ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives Monthly Report (July 2017)

ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI)
Safeguarding the Heritage of the Near East Initiative

July 2017 Monthly Report

By Michael D. Danti, Marina Gabriel, Susan Penacho, William Raynolds, Allison Cuneo, Kyra Kaercher, Darren Ashby, Jamie O’Connell, Gwendolyn Kristy, Katherine Burge

* This report is based on research conducted by the “Safeguarding the Heritage of the Near East Initiative.” Monthly reports reflect reporting from a variety of sources and may contain unverified material. As such, they should be treated as preliminary and subject to change.

Executive Summary

During the reporting period, negotiations between the United States and Russia concerning de-escalation zones in Syria continued, with Russia taking the lead in the establishment of such areas. These discussions, as well as fluid cessation of hostilities agreements between SARG and Syrian opposition forces, resulted in a minor decrease in aerial bombardment of opposition-controlled areas, most notably in Idlib Governorate. SARG forces continued to target opposition held areas near Damascus. Heavy aerial bombardment continued ISIL-held areas of Syria.

Throughout the month, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advanced into the surrounded city of Raqqa from all directions, capturing dozens of neighborhoods. US-led Coalition airstrikes over the city resulted in extensive damage and high civilian casualties, raising concerns among reporting groups and local and international humanitarian organizations. The US-led Coalition confirmed at least one strike on a heritage site within the city of Raqqa. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that the SDF now controlled an estimated 40% of the city as of the end of the July reporting period.

While US-led Coalition operations continue despite contestations from the Syrian regime, Russia solidified its future holdings in the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin ratified an agreement with the Syrian regime that allows Russia to maintain Hmeimim Air Base in Latakia Governorate for the next 49 years with an option to extend. Russia has also sent its military personnel to police agreed-upon safe zones in opposition-held areas of Syria, despite several actors being involved in the agreement process.

Pro-regime forces captured additional territory near the Lebanese border in Rif Dimashq Governorate. Operations by pro-regime forces, including Hezbollah, forced Syrian opposition groups, including Islamist groups, from opposition-held areas along the Syria-Lebanon border near the Lebanese town of Arsal. Opposition forces and refugees were scheduled to be evacuated to northwestern areas of Syria, most probably Idlib Governorate using a similar process as was seen previosuly when opposition forces and civilians were evacuated from areas of Aleppo and Hama Governorates. Syrian opposition groups, made up of dozens of variations of moderate and Islamist opposition parties, continue to hold Idlib Governorate.

Idlib Governorate has seen a respite from SARG and Russian aerial bombardment as a result of de-escalation agreements. However, Syrian opposition groups Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (an offshoot of Al Qaeda-affiliate Nusra Front) and Ahrar al-Sham clashed during July in Idlib Governorate, forcing the closure of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing linking Idlib and Turkey. There are preliminary indications of increased risk for cultural assets in Idlib Governorate. Islamist groups, the most powerful forces in the area, appear to be in control of key cultural repositories. As these groups with large numbers of extremist foreign fighters become more invovled in local governance and extracting revenues, systematic cultural property crime will likely increase, as has been documented previously in ISIL-controlled territories where Natural Resource Departments were established.

In July Iraqi Security Forces backed by US-led Coalition airstrikes recaptured the remaining ISIL-held neighborhoods of Mosul’s Old City. On July 10, 2017 Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proclaimed Iraq’s victory over ISIL. IEDS are ubiquitous in the city in homes, schools, mosques, and streets used by returning IDPs. Many IEDs are rudimentary, pieced together as homemade explosives. This practice was previously used by ISIL in other recaptured areas including major cities such as Tadmor, Fallujah, and the towns and villages surrounding Mosul in the Nineveh Plains. Some experts estimate that the mines could take decades to clear. As the reporting period ended, civilians were still being found alive under the rubble of areas of the Old City. ISIL holdouts are still believed to be hiding in parts of the Old City.

The next objective for Iraqi forces will be the recapture of the ISIL-held city of Tel Afar, approximately 25 miles (40 km) west of Mosul. Iraqi forces are not anticipating as fierce a battle with the estimated 2,000 militants remaining in the city, as the militants are expected to be exhausted and discouraged as the group continues to lose ground in Iraq.[1] The liberation of Tel Afar will coincide with the release of much new information on the status of heritage sites in the area, as has been the case with Mosul. Cultural heritage sites in the city were targeted by ISIL for intentional destruciton in 2014–15, particularly sites affiliated with the area’s Shia population.

In Libya, on July 5, 2017 Libyan National Army (LNA) forces declared victory after three years of fighting with Islamist and militia forces allied under the umbrella of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. While oil production has climbed to over 1 million barrels per day, a liquidity crisis continues to grip the country, and customers must wait in lines for hours to make the small withdrawals permitted by the banks. This liquidity crisis poses a major challenge for the cultural sector. Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj of the Government of National Accord and the commander of the LNA, Khalifa Haftar, agreed to a ceasefire during a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, and stated the intention to hold elections in 2018.

Key Points

  • US-led Coalition airstrikes damaged the city wall of Raqqa, Raqqa Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0122
  • Hayat Tahrir al-Sham reportedly fired heavy weapons at Qal’at Harim, Idlib Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0132
  • The battle for Mosul damages the Old City of Mosul, Ninawa Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0065
  • New photos show graffiti on the al-Hadba Minaret and al-Nouri Mosque in Mosul, Ninawa Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0062
  • The aftermath of the Battle of Benghazi reveals severe damage to the Old City of Benghazi, including the Ottoman Municipal Building. ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0013
  • A Torah scroll, purchased in Zintan, Tripolitania, was recovered from two smugglers in Tunisia. ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0010


During the reporting period, US-led coalition forces carried out heavy aerial bombardment in Raqqa as the SDF captured dozens of neighborhoods from ISIL. The US-led Coalition confirmed that its aircraft intentionally struck two 25 meter-long sections in the ancient Rafiqa Wall in order to create new access points into the Old City of Raqqa (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0122 on pp. 13–24). US CENTCOM asserted that the strikes would help preserve the rest  of the wall by allowing the frontline to advance further into Raqqa’s Old City with lagging ISIL resistance. ISIL was believed to have taken up defensive positions behind the wall, which provided a convenient bulwark against the SDF. Ground combat subsequently occurred along three axes following the airstrikes, including in the vicinity of the Bab Baghdad gate and Qasr al-Banat. The next day ISIL claimed responsibility for a car bomb that damaged Bab Baghdad gate (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0127 on pp. 30–32). ASOR CHI remains concerned as to the use of heritage sites in the fight for the liberation of Raqqa.

As the fight for Raqqa intensifies, US-led Coalition and Russian airstrikes have damaged and destroyed mosques both in the city of Raqqa and on the city’s outskirts (ASOR CHI Incident Reports SHI 17-0126, SHI 17-0130, SHI 17-0138, and SHI 17-0139 on pp. 28–29, 37–38, 56–58). On July 25, 2017 DigitalGlobe satellite imagery showed the destruction of al-Safa Mosque due to explosives, likely the result of  airstrikes (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0139 on pp. 57–58). Analysis of satellite imagery shows that this mosque has been completely destroyed. No reports of this destruction appeared in the media, and US-led Coalition air support was active on the western front on July 24–25. On July 31, 2017 a suspected Russian airstrike completely destroyed al-Rahman Mosque in al-Khamisiyah Foqani (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0138 on p. 56). It is estimated that 40 percent of Raqqa has been taken by the SDF forces backed by US-led Coalition airstrikes. As the liberation of Raqqa continues, ASOR CHI anticipates more damage to mosques and other religious heritage.

ASOR CHI released an Update Report entitled “Update: Damage to al-Rafiqah Wall in Raqqa’s Old City by US-led Coalition Forces.” The report details the damage caused by two US-led Coalition airstrikes that breached the Old City wall in Raqqa. ASOR CHI remains concerned as to the ongoing military operations around the al-Rafiqah Wall and will continue to monitor reports of damage.

SARG airstrikes reportedly damaged four mosques across Deir ez-Zor Governorate (ASOR CHI Incident Reports SHI 17-0125, SHI 17-0129, SHI 17-0133, and SHI 17-0137 on pp. 27, 36, 45–46, 55). Most of the governorate has fallen under ISIL control as the group steadily lost territory in Syria and Iraq. Deir ez Zor will likely be the site of a major battle between the SDF, the Syrian Regime, and ISIL. On July 24, 2017 a SARG airstrike reportedly hit Sa’ad bin Mo’ath Mosque, damaging the mosque’s walls and contents (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0133 on pp. 45–46).

In Hama two mosques were damaged during the reporting period by reported SARG and SARG-Russian airstrikes (ASOR CHI Incident Reports SHI 17-0123 and ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0124 on pp. 25–26). On July 4, 2017 reported SARG-Russian aircraft fired on a mosque in the village of Abu Dali, Hama Governorate causing severe damage (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0123 on p. 25). This incident has not been independently confirmed. SARG forces were engaged in an offensive against ISIL at the time of the incident.

On July 9, Russia and the US announced a ceasefire and proposed de-escalation zones in western Syria during the G-20 summit. The zones to be established include opposition-held areas of Eastern Ghouta in Rif Dimashq Governorate as well as areas in Idlib, Latakia, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Daraa, and Quneitra Governorates.

Despite the ceasefire announcements, damage to heritage sites continued during the reporting period. In Rif Dimashq, two mosques were damaged after the ceasefire was announced (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0131 and ASOR CHI Incident Reports SHI 17-0134 on pp. 39–41, 47–48). On July 25, 2017, SARG-Russian airstrikes damaged an unnamed mosque in Arbin, Rif Dimashq (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0134 on pp. 47–48). The strikes damaged the bottom of the mosque’s minaret and collapsed nearby structures. The area of Arbin has recently been under heavy bombardment, but the Russian government has denied firing on Arbin.

In Idlib Governorate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (previously known as al-Nusra) and Ahrar al-Sham, a more conservative group that broke from Tahrir al-Sham, were fighting near Harim. Jabhat al-Nusra posted video footage of gunfire from this fight hitting Qal’at Harim (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0132 on pp. 42–44). According to medieval Muslim sources, the citadel was founded by the Byzantines. Conquered in 1098 CE during the First Crusade (1096–1099 CE), it functioned as an important strongpoint for the defense of the Principality of Antioch, a newly-founded crusader state. Recognized as a national monument in 1959, the citadel received restoration from the Syrian government in 1989. The citadel has been damaged by the ongoing fighting, but no major evidence of damage or destruction was confirmed by ASOR CHI during this reporting period.

In Homs Governorate, the Palmyra Coordination Committee (PCC) posted a photograph of damage to the ancient Ain Afqa Spring at Palmyra (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0128 on pp. 33–35). The PCC blamed the damage on the Russian forces, but did not specify a date for the damage. DigitalGlobe satellite imagery shows the spring was damaged between January 9, 2012 and May 22, 2015. ISIL took Palmyra and the surrounding area from SARG forces May 15–30, 2015. Russia entered the conflict in September 2015, and as such Russian forces are not responsible for this damage. PCC seems to have assumed Russian forces were responsible because of the heavy bombardment to remove ISIL in 2016 and 2017.

In Damascus Governorate, the 16th century al-Sinayah Suq was damaged when it caught fire (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0135 pp. 49–52). The fire reportedly originated in a shoe store located inside the market, and the extent of the damage is currently unknown. During the conflict, multiple suqs in Damascus have been damaged by fire, usually  as a result of faulty wiring, overloaded circuits, or other electrical problems. The cause of the fire has not as yet been determined, but it was reportedly not due to military activity. Sites such as al-Sinayah Suq in Syria, as well as similar sites in Iraq and Libya, remain at high fire-damage risks due to poor infrastructure such as faulty wiring and the lack of fire emergency services.


During the operations to recapture the western bank of Mosul, which officially began on February 19, 2017 and ended with the liberation of all of Mosul on July 10, 2017, much of the heavy combat was focused on the Old City of Mosul (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0065 on pp. 131–136). The United Nations estimates that 5,000 buildings were damaged and 490 were destroyed in the Old City.[2] As of July 12, 2017 ASOR CHI has assessed the damage to 64 heritage sites within the Old City of Mosul. We have noted 37 heritage sites that exhibit severe damage (60–100% damaged), 12 which have some damage (10–60%), 9 with minor damage (1–10%), and 6 with no visible damage (ASOR CHI Incident Reports IHI 17-0020 UPDATE, IHI 17-0048 UPDATE,  IHI 17-0051, IHI 17-0052, IHI 17-0053, IHI 17-0054, IHI 17-0055, IHI 17-0056, IHI 17-0057, IHI 17-0058, IHI 17-0059, IHI 17-0060, IHI 17-0061, IHI 17-0062, IHI 17-0063, IHI 17-0064, IHI 17-0066, and IHI 17-0067 on pp. 59–130, 137-142).

Emergency response and long-term reconstruction projects for historical and archaeological heritage may only move forward in lockstep with restoring basic human services and critical infrastructure. The United Nations has reported that of the 54 residential districts in the western half of Mosul, 15 are heavily damaged and at least 23 are moderately damaged.[3] An estimated 900,000 people of Mosul’s 2 million person population remain displaced. Of those displaced, around 200,000 now lack housing.[4] Reconstruction estimates reach upwards of 100 billion dollars with a time-frame of ten years to return Mosul to the condition it was before the ISIL occupation.[5] The Old City, with buildings dating back to the 13th century CE, was one of the hardest hit neighborhoods on the Western Bank. This quarter contains a dense concentration of both Islamic and Christian religious sites — most have been heavily damaged or destroyed. Through July 31, 2017 ASOR CHI reported 38 individual incidents of damage to religious heritage in the Old City of Mosul including mosques (24 incidents), churches (11 incidents), and shrines (3 incidents). Of these reported incidents, 16 were intentional destructions carried out by ISIL on Muslim and Christian sites during the occupation of the city and the other 22 were due to military explosives, possibly from shelling, heavy artillery, or airstrikes.

After the official end of the Battle for Mosul on July 10, 2017 damage still occurred in neighborhoods that had pockets of ISIL insurgency. One such neighborhood is located in the Hayy Nebi Jarjis, surrounding the Sheikh al-Shut Mosque (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0064 on pp. 128–130). After the official end of the recapture, this neighborhood continued to experience clashes between ISIL militants and Iraqi forces as one of the last holdouts of the militants. The forces used all types of military weapons to remove or kill the remaining ISIL members. This led to the complete destruction of the neighborhood, including the mosque.

Sheikh al-Shut Mosque with the dome and central part of the mosque still intact after the conflict ended (DigitalGlobe NextView License; July 12, 2017)

Part of the dome still visible after demolition (DigitalGlobe NextView License; July 27, 2017)

With the cessation of major hostilities in the Old City, Iraqi forces are clearing neighborhoods of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and mines. These forces, as well as civilian visitors to areas, have begun marking buildings with graffiti. Heritage sites, including Kanisat al-Sa’a, al Hadba Minaret, and the ruins of the al-Nuri al-Kabir Mosque bear such vandalism, including the presence of sectarian graffiti (ASOR CHI Incident Reports IHI 17-0052, ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0062 on pp. 71–79, 118–122).


During this reporting period, the Libyan National Army (LNA) declared victory over the Islamist and Militia forces allied under the umbrella of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. The Old City of Benghazi was especially hard hit during the conflict (Satellite Imagery and Geospatial Analysis). Both the imagery and preliminary reports from Department of Antiquities (DoA) representatives on the ground suggest that the damage to cultural heritage sites in the Old City is some of the most severe that has occurred anywhere in Libya since the outbreak of the revolution in 2011.

With the declaration of victory on July 5, 2017, a DoA delegation was allowed back into Benghazi’s Old City to start assessing damage to sites. The former headquarters of DoA is located in the Souq al Rabea, and the building was damaged during the fighting (ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0012 on pp. 159–162). The staff assessed the damage and recovered anything of value in the building. The Benghazi DoA storeroom in the Souq al Hout, the primary repository of antiquities in Benghazi, was damaged by the fighting, but the collection of antiquities was recovered intact and moved to a safer location (ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0014 on pp. 166–168). The last assessment carried out by the DoA in the Old City was to the Ottoman Municipal Building (ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0013 on pp. 163–165). The left wing of the historic building collapsed due to the fighting. ASOR CHI is committed to monitoring damage to historic buildings in conflict areas. The Old City of Benghazi is featured in the Satellite Imagery and Geospatial Section of the July 2017 Appendices (pp. 169–172).

Outside of the city of Benghazi, a mud brick dome of the al-Atiq Mosque in Awjila collapsed due to lack of maintenance (ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0007 on pp. 143–145). This mosque is considered one of the oldest mosques in North Africa, and dates to the 12th century CE. With the ongoing conflict, resources and protection for sites is limited, and maintenance for sites is also limited. The eastern branch of DoA currently has no operating budget, but plans to dispatch a team of architects, archaeologists, and conservators to Awjila once transportation can be arranged and covered.

DoA continues to work with the public to protect Libyan heritage sites. Near the cave site commemorating the birthplace of Omar Mukhtar outside of Tobruk, a local citizen discovered a new site dating to the Roman/Ptolemaic period (ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0009 on pp. 148–151). The Tobruk field office of the DoA responded to the report, recorded the site, and recovered the movable objects found on the surface. However, with limited funds, the protection of this site along with maintenance and possible excavation will have to be put on hold. ASOR CHI is committed to helping to monitor and protect newly identified sites in zones where there is limited funding to help protect and preserve the site.

The Municipality of Ghadames, the Center for Archaeological Research and Studies at Omar al Mukhtar University and the Oberlin College Archaeological Mission to Libya hosted a three day workshop to combat the illicit trafficking of antiquities with the support of the U.S. State Department. Representatives of different law enforcement agencies including the Libyan Tourist Police and Customs and Border Control worked alongside members of DoA, participating in mock-crime scene scenarios and discussion of collaborative ways to protect Libyan heritage.  ASOR CHI’s program was presented as a platform that could support this growing network.

Meanwhile, looting and trafficking of antiquities continues at a brisk pace. During this reporting period, ASOR CHI received three reports of looted artifacts being recovered (ASOR CHI Incident Reports LHI 17-0008, LHI 17-0010, and LHI 17-0011 on pp. 146–147, 152–155, 156–158). In al-Marj, local police found an ancient statue with modern modifications added to increase its value on the market (ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0011 on pp. 146–147). The ancient portion of the statue was found in Awlad Amr and dates to the Roman Period. Currently there is no information on a wider network of smugglers or people adding modern elements to ancient statues, but the DoA and ASOR CHI are committed to researching this phenomenon.

On June 16, 2017 the Government of Libya requested the United States to place import restrictions on Libyan archaeological and/or ethnological materials dating from the prehistoric to the Ottoman period. On July 19–20 the Cultural Property Advisory Committee met to discuss the request, and are still deciding on whether to pass the request on to the State Department. However, this request started discussion surrounding Libya’s Jewish population, many of which were forced to leave Libya in the 20th century, without taking their property with them. If this memorandum is passed, Libyan-Jewish-Americans will not be able to recover their property and transport it to the United States. The third episode of looting and smuggling in Libya this month included a Torah that was purchased in Zintan and smuggled into Tunisia (ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0010 on pp. 152–155). The smugglers, who were Tunisian, were caught before they crossed the border. The Torah is considered to be more than 100 years old, and therefore subject to the existing cultural heritage protection laws in Libya. The smugglers anticipated receiving a sum as large as 1,000,000 Libyan dinars if sold on the black market. ASOR CHI is committed to monitoring the looting and smuggling networks across Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

ASOR CHI released an Update titled “Update: The Status of UNESCO World Heritage Site Leptis Magna.” The report is the first such update since ASOR CHI began covering Libya as part of the new cooperative agreement with the US Department of State. Leptis Magna stands out as one of the largest and best-preserved archaeological sites in Libya. The site has largely escaped harm despite the ongoing conflict in Libya thanks to its geographical location and the protection of the local community. However,  threats remain due to unregulated development and the ongoing liquidity crisis.






ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives Monthly Report (June 2017)

ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI)
Safeguarding the Heritage of the Near East Initiative

June 2017 Monthly Report

By Michael D. Danti, Marina Gabriel, Susan Penacho, William Raynolds, Allison Cuneo, Kyra Kaercher, Darren Ashby, Jamie O’Connell, Katherine Burge

* This report is based on research conducted by the “Safeguarding the Heritage of the Near East Initiative.” Monthly reports reflect reporting from a variety of sources and may contain unverified material. As such, they should be treated as preliminary and subject to change.

Executive Summary

During the June 2017 reporting period, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) officially launched operations to recapture the ISIL-held stronghold of Raqqa. Iraqi Security Forces advanced in Mosul, entering the Old City, and conducted clearing operations in recaptured territories. As this reporting period was ending, military activity in the Old City was increasing as the final meters of territory held by ISIL were coming under fire by ISF and US-led Coalition airstrikes. Thousands of civilians were trapped in Raqqa and Mosul, raising concerns about the risks of high noncombatant casualties as a result of ongoing military activity and aerial bombardment. Cultural heritage sites in these urban environments sustained significant damage, and additional damage incidents appear to be inevitable.

Efforts to recapture the city of Raqqa officially opened on June 6, following months of encircling efforts by the SDF. US-led Coalition Forces conducted extensive aerial bombardment in support of these operations, resulting in extensive damage and reports of dozens of civilian casualties. ASOR CHI documented at least 15 heritage sites in Raqqa damaged since early June 2017. ASOR CHI remains concerned about the widespread scale of destruction as a result of intense aerial bombardment.

In Iraq, operations to recapture Mosul continued to inflict heavy damage to much of the Old City. As Iraqi forces approached the iconic al-Nuri al-Kabir Mosque on June 21, ISIL militants detonated fixed explosive charges, leveling the mosque and destroying the leaning al-Hadba Minaret. ASOR CHI collaborated with National Geographic on a report regarding the site’s importance, and what its destruction means to Mosul residents and other Iraqis. ASOR CHI also released an ‘Update’ on our website with a more detailed examination of the site’s history, as well as reflections on the damage. For some Iraqis, the destruction of the mosque marked a turning point in which ISIL conceded defeat. Like most ISIL deliberate destructions, the act may be interpreted as highly symbolic: ISIL destroyed the famed mosque complex from which ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his so-called caliphate. The destruction occurred just short of the three-year anniversary of this declaration of June 29, 2014. ISIL attempted to blame US-led Coalition airstrikes for the destruction, which is atypical of past ISIL intentional destructions. ISIL militants remained in the Old City as the reporting period ended, keeping Mosul civilians trapped amongst clashes and airstrikes. ISIL maintains a presence in several areas across Iraq, including Tal Afar, Hawija, and al-Qaim.

As other parts of Mosul’s Old City were recaptured, ASOR CHI analyzed new video footage and photographs of damage to area’s historic buildings, including several mosques and churches. In addition, a June 16 ISIL attack possibly further damaged the Mosul Museum. The building had already been heavily damaged by ISIL intentional destruction, aerial bombardment, and small weapons fire.

In Libya, ongoing clashes between armed groups continued to threaten heritage sites. Islamist militants opposed to the Libyan National Army (LNA) intentionally demolished several sites in Benghazi. Reports surfaced of damage caused by an Egyptian Air Force strike on an Ottoman period settlement located outside the eastern port city of Derna.

Key Points

  • Islamic factions are firing on Syrian-Kurdish opposition forces from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Qala’at Simeon. ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0112
  • Satellite imagery revealed damage to Syrian site of Heraqla concurrent with its recapture from ISIL by the SDF. ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0106
  • Caches of artifacts were discovered in houses in Mosul. ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0039
  • ISIL intentionally destroyed al-Nuri al-Kabir Mosque and al-Hadba Minaret. ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0045
  • Satellite imagery and news reports confirm damage to the historic Libyan city of Benghazi. ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0005


During the reporting period, Islamic factions including the Sham Liberation Organization (formerly al-Nusra Front) and Ahrar al-Sham shelled the villages of Basoufan and Bashmara from areas included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, Qala’at Simeon (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0106 in Appendix pp. 59–61). The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) forces returned fire, possibly damaging the site. As part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Qala’at Simeon falls under the protection granted by the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its Second Protocol, signed in 1999. Qala’at Simeon has been damaged by military activity on multiple occasions since the beginning of the conflict in Syria. ASOR CHI will continue to monitor damage to, and the condition of, St. Simeon, as well as to other UNESCO sites in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

In Daraa Governorate, frequent clashes and heavy aerial bombardment continued in parts of the Old City of Daraa and surrounding towns and villages. SARG forces dropped incendiary barrel bombs on two mosques. Al-Omari Mosque in Daraa (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0102 in Appendix pp. 41–49), and al-Rahman Mosque in al-Naimah (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0118 in Appendix pp. 99–101) both sustained heavy damage to their roofs and courtyards.

In Deir ez-Zor Governorate, where operations continue against ISIL-held areas, SARG forces struck four mosques (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0096, SHI 17-0103, SHI 17-0113, and SHI 17-0120 in Appendix pp. 17–18, 50–51, 79, 106), rendering all inoperable. On June 10, 2017, a US-led coalition airstrike hit a mosque in Mehaimda (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0105 in Appendix pp. 57–58), rendering it inoperable.

As the efforts to recapture Raqqa began, the SDF recaptured four heritage sites previously under ISIL occupation (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0094; SHI 17-0106; SHI 17-0109; SHI 17-0117 in Appendix pp. 12–14, 59–61, 66–68, 92–98). In late May 2017, DigitalGlobe satellite imagery showed the destruction of the West Palace of the Abbasid Palaces in Raqqa by heavy machinery. This occurred between February 3 and March 30, 2017. The reconstructed East Palace is still intact. The exact reason(s) for this destruction remains unknown, but urban encroachment/unregulated development has been ongoing in the area since 2011.

The site of Heraqla, located outside the city, was also retaken during this period. The Raqqa Department of Antiquities/Raqqa Museum used structures at this archaeological site for the storage of antiquities — this material was looted in 2013. DigitalGlobe satellite imagery shows that the remains sustained damage between May 31 and June 11, 2017, most likely from aerial bombardment. Heraqla has also sustained looting damage since before the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Archaeological sites in regions under ongoing military occupation are susceptible to various forms of damage ranging from military damage to looting to development. With its rich history from Roman and Early Islamic periods, Raqqa is no exception to this rule.

With the start of the operation to recapture Raqqa, several mosques were damaged by airstrikes. US-led Coalition airstrikes damaged three mosques (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0101; SHI 17-0104, and SHI 17-0119 in Appendix pp. 36–40, 52–56, 102–105), Syrian Democratic Forces damaged one mosque (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0114 in Appendix pp. 80–83), and two mosques were damaged by unknown forces, but possibly Kurdish forces backed by US-led Coalition air cover (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0107 and SHI 17-0108 in Appendix pp. 62–65). With the uptick in airstrikes, civilians are unable reach cemeteries located around the edges of Raqqa. As a result residents are beginning to bury relatives killed in the ongoing fighting in makeshift graveyards inside the al-Qadim Mosque as well as at Qasr al-Banat (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0110 and ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0111 in Appendix pp. 69–73).


On June 21, 2017 ISIL blew up the historic al-Nuri al-Kabir Mosque and al-Hadba Minaret (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0045 in Appendix pp. 133–151) as Iraqi forces were closing in on the mosque, considered the center of ISIL’s caliphate in Iraq. ISIL was quick to post statements to its own media outlet that blamed the US-led Coalition for the destruction. The US-led Coalition and ISF both reported that there were no aircraft in the area of the mosque at the time of its destruction. Video footage released by the ISF shows the demolition of the mosque, with the explosion originating inside the mosque and minaret. Various independent reports note that ISIL had planted explosives in the mosque and minaret several weeks prior to the destruction. The mosque was officially recaptured by the ISF on June 29, 2017.

The ongoing fighting in Mosul has resulted in the liberation of more neighborhoods in the Old City, where many of the city’s churches are located. Four churches were reported liberated in the June reporting period (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0046; IHI 17-0047; IHI 17-0049; IHI 17-0050 in Appendix pp. 152–164, 169–175). Many of the churches had been heavily damaged in the ongoing fighting, and some had sustained intentional destruction and vandalism by ISIL. Other churches were repurposed by ISIL and used as court buildings or prisons. New evidence suggests that Mar Ephraim Church was used as a detention center for Yezidi women and girls before they were sold into sexual slavery (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0040 in Appendix pp. 115–118). Reports claim that once ISIL had stopped using the building, they either sold it or were preparing to destroy it. New information on Mariam al-Azra Church shows that ISIL sold the church, as the group ran out of funds, and contractors began to dismantle it to sell the steel beams (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0038 in Appendix pp. 108–111). Other intentional destruction by ISIL appears to have been planned but never carried out inside the Church of Mar Thomas, where columns were marked to show where explosives would have been placed (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0047 in Appendix pp. 155–164).

As the ISF cleared houses in Mosul, they have uncovered caches of artifacts (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0039 in Appendix pp. 112-114). One such cache included material belonging to the Museum of Natural History at Mosul University, as well as a few books. An ASOR CHI in-country source hypothesizes that these books, as they are not from the museum, were brought into the house separately, and this house may have been used to store artifacts prior to sale/smuggling. Other reports from this period state that ISIL is leaving behind these caches of artifacts, either from the Mosul Museum or local sites, as they flee Mosul. ASOR CHI continues to monitor the reports of discovered caches, and remains concerned as to the security of such artifacts in Mosul and the surrounding areas. We also would emphasize that such abandoned material represent “leftover” cultural property, antiquities, and art that has failed to sell during the ISIL occupation and was deemed too low in value for removal by ISIL operatives evacuating the city. We have noted similar caches of low-monetary value “leftovers” in other parts of Iraq and Syria. Concomitantly, such material is not representative of the cultural property, antiquities, and art that ASOR CHI has documented on the antiquities market linked to ISIL and other groups.


During the reporting period, the Libyan National Army (LNA) expressed its intention to rid the Souq al Hout neighborhood in Benghazi of militants affiliated with the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries during the month of Ramadan. In preparation for this anticipated attack, militants appear to have demolished the Benghazi Courthouse Complex, al-Ummah Bank, the Post Office, and the Souq al-Rabea to make the adjacent streets less passable and to secure their entrenched positions (ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0005 in Appendix pp. 180–181). These buildings date from 1911–1947, and were some of the more notable sites in Benghazi. DigitalGlobe satellite imagery from June 10, 2017 shows the strategic demolition of portions of each of the buildings within the Souq al-Hout. The street-facing sides of buildings were destroyed, with debris falling into the street, in order to block movement by the LNA.

An Egyptian Air Force strike on May 27, 2017 struck the Ottoman period-fortified settlement outside Derna (ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0006 in Appendix pp. 176–179). This strike was in retaliation for the death of Coptic Christians on May 26, 2017. Both the Libyan National Army and the Egyptian Air Force targeted this site in 2015. DigitalGlobe satellite imagery shows the site has also been damaged by large heavy machinery and an earthworks project occurring between October 8, 2016 and January 30, 2017. This site has been damaged both by military activity and development over the course of the Libyan conflict. This pattern is emerging across Syria, Iraq, and Libya — as places are liberated and life starts to return to normal, development encroaches on historical and archaeological sites. ASOR CHI will continue to monitor these patterns across the region.

ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives Monthly Report (May 2017)

ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI)
Safeguarding the Heritage of the Near East Initiative

May 2017 Monthly Report

By Michael D. Danti, Marina Gabriel, Susan Penacho, William Raynolds, Allison Cuneo, Kyra Kaercher, Darren Ashby

* This report is based on research conducted by the “Safeguarding the Heritage of the Near East Initiative.” Monthly reports reflect reporting from a variety of sources and may contain unverified material. As such, they should be treated as preliminary and subject to change.

Executive Summary

During the May 2017 reporting period, zones of military control in northern Syria and northern Iraq significantly shifted following heavy combat operations and intense aerial bombardment. SARG forces recaptured territory from opposition forces in Syria, while Iraqi Security Forces regained significant areas from ISIL. The intense combat kinetics resulted in damage to cultural assets, and the fluid situation complicated emergency response efforts across a large, heavily populated area. Ultimately, ISIL’s diminishing operational capacities and territorial control will strengthen and enhance regional cultural property protection and heritage management efforts.

Iraqi Security Forces continued their push to reclaim the remaining ISIL-controlled neighborhoods in the city of Mosul, including the historically significant Old City. Civilian casualties in Mosul were significantly elevated, and media outlets and humanitarian observers revealed that ISIL fighters continued to target evacuating noncombatants. As ISIL has lost territory in northern Iraq, we have noted an increase in acts of retributory violence perpetrated by retreating ISIL extremists against the local population and cultural assets. Previously ISIL justified such actions through its extremist ideology, but such retributory acts expose the organization’s intrinsic criminality.

In Syria, negotiations between Russia, Turkey, and Iran resulted in an attempted implementation of de-escalation zones. Despite this agreement, clashes and aerial bombardment continued in these same areas. In contrast, Idlib Governorate, which had been under constant aerial bombardment in previous months, was relatively untouched in May, with airstrikes focusing on opposition-held areas of Rif Dimashq Governorate. Opposition forces controlling Rif Dimashq were not included in the agreement. It is too soon to determine whether this agreement significantly reduced damage to cultural assets in Syria. The commencement of direct Russian military involvement in Syria in September 2015 directly correlates with consistently higher monthly rates of combat damage to cultural sites, especially religious sites, in opposition held areas. Airstrikes and other military explosives caused a high percentage of these incidents. In sum, the timing, targeting, and military capabilities linked to this elevated period of heritage damage implicate Russian forces.

In newly pacified areas in Syria and Iraq, returnees initiated independent cleanup and restoration efforts at ancient and modern heritage sites. Civilians in the Old City of Aleppo, with limited involvement from Syrian government authorities, started debris removal and stabilized compromised structures.

In Libya, the primary threat to heritage sites continued to be rapid urban development at a time when heritage laws cannot be enforced. The current security conditions have allowed new developers to tear down historic buildings to make way for new construction.

Key Points

  • New video shows ISIL militants intentional destruction of antiquities in Deir ez-Zor Governorate, Syria. (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0081)
  • An old house in Aleppo was purchased and is being dismantled for transport to Lebanon. (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0086)
  • New photographs show damage to the Maltai Reliefs in Iraq. (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0026)
  • New photographs were released of damage to the Mosul University Library. (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0016 UPDATE)


During the reporting period, SARG and Russian aerial bombardment campaigns continued over opposition-held areas in Deir ez-Zor, Hama, Rif Dimashq, and Raqqa Governorates. ASOR CHI documented destruction and damage to two mosques in Rif Dimashq (see SHI 17-0082 and SHI 17-0084 in Appendix pp. 35–36, 39–41), and one episode of damage to mosques in each of the other governorates (see SHI 17-0083, SHI 17-0091, and SHI 17-0092 in Appendix pp. 37–38, 74–75). Local activist groups in Syria reported dozens of civilian casualties as a result of this aerial bombardment.

SARG forces continued to recapture territory from Syrian opposition forces. Following the May 20 final evacuation of opposition forces from the district of al-Waer, the Syrian regime now controls the entirety of Homs City.

ISIL continued to lose territory in former strongholds in Syria. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) recaptured the strategic city of al-Tabqa. The territory recaptured in this operation included the Tabqa Dam. ISIL is believed to be redeploying its forces in Syria and Iraq to Syria’s Deir ez-Zor Governorate where the organization controls large swathes of territory, including parts of the city of Deir ez-Zor.

As the SDF advanced toward the ISIL-held stronghold of Raqqa, US-led Coalition airstrikes increased over neighboring towns and villages. From May 1–6, five mosques were damaged in and around Raqqa (see SHI 17-0077, SHI 17-0078, SHI 17-0079, SHI 17-0080, and SHI 17-0085 in Appendix pp. 18–29, 42–43). Most of these mosques were reportedly rendered inoperable. ASOR CHI is continuing to investigate these incidents in order to confirm levels of damage. Local activist groups in Syria have reported dozens of civilian casualties as a result of this aerial bombardment.

ASOR CHI documented three cleanup and reconstruction efforts at sites located in the Old City of Aleppo (see SHI 17-0088, SHI 17-0089, SHI 17-0090, and SHI 17-0093 in Appendix pp. 58–73, 76–79). Local residents spearheaded these recovery efforts. These locals report damaged sites, mainly sites in the process of collapsing, to the Aleppo City Government officials, who then send engineers and other professionals to stabilize the buildings. The current objective appears to be the emergency stabilization and strengthening of standing remains. In the case of Khan Uch Khan, a 1500 CE gate, the support of the Aleppo Directorate of Antiquities was sought to undertake the removal of sculpture from around the gate for conservation and off-site storage. The sculptures will be reinstalled following the intended restoration of the gate’s facade. With regard to Aleppo’s large number of damaged mosques, initial reports indicate local residents and craftsmen are donating time to help reconstruct and stabilize the buildings. In sum, these initial reports on Aleppo’s revitalization highlight the important role of local stakeholders in emergency response and preserving cultural heritage.

One report may serve as an early warning regarding a growing trend of disassembling and selling historically significant private residences in the Old City of Aleppo (see SHI 17-0086 in Appendix pp. 44–52). A Lebanese businessman recently purchased an historic house (ca. 1600 CE) within the UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to media reports, the businessman then began to dismantle a wood paneled room, possibly in order to transport the architectural elements to his residence in Lebanon. When neighborhood residents saw workmen dismantling the paneling and loading it onto trucks, they notified officials in the Department of Antiquities, who halted the shipment. The director of the Department of Antiquities informed the Syrian Prime Minister, who will decide if the wood panels may be taken to Lebanon. ASOR CHI remains concerned as to new development threats and the removal of significant cultural property from UNESCO-protected sites in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. This case again demonstrates the crucial role of local stakeholders in preserving cultural heritage.


Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), backed by US-led Coalition airstrikes, closed in on the last remaining ISIL strongholds in Mosul. The neighborhoods on the city’s west bank continue to sustain severe damage as a result of continuing aerial bombardment and on-the-ground clashes. This area contains a high density of historically significant sites. In the first half of May, ASOR CHI recorded seven mosques that were allegedly damaged by Iraqi and US-led Coalition forces (see IHI 17-0025, IHI 17-0029, IHI 17-0030, IHI 17-0031, IHI 17-0035, IHI 17-0036, and IHI 17-0037 in Appendix pp. 94–99, 113–118, 119–124, 156–161).

While military operations focus on retaking western Mosul, cultural heritage sites on the east bank and in surrounding areas are being cleaned and restored (see IHI 17-0016 UPDATE, IHI 17-0027, IHI 17-0028, IHI 17-0032, IHI 17-0033, and IHI 17-0034 in Appendix pp. 80–89, 107–112, 125–155). The Mosul University campus (IHI 17-0032) represents one of the more significant areas of restoration. Constructed in the 1960s, Mosul University was one of the largest educational and research centers in the Middle East. After ISIL seized Mosul in 2014, they re-opened the university under their authority, mainly to train professionals in the medical, chemical, and engineering fields. ISIL also reused buildings and laboratories as headquarters and weapons facilities leading to the US-led Coalition targeting of university buildings in 2016. Following the liberation of the campus earlier this year, assessment teams and journalists were able to document the full extent of the damage to buildings, equipment, and collections. One of the hardest hit buildings was the Mosul University Library. The library contained 3,500 rare books, some dating back to the early 18th century. The library also contained 5,000 rare government publications dating back to 1921. Reports surfaced in February 2015 that ISIL had ransacked the library and burned 100,000 books and manuscripts. Recent photographs show the extent of this destruction with severe structural damage from both ISIL and US-led Coalition airstrikes, as well as charred books and fire damage to the majority of the structure. Local activist group Mosul Eye along with students from all departments are helping to clean the structure and to gather any remaining books. Libraries and universities from across the world have pledged support, materials, and books to help rebuild the library. In other university buildings, professors and students are working together to clean the buildings and repair what they can before classes resume in September.


Despite the alleged involvement of Libyan elements of ISIL in the Manchester, UK attack on May 22 and the Minya, Egypt attack on May 26, enough peace prevails in Libya that construction projects continue in many parts of the country. Private citizens and local real estate cooperatives have taken advantage of the lack of rule of law and are destroying heritage sites to make way for new development. During this reporting period, members of the Department of Antiquities in both the east and west of Libya reported three instances in which a previously recorded heritage site has been destroyed during a new building project without the consent of the local or regional authorities (see LHI 17-0002, LHI 17-0003, LHI 17-0004 in Appendix pp. 162–168). At the time of reporting, neither the retaliatory airstrikes launched by the Egyptian Air Force on purported ISIL training camps in the hills to the south of Derna, nor the strikes of the Libyan National Army under the command of Khalifa Haftar on the Brak al Shati Airbase controlled by the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord appear to have damaged cultural heritage sites.

ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives Monthly Report (April 2017)

ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI)
Safeguarding the Heritage of the Near East Initiative

April 2017 Monthly Report

By Michael D. Danti, Marina Gabriel, Susan Penacho, William Raynolds, Allison Cuneo, Kyra Kaercher, Darren Ashby

* This report is based on research conducted by the “Safeguarding the Heritage of the Near East Initiative.” Monthly reports reflect reporting from a variety of sources and may contain unverified material. As such, they should be treated as preliminary and subject to change.

Executive Summary

During the April reporting period, anti-ISIL operations continued around the group’s two remaining urban strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul. Near Raqqa, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued to encircle Raqqa to prepare for the city’s recapture. US-led Coalition aerial bombardment increased over surrounding towns and villages, as well as over Raqqa itself. Raqqa contains many significant cultural heritage sites, most notably the archaeological mounds of Tell Bi’a and Tell Zeidan, the Raqqa Museum, and standing architecture of the Abbasid Caliphate. Most of Raqqa’s heritage sites have suffered severe damage during the conflict, largely as a result of ISIL intentional destructions, military repurposing, and looting. The SDF pressed into the strategic ISIL-held city of Tabqa (al-Thawrah) recapturing several neighborhoods. The area is significant for its nearby hydroelectric dam (Tabqa Dam), forming the impound lake (Lake Assad) on the Euphrates — an area rich in archaeological sites. ISIL consolidated territory in Deir ez-Zor Governorate, where US-backed Syrian opposition forces and pro-regime forces prepared for a new offensive. At least two heritage sites in ISIL-held Syria were damaged or destroyed during the reporting period.

SARG forces continue to advance against opposition-held territory in Rif Dimashq Governorate, where Russian and SARG aerial bombardment was continuous. Evacuation of opposition forces, pro-regime forces, and civilians between four towns in Rif Dimashq and Idlib Governorates was completed despite several delays. Aerial bombardment over major opposition-held areas in Syria continued with almost daily instances of SARG and Russian airstrikes and barrel bombings. At least 15 cultural sites in opposition-held areas were damaged or destroyed as a result.

In Mosul, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) continued to advance into the final remaining ISIL-held neighborhoods. Clearing operations continued in recently recaptured neighborhoods, paving the way for displaced Mosul residents to return despite poor infrastructure. ISIL militants still held the historically significant Old City, site of al-Nuri al-Kabir Mosque, where ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the creation of his “caliphate” in 2014. South of Mosul, Shia Iraqi forces of the Popular Mobilization Front (PMF) recaptured the ancient site of Hatra from ISIL. Footage from the recaptured area shows Hatra to be less damaged than some observers had anticipated based on propaganda videos shared by ISIL showing acts of intentional destruction. Portions of the ancient city appear to have been militarized for the militant’s use.

Key Points

  • New reporting reveals scope of damage to Omar Ibn al-Khattab Mosque in al-Jeineh, Aleppo Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0038 UPDATE
  • Reported Russian airstrikes damage an Ottoman-era hammam (bathhouse) in Sarmin, Idlib Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0072
  • New video footage provides more information on ISIL looting of the ancient site of Nineveh. ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 15-0097 UPDATE
  • Popular Mobilization Front (PMF) captures the ancient site of Hatra from ISIL. ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0024
  • New photographs show the dismantling of a historic house in the Old City of Derna in Libya. ASOR CHI Incident Report LHI 17-0001


In Syria’s Idlib Governorate, aerial bombardment was seemingly intensified following an April 4 chemical weapons attack that killed at least 90 people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. ASOR CHI recorded damage to four mosques, an Ottoman-era Hammam (bathhouse), and a Roman-era bridge across Idlib Governorate as a result of the ongoing SARG and Russian bombardment (see SHI 17-0066, SHI 17-0067, SHI 17-0068, SHI 17-0069, SHI 17-0070, SHI 17-0071, and SHI 17-0072 in Appendix pp. 59–76). Civilian casualties were reported in at least one of the strikes.

Syrian opposition forces, including factions of Islamist opposition forces, continue to hold territory in Rif Dimashq Governorate and have come under increasing aerial bombardment by the Syrian regime and Russian forces. ASOR CHI recorded damage to three mosques, including one mosque dated to the 11th Century CE, in opposition-held areas (see SHI 17-0055, SHI 17-0056, and SHI 17-0057 in Appendix pp. 29–38). All three of the mosques reportedly took direct fire in the forms of missiles and shells. At least two of the mosques had previously been damaged during the conflict.

As US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces advanced toward the ISIL-held stronghold of Raqqa, US-led Coalition airstrikes increased over neighboring towns and villages. Local reporting groups documented an increase in damage to cultural sites, including a mosque and a cultural center in Raqqa Governorate (see SHI 17-0064 and SHI 17-0065 in Appendix pp. 56–58). ISIL has often attempted to use such incidents for its anti-Coalition rhetoric and propaganda.

In addition, a March 2017 US-led Coalition airstrike that destroyed a mosque in Aleppo Governorate remains under investigation. Two new reports by Human Rights Watch and Forensic Architecture detail the extent of damage, and raise concerns regarding the accuracy of the information that led to the airstrike, reportedly authorized to target al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria (see SHI 17-0038 UPDATE in Appendix pp. 9–13).

Reduced combat kinetics in Aleppo has provided activists and others with opportunities to visit long-neglected heritage sites and initiate emergency response projects. ASOR CHI noted three cleanup and reconstruction efforts in the Old City of Aleppo (see SHI 17-0050, SHI 17-0051, SHI 17-0052 in Appendix p. 18–24). Often local residents (some with guidance from Syrian experts) have spearheaded these projects. These site visits and preservation efforts are uncovering new evidence of conflict-related cultural heritage incidents, such as thefts, that occurred during armed conflict between the Syrian regime and opposition forces in the Old City.

Other cleanup and reconstruction efforts are underway in al-Bab City, where at least four mosques were heavily damaged by clashes between ISIL and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces (see SHI 17-0058, SHI 17-0059, SHI 17-0060, in Appendix p. 39–47). According to interviews with local residents, including a local imam, militants co-opted one of the mosques for use as an ISIL headquarters with the basement serving as a makeshift prison. Another mosque, now significantly damaged and undergoing cleanup efforts, was featured in an earlier ISIL recruitment video. DigitalGlobe satellite imagery shows additional detail of damage to mosques in al-Bab, likely as a result of US-led Coalition and Turkish airstrikes.


With the advance of Iraqi Security Forces in Mosul, the extent of damage wrought by ISIL is becoming clearer. Recent video footage details the construction of a road through the ancient site of Nineveh, allegedly built and used by ISIL militants to facilitate the looting and selling of antiquities (see IHI 15-0097 UPDATE in Appendix p. 86–89). Local residents recall ISIL using the road to traffic out antiquities, threatening local Mosul residents with amputations if they attempted to enter the site. Although Nineveh is now under the control of Iraqi Security Forces, ASOR CHI remains concerned as to the security of the ancient site of Nineveh as it is unclear what measures, if any, have been taken to reduce the risk of continuing looting or vandalism.

ISIL militants in Mosul continue to target Iraqi civilians as they attempt to escape from areas of the city that remain under the group’s control. ISIL militants have reportedly stationed themselves inside civilian sites ranging from mosques to residential buildings in order to maximize civilian casualties in the event of an airstrike by the US-led Coalition. The Old City of Mosul will be a major flashpoint in the upcoming battles for control of ISIL-held neighborhoods. ASOR CHI remains extremely concerned for the fate of civilians and the cultural heritage sites that are densely packed in this neighborhood, including al-Nuri al-Kabir Mosque, where ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of his ‘caliphate’ in 2014. The mosque has already sustained heavy damage to the dome (see IHI 17-0023 in Appendix p. 98–99).

On April 26, 2017 the Popular Mobilization Front (PMF) captured the ancient site of Hatra from ISIL (see IHI 17-0024 in Appendix p. 100–120). New photographs and video footage showed less damage to the site than previously feared. The site appears to have been used by the group for military training; items such as a climbing rope and a shooting range are apparent in several recent photographs of the site. ASOR CHI remains concerned as to the security of the ancient site of Hatra given its remote desert location. Following the recapture of the site, the current security situation remains unclear, and we are currently unable to verify whether Iraqi officials have implemented security measures to protect the site from further damage or looting. Other ancient sites in Iraq, including the recently recaptured site of Nimrud, lack security and remain vulnerable to looting and vandalism.

Across the Nineveh Plains, local residents from majority-Christian and Yezidi towns and villages have participated in cleanup and reconstruction efforts. Infrastructure in the area remains poor, with limited access to clean water and electricity, limiting the ability of displaced residents to return. Easter masses were celebrated in at least one village, despite the poor conditions of the churches in the area. New information is also arising as to how ISIL used the churches and other religious sites in the Nineveh villages and towns. Many churches and monasteries were used as weapons caches, military training sites, and bed-down sites. The same sites were destroyed as Peshmerga and Iraqi Christian militias advanced against ISIL. Cemeteries of all faiths were also targeted for vandalism and looting (see IHI 16-0042 Update in Appendix p. 90–94).


In Libya, heavy clashes occurred between the Operations Room of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces commanded by Khalifa Haftar around the Tamanhint Airbase outside of the southern city of Sebha. LNA airstrikes targeted Dernah and several neighborhoods in Benghazi. This ongoing violence does not appear to have damaged cultural heritage sites. Generally, violent skirmishes decreased, allowing the Turkish Embassy to reopen its consular affairs section in Tripoli and oil production to resume in Libya’s largest oil field, al Sharara. In Dernah, which celebrated one year of liberation from ISIL forces this month, a period of relative stability has allowed for redevelopment efforts to occur. These efforts, unfortunately, have encroached on key cultural heritage sites. ASOR CHI has documented one Ottoman-era house that is in the process of being dismantled (see LHI 17-0001 in Appendix p. 121–123). ASOR CHI remains concerned as to this trend, especially as it relates to standing cultural heritage sites as well as development encroachment over unexcavated archaeological sites. ASOR CHI will be expanding its coverage of Libya in the coming months with a focus on risk to cultural heritage sites.

ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives Monthly Report (March 2017)

ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI)
Safeguarding the Heritage of the Near East Initiative

March 2017 Monthly Report

Michael D. Danti, Marina Gabriel, Susan Penacho, William Raynolds, Allison Cuneo, Kyra Kaercher, Darren Ashby, Katherine Burge

* This report is based on research conducted by the “Safeguarding the Heritage of the Near East Initiative.” Monthly reports reflect reporting from a variety of sources and may contain unverified material. As such, they should be treated as preliminary and subject to change.

Executive Summary

During the reporting period, the Syrian regime and Syrian opposition forces advanced against ISIL in several areas of the country. In early March, SARG and pro-regime forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, recaptured the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra from ISIL. ISIL had recaptured the site and the nearby modern town of Tadmor for a second time in December 2016. New photographs and video footage from the site shows the extent of damage to the Roman Theater and Tetrapylon, intentionally destroyed by ISIL between the months of December 2016 and January 2017. ISIL withdrew additional forces from previously held areas near Damascus and the Jordanian border, sending them instead to strongholds in Deir ez Zor and Raqqa Governorates.

The United States increased its number of deployed forces to Syria in anticipation of upcoming operations to recapture the ISIL-held city of Raqqa. The number of US forces also increased in Aleppo Governorate in an effort to deter clashes between Turkish and Syrian opposition forces near recently liberated areas. SARG and Russian aerial bombardment continued over opposition-held areas in Rif Dimashq, Idlib, and Hama Governorates, resulting in damage to several heritage sites. Targeted attacks occurred in the form of suicide bombings in the capital Damascus. Two suicide bombings struck Damascus, targeting a Shia pilgrimage site and courthouse, causing a number of civilian casualties.

In Iraq, Iraqi Security Forces continued their advancement into Mosul, capturing approximately one-third of the city’s West Bank, including the Mosul Museum. Photographs of the museum show the extent of damage caused by ISIL intentional performative destruction. The museum has also been damaged by ongoing military operations around the site. New photographs and video footage has also been released from Nebi Yunus, an ancient site revered by Iraq’s Christian and Muslim communities. According to reports, ISIL tunneling under the site has uncovered parts of the ancient palace of Esarhaddon. The site was last excavated in 1954. Reports from recaptured areas have revealed how other heritage sites inside the city of Mosul have been repurposed and militarized by ISIL. Concerns remain high for Mosul residents trapped in the fighting between ISIL and Iraqi forces. Iraqi officials have told the city’s residents to remain in their homes, rather than attempt to flee the fighting. Reports have surfaced of ISIL militants using Iraqi civilians as human shields and the international community is becoming alarmed at the number of civilian casualties thus far.

Key Points

  • Video footage and photographs show the condition of the Palmyra Citadel, Homs Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0030
  • Video footage and photographs show condition of the Roman Theater, Palmyra, Homs Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0032
  • Newly released photographs show condition of Tetrapylon, Palmyra, Homs Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0033
  • A reported US-led Coalition airstrike damages the Omar Ibn al-Khattab Mosque compound, Aleppo Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0038
  • New photographs and video show the extent of damage to the Mosul Museum, Ninawa Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 15-0034 UPDATE
  • More evidence of damage and new discovery at Nebi Yunus Complex, Ninawa Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0005 UPDATE
  • Conservators removed spray paint from the Malthai Reliefs, Dohuk Governorate. ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0021


SARG and Russian forces re-captured the ancient site of Palmyra, and the modern town of Tadmor from ISIL forces on March 2, 2017. ISIL had recaptured the area from pro-regime forces in December 2016. On January 19, 2017 ASOR CHI obtained satellite imagery that showed new damage to the Roman Theater and Tetrapylon in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. This damage occurred between December 26, 2016 and January 10, 2017. With the recapture of Palmyra, new photographs were released showing damage to the structures. The facade and stage of the theater were severely damaged, possibly by ISIL militants attaching explosives to its columns (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0032 in Appendix pp. 20–24). Columns of the Tetrapylon have been knocked over, and the larger square bases have also been destroyed (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0033 in Appendix pp. 25–27). The Citadel that overlooks Palmyra was also retaken. Photographs show, evidence of militarization of the site, and extensive damage due to explosives including aerial bombardment. The Syrian Army is not stationed inside the Citadel as it is reportedly filled with improvised explosive devices, but it appears that ISIL used the castle as a stronghold while occupying Palmyra (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0030 in Appendix pp. 9–17).

SARG and Russian forces also carried out a series of airstrikes in the governorates of Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, and Rif Dimashq. From March 20–29, the airstrikes struck nine mosques across the four governorates despite negotiations of ceasefire agreements in several areas (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0039; SHI 17-0040; SHI 17-0041; SHI 17-0042; SHI 17-0043; SHI 17-0044; SHI 17-0045; SHI 17-0046 in Appendix pp. 65–83).

In Aleppo Governorate, a US-led Coalition plane struck the Omar Ibn al-Khattab in al-Jeineh village, causing extensive damage (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0038 in Appendix pp. 47–64). According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee dozens of people were killed and hundreds more were injured. Later reports stated that as many as 46 people were killed. US officials confirmed an airstrike in the area that targeted an Al Qaeda-affiliate meeting, but denied that their aircrafts had targeted a mosque.

Two suicide bombings struck the capital of Damascus. On March 10th, one attack occurred at the Bab al-Saghir Cemetery, killing dozens of civilians including 40 Iraqi Shia pilgrims who were touring the areas’ shrines (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0036 in Appendix pp. 42–43). This attack was later claimed by Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of jihadi groups. On March 14th, another suicide bomber detonated his device inside the Palace of Justice, killing over 25 people (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0037 in Appendix pp. 44–46). ISIL later claimed responsibility for this bombing on March 26, 2017.

The insecure environment throughout much of the country has allowed for the continuation of illicit digging and looting activities, as well as the reuse of ancient materials for modern building. A new report from DGAM shows one incident of this at the ancient site of Bakirha and another is documented at Tell Sabi Abyad (ASOR CHI Incident Report SHI 17-0035 and SHI 17-0047 in Appendix pp. 33–41, 84–88).

Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), backed by US-led Coalition Airstrikes continued their push to liberate Mosul from ISIL forces. During the reporting period, ISF recaptured one third of Mosul’s West Bank including the Mosul Museum (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 15-0034 UPDATE in Appendix pp. 89–106). Journalists and locals entering the museum have documented extensive destruction to the site.

With the ongoing securing of the city’s East Bank, Iraqi officials and archaeologists were allowed into the tunnels running under the destroyed Nebi Yunus Shrine (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0005 UPDATE in Appendix pp. 107–114). ISIL tunneled into the mound for protection from airstrikes, and possibly to loot the palace of Esarhaddon. Large sculptures, including a winged lamassu and cuneiform inscriptions in stone, remain in the tunnel. A cuneiform inscription of Esarhaddon dating back to 672 BCE was also found in the tunnels. The Sunni Waqf (endowment) announced on March 18, 2017 that it is planning to rebuild the Nebi Yunus shrine and mosque, raising concerns that the palace will be covered without study. The Director of Antiquities of Mosul stated that excavation and preservation work of the objects uncovered by the tunneling would begin once security is restored to the area.

Two mosques in Mosul have also been reported as damaged in the ongoing fighting, however ASOR CHI has been unable to independently confirm these reports as well as the extent of damage to the sites (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0019 and IHI 17-0020 in Appendix pp. 121–126). During the push for the liberation of Mosul, new evidence is appearing for the repurposing of churches by ISIL into militarized sites (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0018 in Appendix pp. 115–120).

Awareness of the ongoing damage to sites in Northern Iraq have led to clean-up efforts of the Malthai Reliefs located in Dohuk Governorate (ASOR CHI Incident Report IHI 17-0021 in Appendix pp. 127–129). The site was previously damaged on multiple occasions by vandalism.