This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

In 2015, the Islamic State (ISIS) attacked the 2,000 year-old Arch of Triumph in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria. This raised serious questions about what jihadist groups like ISIS were truly hoping to gain.

It is important to keep in mind the location of ISIS which is in both parts of Iraq and Syria. This region is one of the most culturally rich, with well preserved monuments of ancient history. One of the most notable of these heritage sites is the ancient city of Palmyra. As a result, the jihadist group was able to profit from the destruction and looting of these sites, selling artefacts from this region on the European and North American black market. By targeting these cultural sites, ISIS was able to benefit financially which, in turn, aided their wars and battles. The group was well-aware of the cultural importance of their location and utilised this to their own advantage. This targeting was not random nor coincidental, indeed, it was deliberate and strategic.

In addition to their location, this strategy of targeting cultural sites held a more vital significance. The more important driving force behind these acts of cultural destruction and looting was the ideologies that underpinned the efforts of jihadist groups like ISIS. These ideologies are dominated by thoughts of monotheism, Salafism (a movement that calls upon Muslims to return to original and traditional forms of Islamic practices) and the condemning of Shirk (the notion of polytheism and idolatry towards any deity other than Allah). These beliefs are hugely significant to discuss in order to understand why cultural sites are targeted by jihadist groups. This is because cultural sites like Palmyra exhibit archaeological evidence of a variety of religions. Religious buildings and iconography belonging to the Greeks, Roman, Persians and even Christians, were visible on the site; the space was viewed as one of the most religiously diverse in history.

As a result of its archaeological significance to all these religions, the destruction of this site – and others like it – is an example of a strategic attack against beliefs that go against Salafism, representing acts of Shirk. The symbols of various gods from different historical societies being looted, destroyed and often sold to aid war, is an ideological assault on other religions. Thus, the ideologies of ISIS appear dominant and a threat.

Overall, these sites are a source of income for the group. More importantly, however, cultural sites like Palmyra are viewed as symbols of Western and pagan religions and beliefs by jihadist groups like ISIS. These cultural sites being a target of destruction is a deliberate act of defiance, threat and ideological control in their region as well as the rest of the world.

By Mymona Bibi

Image: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images