On Wednesday, the United States returned to Iraq stolen antiquities captured in a raid on ISIS.
U.S. special forces operatives seized the Iraqi artifacts in a raid on ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf. Although the Ark of the Covenant was nowhere to be found, ancient cylindrical stamps, glass shards of a vase, pottery, ancient Islamic coins, and jewelry were among the artifacts recovered.
“Today’s effort represents one success in the efforts to return Iraq’s historic patrimony, but the campaign to return all of Iraq’s treasures continues,” U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones said.
The artifacts have been given to Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq for cataloguing and research.
The Middle East is the location of many of the world’s most ancient archaeological sites, such as the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Palmyra.
In territory under ISIS control, militants have systematically looted and destroyed these physical manifestations of the global heritage.
“These antiquities and idols behind me were from people in past centuries and were worshiped instead of God. When God Almighty orders us to destroy these statues, idols and antiquities, we must do it, even if they’re worth billions of dollars,” one jihadist explained in a video showing the destruction of archaeological sites.
“They’re just statues,” Iraqi curator Haider Oraibi said of the artifacts and sites ISIS is destroying. “But for us, they’re living things. We came from them, we are part of them. That is our culture and our belief.”
He also said that the destruction of historical sites in Iraq and Syria constitutes a kind of “culture war,” and that part of ISIS’s motivation is to wipe out traditional cultures in the area and homogenize the region under its strict interpretation of Islam and Sharia law.
However, ISIS does not only destroy these important historical sites. They also fence the antiquities they loot on foreign black markets. The Islamist organization is using the profits from its black market dealings to fund its terror activity.
ISIS made $36 million on the sale of artifacts looted from the Syrian city al-Nabuk alone. Next to oil, fencing seems to be one of the most important way ISIS is raising money to support its holy war.
Returning the antiquities recovered in the Wednesday raid is not the first time the United States has stood in defense of cultural heritage.
During World War II, a group of art historians, curators, and professors enlisted in the U.S. military. After assembling as a team, this group went to Europe to help protect priceless works of art that Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were bent on either destroying or hoarding. They became known as the “Monuments Men.”