Museums Fight Back Against ISIS

See Art From the Ancient Near East at These 5 Museums

Museums are fighting back against the looting and destruction of antiquities in Syria and Iraq. Just as ISIS has used social media to show the world how it has destroyed ancient sites like Hatra, the Mosul Museum and Palmyra, museums are fighting back by using Facebook, Twitter and computer modeling to spark interest in the art and culture of the Ancient Near East. The more focus and attention is placed on this time period, the more records we'll have of what has been destroyed. While the object itself might be lost, the wisdom that can be gleaned from it will endure. 

Erin Thompson, America's only full-time professor of art crime, is an expert on the destruction and looting of antiquities by the Islamic State (ISIS). She was originally drawn to the art of the Ancient Near East while browsing books in the arts library at Columbia University library during a cold New York winter. An Arizona native, she was captivated by images of the Assyrian desert city of Nimrud from 3,500 B.C.E. Since then she earned a Ph.D. in art history and a J.D. at Columbia University. She teaches on the subject of art crime and theft at John Jay College, City University of New York and has written a fascinating book about collecting art.

She helps her students understand the ancient cultures of Assyria, Sumeria, and Babylonia by looking at their religious views of the afterlife which was believed to be a dark and dreary existence. The only food to eat would be dirt, there was no sex and you would forever be without your loved ones. And whether or not you were a king or a peasant, there was no special reward or punishment for your deeds in the afterlife. As such, transgressions against society had to be dealt with in the present which is why law and order were so important. These ancient cultures invented writing, agriculture, and systems of laws and government leading to the standard textbook description of this time and place as "the cradle of civilization." 

Of course, the region is now notorious for disorder and archaeological sites and museums have been left vulnerable to looters. ISIS has seized the opportunity to spread their campaign of fear by publicizing videos of them taking sledgehammers to Assyrian sculptures inside the Mosul Museum. Less well publicized is their destruction of Islamic holy sites. And even more quietly, they are earning millions on the black market from the sale and trade of stolen antiquities. 

Satellite photographs allow experts to identify thousands of holes dug into an archaeological site by looters. Professionals with archaeological experience are participating in the looting and even "Jihadist bureaucrats" as Thompson describes in her  TEDx talk, are employed to manage the sale and smuggling of objects through Turkey and Lebanon and then presumably into the hands of Western collectors. 

Though ISIS very much wants the world to feel as though armies or governments are powerless to stop them, a remarkable surge in research about the period is counteracting their efforts to obscure the past. One particularly effective way has been to make 3D scans of vulnerable objects and then share the schematics online for free so that anyone can make a 3D print, permitting them to live on even if the original is destroyed. 

Fortunately, many works of art are safe in museums around the world. Though Thompson is an expert on this time period, she has never actually visited Iraq or Syria. Yet her love, admiration, and expertise in the field were developed by seeing and studying Ancient Near Eastern art in the collections of The Met, the Louvre, the Morgan Library & Museum, the British Museum and the Pergamon Museum. I have written this piece to hopefully spark your interest in this time period and encourage you to visit these collections. Doing so will, in turn, support the efforts of historians who are working to preserve ancient culture and dilute the contagion of fear purported by ISIS.

Museums like the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology have been working in consort with the Smithsonian to conduct emergency conservation training and supplies in response to the bombing of Syria's Ma'arra Mosaic Museum.  

But the biggest heroes are the curators, historians, and archaeologists inside Syria and Iraq who are risking their lives to protect art. The media has taken to calling them ​Syria's "Monuments Men.

These scholars document damage, protect whatever they can and also make records of what has been lost. They often work in rebel-controlled areas where their lives are very much at risk. Even more dangerous is when they pose as antiquities dealers to capture a photograph of the stolen objects before they disappear on the black market. They are brave guardians of our shared history and culture.

  • 01 of 05
    Stele inscribed with Code of Hammurabi
    Public Domain

    Every law textbook starts with a picture of the "The Code of Hammurabi," a stele which contains the code of law in cuneiform. Atop the stele stands Hammurabi receiving the code from the god Shamash who sits on a throne with lightening bolts atop his shoulders.

    Also at the Louvre is the "Victory Stele of Naram-Sin" where the Assyrian general wearing a horned helmet climbs atop the heads of his enemies to meet the Sun God. Right now memories of Art History 101 should be flooding you.

    The Louvre 

    Musée du Louvre, 75058 Paris - France

    Wednesday - Sunday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Open until  9:45 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays

    Admission €15

  • 02 of 05
    Lamassu inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Danielle Oteri

    Since the 1800s The Met has had an extraordinary collection of art from the eighth-century B.C.E through the Arab conquests in the seventh century C.E., including art from Mesopotamia, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Caucasus and Eurasian steppes, Anatolia, Syria, the Levant through the Indus Valley. 

    Thompson says that her favorite room at The Met is Gallery 401 which displays stone slab reliefs from the palace rooms at Nimrud.  The art has been installed so as to evoke a royal audience hall with natural light from above so that visitors have the experience of entering an Assyrian palace. The Met has also created an extraordinary digital reconstruction of the palace where you can see these works as they would have been originally placed and painted. 

    Do those winged bulls look familiar? Indeed they are similar to the ones that guarded the Niveneh gates and that were ​destroyed by ISIS inside the Mosul Museum.

    The Met

    1000 Fifth Ave New York, NY 10028

    Admission is a recommended donation. You must pay to enter the museum, but in any amount you wish.

    Adults $25

    Seniors (65 and older) $17

    Students $12

    Members Free

    Children under 12 (accompanied by an adult) Free

    Open 7 Days a Week
    Sunday–Thursday: 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
    Friday and Saturday: 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m.

  • 03 of 05
    Ishtar Gate at Pergamon Museum
    Rictor Norton

    The Pergamon Museum in Berlin is named for treasures excavated at the Greek city of Pergamon in southwest Turkey, but it also has one of the most significant collections of Ancient Near Eastern art in the world. 

    Fourteen rooms are devoted to Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian works excavated by German archaeologists. A major highlight of the museum is its famous reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate and the facade of the throne hall of King Nebuchadnezzar II (604 - 562 BC). The buildings were re-assembled using a mix of excavated glazed bricks and modern materials and show depictions of lions, bulls, and dragons to symbolize the major gods of Babylon. The Ishtar Gate installation is one of the truly great museum experiences in the world.

    Pergamon Museum

    Bodestraße 1-3, 10178 Berlin, Germany

    Monday - Sunday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.

    Admission: € 12

  • 04 of 05
    Inside the Morgan Library & Museum
    By Pingthing (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

    Among the extraordinary artworks and manuscripts that J.P. Morgan assembled is a collection of seals from the Ancient Near East that tell a continuous story spanning 3,000 years. On Pierpont Morgan's behalf, the American collector William Hayes Ward assembled a collection of 1,157 seals which are on display in the museum inside the office that once belonged to the librarian Belle da Costa Greene.

    While manuscripts and medieval art were the focus of Morgan's voracious collecting, he was also very much drawn to the Ancient Near East. Perhaps because of his career as a banker, he became fascinated with the small cylinders carved of precious stones or bone that were rolled across a piece of hot wax to imprint a picture. They likely served as a contract signature and the act of rolling the cylinder was essentially "sealing the deal."

    Morgan also collected nearly three thousand cuneiform tablets, most of which are now part of the Yale Babylonian Collection. The Morgan also displays a selection of tablets and statuary from the period.

    The Morgan Library & Museum

    225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street New York, NY 10016


    $18 Adults 
    $12 Children (13–16)
    $12 Seniors (65 and over)
    $12 Students (with current ID)
    Free to members and children 12 and under (must be accompanied by an adult)
    Admission is free on Fridays from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.


    Tuesday through Thursday: 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
    Friday: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
    Saturday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
    Sunday: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05
    War side of "Standar of Ur"
    Public Domain

    The "Standard of Ur" is truly one of the greatest works of art in the world. A mysterious object that was once thought to be a battle standard, it is made with inlaid mosaic of shell, limestone and lapis lazuli. One side shows a Sumerian army trampling their enemies. The reverse side show banquets—perhaps a celebration that follows victory. It was discovered in a tomb in 1920 during excavations of Ur which lies south of Baghdad in Iraq. 

    Equally impressive is the "Queens Lyre" a musical instrument that was certainly made for ceremonial purposes. The beautiful lapis lazuli bearded bull is almost worth the trip to London alone.

    British Museum

    Great Russell St, London WC1B 3DG, United Kingdom

    Monday-Sunday 10:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. , open until 9 p.m on Fridays

    Admission is free

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