentionally destroying monumental forms of cultural property that are not seen to fit within their very constricted notion of Syrian culture. They are trying to control the future narrative of Syrian culture by eliminating the diversity of its past.
Dura-Europos had been a perfect signal of such diversity, with religious structures dedicated to gods that were Greek, Roman, Sumerian, Parthian, Palmyrene and Judean in origin. The Roman era of the city also showed extensive linguistic diversity. Although the Greek language retained its cultural dominance and Latin became an administrative language, the remains exhibited Hebrew, various forms of Aramaic (including Palmyrene, Syriac and Hatrian, from eastern Mesopotamia), northern Arabic and Iranian (including Parthian and Middle Persian). In terms of religion, language and culture, Dura-Europos was thus exactly the kind of tolerant crossroads that is unwelcome under ISIS’s ideologically strict regime. If large monuments had remained, they almost certainly would have been destroyed.
On the other hand, ISIS has not been destroying the small artifacts discovered amid Dura’s innumerable looting pits. Rather, they seem to be organizing the monetization of portable cultural property—pottery, statuettes, reliefs, coins. In other words, an image of a Greek god on a monument needs to be destroyed with a hammer and broadcast around the world by video. But if an image of a god is found on a small statuette, ISIS regards it not as an idol but as currency. And quite a currency it has become: Western intelligence experts have estimated that antiquities are the second-largest source of revenue (after oil) for the regime.
Such inconsistency with regard to cultural property shows that ISIS is likely not concerned about the long-term benefits of Syria’s rich and diverse heritage. Yes, portable objects can bring short-term financial support, but sending them all abroad means most are never coming back. And though broadcasting the destruction of monuments and buildings may bring a short-term boost in recruitment to their ideology, it undermines one of the best sources of long-term revenue for Syria, which is tourism to its many famous sites.
“One day, this conflict will end,” said Amr al-Azm, who used to work for the Syrian Antiquities Ministry, “and when it does, Syrians are going to need to rally around something in order to rediscover a common national identity.” But, he continued, “when your past has been destroyed, what basis is there for people to want to live together again?” This is exactly what ISIS wants to destroy—any historical foundation for cultural pluralism.
A Disappearing Past
The march of ISIS leaves a trail of unknown unknowns regarding the history of early Christianity in the rest of Syria. Archaeology in the region is one of the last remaining sources of knowledge about the formative centuries of the world’s largest religion, but those sources are being eliminated or otherwise removed from their archaeological context.
Prior to ISIS, the government of Syria actually had so many church mosaic floors from its countryside that it did not have enough museum space to display them. Mosaics that would have been prominently displayed in galleries of almost any other country were crated in storage facilities at the museum of Ma’arat al-Numan. And now during the current war, that museum—built specifically to house mosaics from the region—has been repurposed as a fortification and munitions depot. In June of this year, it was bombed, apparently by Syrian government helicopters.
Smaller, more fragile items will fare even worse. During the Dura-Europos excavations, a fragment of parchment was discovered that shows Greek verses of the Diatessaron (an ancient harmonization of the four Gospels popular in Syria). It remains the oldest manuscript fragment of that influential text, and among the oldest fragments of biblical texts from anywhere. How many more items like this have been ground to shreds during amateur excavations or sent off to careless collectors?
While the human tragedy of Syrian refugees justifiably occupies our attention—and nothing should distract Western Christians from it—the destruction and dispersal of Syrian antiquities tells a parallel narrative. We are losing irreplaceable opportunities to bolster and pass on the distinctive emphases within ancient Syrian identity: the focus on Christ as a physician of bodies and souls, the narratives of the Diatessaron and the apostle Thomas, the early and robust devotion to the Virgin Mary, the motif of salvation as a marriage ritual and more.
Previously buried images of Jesus’ walking on the water, David’s slaying of Goliath and a procession of veiled, torch-bearing women can draw us closer to ancient Christian faith from the eastern frontier of the Roman empire. We may even find, as I argue in my book’s conclusion, that the earliest securely dateable image of the Virgin Mary was misidentified in 1932 and has been hiding in plain sight at the Yale University Art Gallery. The Christians at Dura-Europos still have secrets to reveal about early Christianity in the East. But chances to access their particular form of Christian identity are slipping away.
‘The Cradle of Christianity’
Syrian Christians produced unique ecclesiastical offices and dramatic portrayals of saintliness, like Pelagia of Antioch and Simeon Stylites, the ascetic whose characteristic pillar was the center of a major pilgrimage complex from the fifth century onward. Earlier this year ISIS entered the church and complex, known as Deir Semaan (Monastery of Simeon), outside of Aleppo. While they apparently did not destroy the early Byzantine structures, stone quarrying and looting were reported. The Geospatial Technologies Project further noted that a satellite photo from August 2014 shows a large tent-like structure erected in the basilica of St. Simeon. Except for illicit excavation, it is difficult to imagine why else a large tent would be set up inside a Byzantine basilica during a war.
With such human and cultural destruction unfolding before our eyes, the temptation to despair is strong. Scholars of the ancient world usually lack the expertise to recommend policy responses to these crises. In lieu of that, several organizations have built up an impressive digital infrastructure for the organization and dissemination of information about Syria’s cultural property.
The French trilingual Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology is among the best databases, as is the English bilingual, multimedia resource Manar al-Athar, based at the University of Oxford. Australian Ross Burns runs the excellent Monuments of Syria website. Scholars from Spain have more recently started Heritage for Peace, an organization that leads clear discussions of cultural heritage issues and law. The U.S. Department of State has joined efforts with the American Schools of Oriental Research on the Syrian Heritage Initiative. Finally, Syria’s state-run Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums is mostly in Arabic but has snippets of news in English, too.
These organizations are playing a vital role by documenting Syrian heritage, so that its future can be rooted in the truth about its past. That past includes perhaps the most distinctive Christian culture from the ancient world. Syria has often been called “the cradle of Christianity,” since at Antioch the disciples of Jesus “were first called Christians.” And in Damascus, the apostle Paul made one of his most famous escapes from danger. Here in our own time, after 2,000 years of unbroken Christian tradition in Syria, both its people and cultural property are in dire need of salvation.