Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-wzw2p Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-30T11:18:18.739Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

The destruction and looting of cultural heritage sites by ISIS in Syria: The case of Manbij and its countryside

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 November 2021

Adnan Almohamad*
Honorary Research Fellow, Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London, United Kingdom


The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) occupied the city of Manbij and its countryside from 23 January 2014 until 12 August 2016. During this period, the region suffered greatly as ISIS monopolized control and brutally imposed its ideology. Fierce battles were fought for the control of oil wells, bakeries, mills, dams, and power stations, all of which were sources of revenue. Antiquities were soon recognized as another potential income source. This article demonstrates the ways in which ISIS began to administer and facilitate the looting of antiquities through the Diwan Al-Rikaz. Within this diwan, ISIS established the Qasmu Al-Athar, which was specifically responsible for looting antiquities. Based on interviews conducted in 2015 and primary documents, this article studies the specific ways in which ISIS facilitated the quarrying and looting of antiquities in Manbij and the rich archaeological sites of its countryside. Further, by examining the damage at a previously undocumented archaeological site, Meshrefet Anz, the looting of antiquities under the direct supervision of the Diwan Al-Rikaz is studied. Using documentary evidence including ISIS’s internal documentation as well as photographs collected by the author between 2014 and 2016, the article demonstrates the methods used by ISIS, reveals its financial motivations, and bears witness to the damage done at specific Syrian heritage sites.

© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the International Cultural Property Society

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Adesnik, David. 2018. “Treasury Imposes Sanctions on Assad’s Oil Traders.” Foundation for the Defence of Democaries, Policy Brief. 7 September. (accessed 22 April 2021).Google Scholar
Al-Azm, Amr. 2015. “Isis and the Illicit Trade in Antiquities.” Islamic World of Art 1, no. 1: n.p. (accessed 22 April 2021).Google Scholar
Al-Azm, Amr. 2017. “The Importance of Cultural Heritage in Enhancing a Syrian National Identity and the Role of Local Non-State Actors in Preserving It.” In Post-Conflict Archaeology and Cultural Heritage: Rebuilding Knowledge, Memory and Community from War-Damaged Material Culture, edited by Newson, Paul and Young, Ruth, 91105. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Al-Tamimi, Ayman. 2015. “The Evolution in Islamic State Administration: The Documentary Evidence.” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no. 4: 117–29.Google Scholar
Beyer, Dominique. 2001. Emar IV Les sceaux: Mission archéologique de Meskéné-Emar Recherches au pays d’Aštata. Fribourg: Editions Universitaires / Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.Google Scholar
Brodie, N., and Sabrine, I. .2018. “The Illegal Excavation and Trade of Syrian Cultural Objects: A View from the Ground.” Journal of Field Archaeology 43, no. 1: 7484.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Caris, C., and Reynolds, S.. 2014. ISIS Governance in Syria, Middle East Security Report no. 22. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War.Google Scholar
Clarke, Graeme, and Jackson, Heather. 2016. “Evaluating Cultural and Ethnic Identities from Archaeological Remains: The Case of Hellenistic Jebel Khalid.” In Aspects of the Roman East. 78127. Vol. 2. Studia Antiqua Australiensia no. 7. Turnhout, Belgium. Brepols Publishers.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Clarke, G. W. et al. 1998. “Who Built Shash Hamdan Tomb1?Identities in the Eastern Mediterranean in Antiquity 11: 83158. (accessed 22 April 2021).Google Scholar
Cuneo, A., Penachoand, S., and Gordon, L. Barnes. 2015. “Update on the Situation in Palmyra.” ASOR Culture Heritage Initiatives. 3 September. (accessed 22 April 2021).Google Scholar
DGAM (Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums). 2013. “Detailed Report Documenting Status of Archaeological Sites in Manbij City and Surroundings.” 16 November. (accessed 23 November 2019).Google Scholar
DGAM. 2014. “Jebel Khalid in Aleppo Countryside Witnessed Serious Damage.” 10 November. (accessed 23 November 2019).Google Scholar
DGAM 2016. “Illegal Digging Continues at Various Archaeological Sites in Rural of Aleppo.” (accessed 20 November 2019).Google Scholar
DGAM 2017. “The Destruction of the Simbol Monastery by the Terrorists Gangs.” (accessed 23 November 2019).Google Scholar
Greenland, F., Marrone, J. V., Topçuoğlu, O., and Vorderstrasse, T.. 2019. “A Site-Level Market Model of the Antiquities Trade.” International Journal of Cultural Property 26, no. 1: 2147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hardy, S. 2015. “Conflict Antiquities from Apamea Do Not Finance the Islamic State: They Finance the Assad Regime.” Conflict Antiquities, 18 March. (accessed 22 April 2021).Google Scholar
Harmanşah, Ömur2015. “ISIS, Heritage, and the Spectacles of Destruction in the Global Media.” Near Eastern Archaeology 78: 170–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hutton, Jeremy. 2017. “Six Palmyrene Portraits Destroyed in Manbij, Syria: A Salvage Reading.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 377: 7184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Iqbal, Zafar, and Lewis, Mervyn. 2009. An Islamic Perspective on Governance. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jones, C. 2018. “Understanding ISIS’s Destruction of Antiquities as a Rejection of Nationalism.” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 6, no. 1–2: 3158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Keller, A. 2015. Documenting ISIL’s Antiquities Trafficking: The Looting and Destruction of Iraqi and Syrian Cultural Heritage: What We Know and What Can Be Done . Washington, DC: US Department of State. (accessed 22 April 2021).Google Scholar
Martin, M., and Solomon, H.. 2017. “Islamic State: Understanding the Nature of the Beast and Its Funding” Contemporary Review of the Middle East 4, no. 1: 132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Molist, M. et al. 2013. “Tell Halula (Euphrates valley, Syria): New Data from the Late Neolithic Settlement.” in Interpreting the Late Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia, edited by Nieuwenhuyse, O.P., Bernbeck, R., Akkermans, P. and Rogasch, J. Turnhout, 443–53. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers.Google Scholar
Newson, P., and Young, R.. 2015. “The Archaeology of Conflict-damaged Sites: Hosn Niha in the Biqa’ Valley, Lebanon.” Antiquity 89, no. 344: 449–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Speckhard, Anne, and Yayla, Ahmet S.. 2017. “The ISIS Emni: Origins and Inner Workings of ISIS’s Intelligence Apparatus.” Perspectives on Terrorism 11, no. 1: 216. (accessed 22 April 2021).Google Scholar
Turku, Helga. 2018. The Destruction of Cultural Property as a Weapon of War: ISIS in Syria and Iraq. London: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar