Architect and historic conservation specialist Ihsan Fethi has chronicled the loss of historic art and architecture in his native Iraq for decades and is closely monitoring the current situation. Director of the Iraqi Architects Society, he has consulted with international organizations on the region’s heritage sites and called on the United Nations to classify their willful destruction as a crime against humanity. Fethi, who teaches at Philadelphia University in Amman, Jordan, spoke with RECORD about the unprecedented speed and extent of the damage by ISIS and what might be done to protect significant historical objects in the future.
Architectural Record: Iraq has lost a heartbreaking amount of historic architecture in recent decades. What distinguishes the ISIS campaign?
Ihsan Fethi: The amount of destruction they have managed to do in the last year is amazing. They have an organized agenda to raze anything that is contrary to their skewed view of what Islam thinks of art. It has resulted in the tragic and irreversible destruction of some of the most important monuments in northern Iraq. In the modern era, there has not been such a systematic destruction of artifacts.
In Mosul, they destroyed mosques with shrines that were revered by all of the population. But they also destroyed pre-Islamic statues that could hardly be considered idols. They are museum pieces—nobody’s worshiping them! Even prominent religious figures have decreed that it is a crime for any Muslim to destroy an artifact, but ISIS doesn’t recognize these official authorities.
That said, don’t listen to what they declare—even ISIS is finding a market for looted items.
How have you been getting information about historic sites in ISIS-occupied territory?
I have many former students who report every now and then if they can get to a place where they can send e-mail or use a mobile phone. But at this point, many of my students have fled. I am also in touch with various cultural officials all over the country.
What can be done now to protect other sites?
Nothing. Nothing can be done. I know it sounds really infuriating. The only way to safeguard the remaining sites is to kick ISIS completely off the map.
But to liberate Mosul could also mean the absolute destruction of the city and its historic urban fabric, which dates back 1,000 years. There are some fantastic, absolutely beautiful medieval houses. But if there is artillery shelling, followed by street-to-street fighting nothing will be left. The only way I can think of to save some of the architecture is to blockade the city, provide the ISIS fighters with some kind of escape, and take the fight elsewhere. Otherwise, we will have a major disaster.
We have lost a lot, but I think there are lessons to be learned from this situation.
What should we take away?
We should think seriously about emergency measures that national governments can take if they feel there is an imminent danger of this kind of destruction. At a UNESCO meeting in Bahrain last month, I suggested the institution of a World Heritage Shelter in Paris where, if a government feels its major museums are vulnerable, they can quickly transfer objects to a secure temporary location with conservation resources until the situation is cleared. But in Iraq, the destruction has been so shocking. It’s so sudden. You are at a loss for words.