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Here's A Look At Some Of The Ancient Sites Destroyed By ISIS And The Syrian Civil War

Years of fighting and the emergence of the fanatical militant group ISIS have taken a heavy toll on some of humankind's greatest treasures.

Posted on March 11, 2015, at 3:11 p.m. ET

Since unrest first broke out in Syria in 2011, fierce fighting has left the country as a shell of its former self.

Mohammed Eyad/AFP / Getty Images

More than 190,000 people have now been killed in the conflict, according to U.N. estimates.

ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP / Getty Images

Amid the chaos, groups like ISIS have arisen and made themselves known for their unique brand of barbarism.

Reuters Tv / Reuters

But the fighting in one of the world's longest-inhabited areas has also taken a huge toll on many ancient sites and artifacts.

JOSEPH EID/AFP / Getty Images

Here's a look at some of the treasures that have been lost to humankind because of the conflict.

1. Khorsabad

Roger / Via Flickr: 24736216@N07

A winged bull from the ancient Palace of Sargon in Khorsabad that now sits in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

The northern Iraqi village of Khosrabad sits on what was once the capital of Assyria, Dur-Sharrukin, built by King Sargo II around 721 B.C.

The site was home to a huge palace, the Palace of Sargon, which sat within the city's walls that enclosed an area about 5,250 feet by 5,471 feet, according to the British Museum.

Penn State University Libraries Architecture and Landscape / Via Flickr: psulibscollections

On March 8, 2015, Iraq's Tourism and Antiquities minister said his government was investigating if Khorsabad was the latest town to be targeted for destruction by ISIS militants. A Kurdish official said the militants had already begun destroying the ancient city.

ISIS deems ancient artifacts un-Islamic idolatry and has destroyed several monuments. It is also said to plunder antiquities from such sites in order to sell them on the black market.

"The world should bear the responsibility and put an end to the atrocities of the militants, otherwise I think the terrorist groups will continue with their violent acts," Minister Adel Shishab said.

2. Hatra

Suhaib Salem / Reuters

Iraqi children run in front of a temple in the historic city of Hatra in this 2002 picture.

The Iraqi city of Hatra, which lies some 180 miles northwest of Baghdad, was an important trading center during the Parthian Empire.

The town prospered in the first and second centuries as the capital of Araba, a semiautonomous state.

United States Forces Iraq / Via Flickr: mnfiraq

U.S. 3rd Infantry Division Soldiers tour Hatra on Sept. 18, 2010.

The city finally fell to the Iranian Sassanid Empire of Shapur I around 240 A.D., with legend saying the daughter of Hatra's king assisted in the takeover in order to marry the Persian leader, before ultimately being killed by him herself.

Formerly the "best preserved and most informative example of a Parthian city," Hatra was listed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.


This 2003 picture shows the court of the royal palace in the ancient city of Hatra.

The ruins of the ancient city, which once withstood attacks from the Romans, were destroyed by ISIS militants on March 7, 2015, according to local officials and the United Nations.

"The destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing underway in Iraq," read a statement from the director-general of the U.N.'s cultural body UNESCO, Irina Bokova, and Dr. Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri, director-general of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"This is a direct attack against the history of Islamic Arab cities, and it confirms the role of destruction of heritage in the propaganda of extremists groups."

3. Nimrud

AP Photo/American Colony Photo Department via Library of Congress

This 1932 photo shows a hill at the site of Nimrud.

The city of Nimrud, once the second capital of Assyria, was an ancient city on the Tigris River that was first settled around 900 B.C. in what is now northern Iraq.

Nimrud, or Calah as it was then called, rose to prominence after King Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 B.C.) chose it as his royal base and Assyria's military capital.

LEON NEAL/AFP / Getty Images

Thousands of carved ivories dating back to the ninth and eighth centuries B.C. have since been collected from the ruins.

Nimrud's temple library once housed many important religious and magical texts, as well as several important ancient treaties.

Reginald Campbell Thompson / Via

British crime fiction writer Agatha Christie once visited the site in the early 1930s, accompanying a team of archaeologists.

She described Nimrud as "a beautiful spot," according to the British Museum.

"The Tigris was just a mile away, and on the great mound of the Acropolis, big stone Assyrian heads poked out of the soil," Christie wrote. "In one place there was the enormous wing of a great genie."

"It was a spectacular stretch of country — peaceful, romantic and impregnated with the past."

AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris, File

In this Nov. 24, 2009 file photo, a journalist looks at an Assyrian statue in front of two Assyrian human-headed winged bulls at Iraq's national museum in Baghdad.

The Iraqi government said ISIS militants "bulldozed" Nimrud in early March 2015, in a move UNESCO described as a "war crime."

"I condemn in the strongest possible manner the destruction of the archaeological site of Nimrud site in Iraq," UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement. This is yet another attack against the Iraqi people, reminding us that nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in the country: it targets human lives, minorities, and is marked by the systematic destruction of humanity’s ancient heritage."

4. Mosul, Its Mosques, Its Museum Antiquities, and Its Books

ISIS released a video on Feb. 26, 2015, showing militants taking sledgehammers to ancient statues in a museum in Mosul, in northern Iraq.

"These ruins behind me are idols and statues that people used to worship in the past instead of Allah," a man in the video says.

"God created us to worship him," he says. "Him only — not some stones."

"Our prophet ordered us to remove all these statues as his followers did when they conquered nations."

Mosul's museums house relics and treasures from the Assyrian and Akkadian empires.

The city, which is under ISIS control, has nearly 1,800 registered archeological sites, according to the Associated Press.

Earlier in February, UNESCO voiced concern that ISIS militants had ransacked the city's museums, libraries, and universities to burn thousands of books.

UNSECO said the books had been "deliberately burned" in what may be "one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history."

Bokova said the book burnings amounted to "an attack on the culture, knowledge and memory" and was evidence of "a fanatical project, targeting both human lives and intellectual creation."


This 2003 photo shows Iraqis performing the weekly Friday prayer at Mosul's Nabi Yunes mosque, revered by Christians as the burial place of the biblical Prophet Jonah.

The militants have also destroyed several centuries-old mosques in Mosul, including places of worship that serve as shrines to the prophets Seth, Jirjis, and Jonah.

On Feb. 28, in the wake of Mosul's ransacking, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria by ISIS.

5. Dura Europos

DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d / Getty Images
DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d / Getty Images
DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d / Getty Images

This composite photograph shows the ancient city of Dura Europos, inside what is now southeastern Syria, in June 2012 and April 2014.

The thousands of pockmarks visible in the latter photograph are looter's pits that cover the entire 150-acre site.

"This unique Classical-period site, founded in the 3rd century BC and occupied until the 3rd century AD, demonstrates the diversity of the ancient Middle East," reads a statement on the looting from the U.S Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, an office within the State Department.

"One of the world's earliest churches was discovered here, as was one of the oldest preserved synagogues and numerous temples devoted to polytheistic deities."

Heretiq / Via

The town had been built along the banks of the Euphrates River and was ruled by the Macedonians, Parthians, and Romans before its destruction around 256 A.D.

The ancient synagogues excavated from Dura Europos include the “earliest synagogue we know of, except for the ones in Israel,” Susan Downey, a professor of art history at UCLA told Archeology Magazine.

This wall fresco, featuring the hand of God reaching out to the people, was excavated from the Dura Europos synagogue and put on display in Syria's national museum in 2002.

Reuters Photographer / Reuters

A report from Syria's directorate-general of Antiquities and Museums cited by the The Independent in February 2014 stated that heavy machinery had been used to dig up Dura Europos.

The illegal excavations "led to the destruction of 80% of the site as perpetrators are digging holes that can reach three meters [9.8 feet] in depth."

A 2014 report from the U.N. Institute for Training and Research found an armed gang of around 300 armed non-Syrians was mostly to blame for the looting at the site, less than a third of which had previously been excavated by archeologists.

Wall frescos, tiles, pottery, glass, silver and bronze coins, stone statues, and gold jewelry have all been ransacked from the site, according to the report.

"The looting has caused severe damage to the necropolis and to buildings within the city, thus devastating the site," the report found.

6. Mari

Jacqueline Poggi / Via Flickr: jacqueline_poggi

Situated on the Euphrates River near territory now controlled by ISIS near Syria's border with Iraq, the ancient Mesopotamian city of Mari has remains that date back as far as 3100 B.C.

The city once contained a palace with 300 rooms that belonged to a local king, Zimrilim.

Excavations on the site began in 1933, leading to the discovery of numerous paintings and artifacts.

This painting from a Mari royal palace, for example, now hangs in the Louvre in Paris.

Richard Mortel / Via Flickr: prof_richard

However, the greatest discovery unearthed at Mari were some 25,000 clay tablets written in Akkadian and featuring letters and correspondence relating to Mari's administration, diplomacy, economy, and legal system.

"Altogether the texts have extended the knowledge of Assyrian geography and history and have given a graphic picture of life of the period," reads the Encyclopedia Britannica's section on Mari.

However, the U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs also highlighted extensive looting at the Mari site, visible in these aerial photos from September 2012 and March 2014.

Digital Globe / Via
Digital Globe / Via
Digital Globe / Via

A February 2014 article in The Independent stated that an armed gang of 500 people had taken control of the site.

The looters had primarily focused on "the Royal Palace, the southern gate, the public baths, Temple of Ishtar, the Temple of Dagan, and the temple of the Goddess of Spring," according to a report by Syria's directorate-general of Antiquities and Museums cited by The Independent.

7. Tell Sheikh Hamad

Bertramz / Via

The excavation site known as Tell Sheikh Hamad, which lies on the Khabur River near the city of Deir Ezzor, sits atop of what was once the ancient Assyrian city of Dūr-Katlimmu, which was later known as Magdalu and Magdala under the Parthian and Roman empires.

From around 1350 B.C., the site functioned as regional capital of Assyria's western provinces and went on to serve as a crucial administrative center.

The U.S. Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs noted extensive looting in the site's citadel and lower town areas, as visible in these photos from March 2011 and March 2014.

Digital Globe / Via
Digital Globe / Via
Digital Globe / Via

A German team of archeologists from the Free University of Berlin that had been leading excavations at Tell Sheikh Hamad noted the extensive damage to the site as a result of the Syrian civil war.

"We appeal to the warring parties to preserve the rich cultural heritage of Syria and not to use it as a shield or deliberately destroy it," the archaeologists wrote.

8. Crac des Chevaliers

peuplier / Via Flickr: peuplier

The Crac des Chevaliers, originally constructed by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem from 1142 to 1271 near what is now the Syrian city of Homs, earned its spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List because of its importance as one of the most well-preserved medieval Crusader castles in the world.

The castle, originally known as the Castle of the Kurds, illustrates "the exchange of influences and documenting the evolution of fortified architecture in the Near East during the Byzantine, Crusader and Islamic periods," according to UNESCO.

This illustration from around 1150 shows how the castle's fortified walls helped it serve as a crucial administrative and military base.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

"In the history of architecture, the Crac des Chevaliers is taken as the best preserved example of the castles of the Crusader period, and it is also seen as an archetype of a medieval castle particularly in the context of the military orders," according to UNESCO.

In February 2014, UNESCO decried the use of Crac des Chevaliers for military purposes amid the Syrian civil war, warning such use "raises the risk of imminent and irreversible destruction" to the site.

The next month, fighting between rebels and government forces would take a heavy toll on the Crusader castle.

AFP / Getty Images

UNESCO later said the site had been hit by direct shelling and targeted explosions, as evidenced by these photographs taken in March 2014. There was also evidence of airstrikes.

Government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad seized the fortress from rebels as part of an effort to push them from Homs province and disrupt the separatists' supply lines.

Afp / Getty Images

The fort had been held by opposition fighters for years.

After the fighting at the fortress and the nearby town of Al-Hosn, images surfaced of regime forces raising the Syrian flag above the castle.

The full extent of damage to Crac des Chevaliers is not known.

9. The Fortress of Salah Ed-Din

Jon Martin / Via Flickr: memeflux

Another castle from the Crusades recognized on the World Heritage List, the fortress of Salah Ed-Din in western Syria was fortified as far back as the 10th century.

With its origins dating back to the Byzantine Empire, the castle underwent further transformations and fortifications in the 12th and 13th centuries by the Franks and then the Ayyubids.

DAVID HOLT / Via Flickr: zongo

It was later abandoned and remained unused for centuries, before restoration work began to salvage the site's structures.

"Even though partly in ruins, [the fortress] represents an outstanding example of this type of fortification, both in terms of the quality of construction and the survival of historical stratigraphy," according to UNESCO.

DAVID HOLT / Via Flickr: zongo

In June 2013, the site was among several in Syria listed as being in danger by UNESCO.

Thus far, it appears to have escaped the catastrophic damage inflicted on the Crac des Chevaliers.

10. Palmyra

JOSEPH EID/AFP / Getty Images

Described by UNESCO as an "oasis in the Syrian desert," the World Heritage site of Palmyra features spectacular ruins that were once a "great city that was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world."

The area around Palmyra had been occupied since prehistory because of its fertile landscape, but it later developed into an important staging post for trade.

The city came under Roman control in middle of the first century A.D., with its art and architecture influenced by Graeco-Roman, Persian, and local styles.

P Photo/British Official Photo

The ruined city was discovered by travelers in the 17th and 18th centuries, "[contributing] greatly to the subsequent revival of classical architectural styles and urban design in the West," according to UNESCO.

It was also captured by British troops from Axis forces during World War II in August 1941.

War has once again returned to Palmyra, however, with UNESCO warning in February 2014 that the site had been used as a military base during the Syrian civil war.

Such use contravenes not only customary international law but also the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.


Oxford University's Professor Emma Cunliffe, an archeology expert, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in September 2012 the site had been targeted.

"Unfortunately now it's been heavily damaged by looting, from what we understand, but also there's an Islamic citadel on a hill overlooking the Roman ruins, and that's been occupied by soldiers who have been shooting into the ruins to try and catch people," Cunliffe said.

"And there are tanks in place in large parts of the Roman city as well, so from what we can understand it's been quite badly damaged. And there are videos available on the internet now of statues and reliefs that have clearly been hacked off parts of the city."

JOSEPH EID/AFP / Getty Images

Columns damaged by artillery in Palmyra.

In April 2014, a New York Times report from Palmyra noted columns that had collapsed, as well as damage from shelling and bullets.

"A mortar shell left a telltale splash mark on the stone, without budging a structure that has stood for 2,000 years," according to the Times.

The report noted a boom in looting and grave-robbing at the site, but conceded that "compared with the wholesale destruction that was feared, the damage, for now, is minimal."

JOSEPH EID/AFP / Getty Images

This March 2014 picture shows damage caused by shelling on a wall in Palmyra.

11. Bosra

Jose Javier Martin Espartosa / Via Flickr: druidabruxux

The former capital of the Roman Empire's Arabia province, Bosra now sits in southern Syria, near the Lebanese border.

"Bosra survived about 2,500 years inhabited and almost intact. The Nabataeans, Romans, Byzantines and Umayyad all left traces in the city, which is an open museum associated with significant episodes in the history of ideas and beliefs," according to UNESCO, which lists it as a World Heritage Site.

Bosra, which has been occupied since the 14th century B.C., still contains a number of important remains, including one of the oldest surviving mosques and a huge Roman amphitheater, pictured above, which is surrounded by a citadel.

REUTERS/Wsam Almokdad

The damaged interior of Bosra's Omari Mosque, pictured in January 2015.

A 2014 report into the damage to cultural sites in Syria, compiled using satellite imagery, found that extensive fighting had taken place in the city, with many sites damaged and second century A.D. Nymphaeum building completely destroyed.

"Most damage appears to be from shelling or military-related activities. However, one location — the Roman Central Baths Complex — has clearly been disturbed," the report found.

The Omari mosque, which dates back as far as 702 A.D., has sustained damage to its roof and the buildings surrounding it have suffered severe structural damage.

Satellite imagery also showed the spectacular amphitheater and citadel has been used for military purposes, but the extent of damage to the site is unknown.

12. Ebla

Stijn Hüwels / Via Flickr: stijnh

Situated some 34 miles from Aleppo, the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Ebla, also known as Tell Mardikh, are currently being considered by UNESCO for possible inclusion on the World Heritage List.

Between 2600–2240 B.C., when the city was at its peak, it dominated northern Syria and served as an important center of agriculture, manufacturing, and trade.

Excavation at the site began in the mid-1960s, with archaeologists uncovering a citadel acropolis, private residences, and some 17,000 clay tablets, which provided researchers with a thorough look at life in Ebla.

NeferTiyi / Via Flickr: nefertiyi

U.N. researchers examining satellite records found "significant alterations have occurred at the site" and that "all of the legitimately excavated areas are heavily disturbed."

Looting is a problem at the site, as "the looters search for artifacts they can sell by tunneling into the site, but also come to the site to haul away carloads of dirt from inside the tunnels as it is ideal for making the ceramic liner for bread-baking ovens," according to the U.N.-linked report.

Heavy machinery has also been used at Ebla, with one excavated structure that was possibly part of a palace structure dating back to the Early Bronze Age being completely destroyed.

13. Aleppo


Aleppo is not merely the oldest city in Syria, but, as The Guardian recently noted, it may well be the oldest city in the world.

"The evidence of settlement goes back to 6,000 B.C., but excavations north of the city suggest wandering nomads made domestic camps here 5,000 years before that," Nick Compton wrote for the newspaper.

STRINGER/AFP / Getty Images

Still standing on a hill above the Syrian city is a 5,000-year-old citadel, which contains the ruins of mosques, a palace, and bathing facilities.

"The monumental Citadel of Aleppo, rising above the suqs, mosques and madrasas of the old walled city, is testament to Arab military might from the 12th to the 14th centuries," according to UNESCO, which placed the ancient city on its World Heritage List.


Throughout its lengthy history, Aleppo has been ruled successively by the Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mongols, Mameluks, and Ottomans, serving as a home to Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

Aleppo also successively withstood besiegement by the Crusaders in the 12th century, evolving into a crucial gateway between Europe and Asia. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Aleppo was the third-largest city in Ottoman Empire, dwarfed only by Cairo and what was then Constantinople (now Istanbul).

As recently as 2006, Aleppo was chosen as the Arab world's Islamic cultural capital, with Syria's then culture minister describing the city's historic role as "the main point of passage between the East and West."


Decades before the current unrest broke out in Syria, sectarian tensions were evident in the city.

In 1979, militants who opposed the majority Alawite government of President Hafez al-Assad killed around 50 military cadets, prompting the government to deploy a large number of troops to the city. Hundreds were killed in the ensuing crackdown.

JOSEPH EID/AFP / Getty Images

In 2011, as Hafez's son and successor Bashar faced civil unrest of his own, Aleppo gradually developed into a seat for opposition forces, with fierce fighting breaking out in the city in mid-2012.

The picture below, taken in February 2014, shows what years of battle has done to the buildings around the citadel, which is pictured on the hill to the right.


In May 2014, UNESCO described Aleppo as "seriously damaged," noting its use as a military base.

In December 2014, delegates at an international conference on threats to cultural heritage pleaded for a "protected cultural zone" to be established around what remains of important cultural sites in Aleppo.

"It is not too late to take action," UNESCO's Irina Bokova said.

It followed comments from Bokova in October 2012 on the fierce fighting in Aleppo, which she said had damaged several sites: "We saw damages to the Citadel in July and the souqs ten days ago, and the Umayyad Mosque, heart of the religious life of the city, one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world, is being severely endangered – the extent of which we do not know yet."

However, the Heritage for Peace organization, which documents destruction in Syria, notes that "large swathes" of the city are now gone:

"Parts of the historic souk were engulfed in a fire in 2012, the ancient citadel is pocked by shellfire, and the great Umayyad Mosque, considered one of the holiest places of Islam, has been extensively damaged in the fighting. Part of the outer wall was destroyed as combatants blasted a hole to gain entry, the inner walls are pocked by gunfire, at least one of the galleries and the library — home to thousands of rare ancient manuscripts — are burned and gone, and in April 2013 the ancient minaret was destroyed."

The photos below — from April 16, 2013, and April 24, 2013 — show the destruction of the mosque's minaret.


In 2014, U.N. researchers using satellite imagery found some 22 sites in the city had been destroyed, 48 had suffered severe damage, 33 had moderate damage, and 32 had possibly been damaged.

The citadel itself had visible structural damage to its stone cladding and walls.

ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP / Getty Images

Writing for The Guardian of his quest to determine the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Compton awarded the title to Aleppo in large part because of the threat it now faces and the fact that much of the work to preserve the ancient city "has gone up in smoke."

"It may be impossible to say with any certainty what is the world's oldest city," Compton wrote, "but for now it seems only right to give it to Aleppo, the oldest city currently being fought for and sacked, as all these cities have from the beginning."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.