Last May, Stefan Simon, director of the University’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, spoke to WNPR about the destruction of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra at the hands of the Islamic State.
Calling the destruction “a war on identity,” Simon said the extremist group’s actions can be seen as a cultural cleansing — something modern researchers do not yet fully understand. During a Tuesday afternoon talk for the U.N. Global Colloquium of University Presidents, Jason Lyall, director of Yale’s Political Violence FieldLab, echoed that thought.
One of the earlier talks in the three-day colloquium, Lyall’s presentation discussed the role of antiquities in modern conflicts, highlighting how the destruction and looting of artifacts can become a strategy of war. Before an audience of approximately 40 people, Lyall said that reframing these practices within the context of political unrest is necessary to understanding the way in which they function as tactical acts that serve a wider purpose in regional conflicts. Focusing on Syria and Afghanistan, Lyall demonstrated how recontextualizing the destruction allows a political scientist to approach an issue that had previously been confined to archaeologists and sociologists.
“I attended the talk because I’m interested in learning more about the intersection of insurgency strategies and cultural assets,” Hillary Lutkus ’18 said. “It was intriguing to hear Professor Lyall’s unique analysis of cultural and historical preservation through the lens of political science.”
Lyall made note of the numerous reasons a group might consciously choose to destroy or loot ancient sites, ranging from inflicting psychological shock to promoting state-building to selling antiquities on the black market for revenue. The destruction of a site, he explained, is not the end goal of violence; it is the means. Any groups — state, nonstate, rebel or terrorist — can engage in different levels of destruction according to their respective strategies.
However, after running word-frequency analysis on advocacy groups’ and journalists’ descriptions of attacks on the Islamic State’s actions, Lyall found the three most common descriptors — “wanton,” “senseless” and “barbaric” — all denied the intentionality of the destruction.
“It’s the framing of irrational actors trying to impose their own system of beliefs,” Lyall said of the media coverage. “There’s no strategy necessarily behind it.”
Martijn Vlaskamp, a postdoctoral researcher who is currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow at Yale, said he saw parallels between Lyall’s analysis and his own areas of interest. Vlaskamp specializes in the role of natural resources in armed conflicts.
“The looting of natural resources, like antiquities, influences conflict dynamics,” Vlaskamp said. “One political solution is simply destroying them, but countries can also impose sanctions.”
To illustrate the variety of variables that can influence why, when and where groups choose to destroy or loot antiquities, Lyall contrasted the treatment of ancient artifacts in Afghanistan and Syria.
For example, after destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, the Taliban actually made efforts to preserve the country’s cultural heritage, Lyall said, noting that the greatest threat to Afghan antiquities is the state.
With just two actors involved in the conflict and minimal looting, the Afghanistan example stands in stark contrast to Syria. Showing a map of the country’s ancient sites that have come under attack during the Syrian civil war, Lyall graphed the percentage of damage caused by Kurds, terrorist groups, IS and the current government of Bashar al-Assad.
The Islamic State — whose black-market antiquity sales generate millions of dollars of revenue, according to declassified documents from the Deir ez-Zor province — does the most looting in Syria, though media outlets often exaggerate the amount of damage caused by the group.
In one particularly prominent example of journalistic hyperbole, Lyall said, the Islamic State’s “destruction” of Palmyra actually left 80 percent of the ancient city intact. He noted that the group, rather than having fully destroyed the city, repurposed it, using the site as a stage for public events, such as executions.
Still, Lyall said, there are two main differences between modern cultural destruction and previous practices.
“One is social media and its impact,” Lyall noted. “ISIS is great on Twitter, and they can get videos up immediately. Two is the level of destructiveness we can now yield. In the past, it was possible to destroy these sites but that’s nothing compared to what Assad can do now.”