New Tool Maps Cultural Trail of Destruction Left by Islamic Extremist Groups

cultural heritage destruction map_0122
A screenshot of the Culture Under Threat Map, launched by the Antiquities Coalition. Antiquities Coalition

A new map from the Antiquities Coalition shows the destruction of cultural and historic heritage sites across the Middle East and Africa and plots the monuments still at risk from armed extremist groups in the region.

The Culture Under Threat Map was launched by the Washington, D.C.-based Antiquities Coalition days after news broke that Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery, St. Elijah’s, was destroyed by the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group. The monastery is the latest significant site razed by group: Last year, ISIS looted and bulldozed the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Khorsabad as well as the Temple of Bel, a key structure in the ISIS-controlled city of Palmyra, in Syria.   

Planning for the map began about two years ago and since then there has been a marked increase in the destruction of sites, says Deborah Lehr, chairman and founder of the Antiquities Coalition.

“We talk a lot about cultural heritage destruction, but it’s the visual aspects of it that captures people’s attention,” Lehr tells Newsweek. “It shows the scope of what’s going on.”

The map has different layers indicating areas under threat or control of militant groups; cultural heritage sites that have been attacked, targeted or destroyed; museums and locations of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Syria—five years into a civil war—and Iraq are the worst-affected countries, with angry clusters of red circles, used to denote destroyed and at-risk sites, overlapping each other on the map.

The map includes nearly 700 heritage sites in 22 countries, including 230 that have been destroyed or damaged. The Antiquities Coalition used only publicly available data, as it “didn’t want to create a map leading to archeological sites” for extremist groups, says Katie Paul, chief of staff at the Antiquities Coalition.

Cultural heritage sites in Libya and Yemen are also at risk, according to the map. In countries such as Libya—where British war graves near Benghazi were destroyed by Islamic extremists in 2012—and Tunisia, much of the destruction took place before the rise of ISIS, says Paul.

“[In Yemen] it’s a little complicated to discern the terrorism destruction versus destruction from collateral damage in war,” says Paul. A Catholic Church in Aden, southern Yemen, was destroyed by unknown “masked men” in September 2015.

As sites of historical and cultural significance continue to be targeted, damaged and destroyed, the map will be updated. But with estimates of as many as three to five million archaeological sites across the Middle East and North Africa, according to a University of Oxford project, it might be a never-ending task.

“The entire region is an archaeological site,” says Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition.

Join the Discussion