Michael Hoff, an art and art history professor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been project director of the Antiochia ad Cragum Excavations since 2005. At that site along the Mediterranean coast in southern Turkey, he has uncovered mosaics, statues and other antiquities dating back to the Roman Empire of the first and second centuries.
He specializes in Greek and Roman archealogy.
Like other archaeologists and historians, he is concerned about ISIS’ recent takeover of Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra and its threat to antiquities there. Palmyra features monumental ruins of a city that was an important cultural center in the ancient world. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In his work in Antiochia ad Cragum, Hoff has noted that Christians in the Third and Fourth Centuries destroyed pagan artifacts from the Roman Empire. Though there are some similarities, he sees key differences between what happened then and the more recent destruction of artifacts by ISIS.
Some of Hoff’s thoughts:
About the importance of the Palmyran ruins:
“Because of its location on a communications route between the Near East and the Mediterranean, Palmyra served as a trade conduit and entrepot for many cultures from earliest Mesopotamian culture through the Greek period and the Roman period and into the Middle Ages.”
“It contains an impressive set of remains that date from the Roman period. ISIS will likely destroy them.”
About Islam and antiquities:
“Anything that’s ancient and has to do with a culture that’s apart from or distinct from Islam is considered idolatrous to Islam. Most mainstream, conservative Islam people generally will just ignore things of antiquity that date to the Greek period, the Roman period or other cultures that predate Islam. Or they are protected because of their intrinsic value as tourist attractions.”
“ISIS in fact is using them as political statements. They may say they’re destroying these antiquities because they are idolatrous. But it’s telling that they’re filming and recording what they’re doing and putting it out on the Internet. It’s for the shock value. They’re trying to shock and disturb the people of the West. “
“It’s almost like terrorism. The whole point is to scare people, to frighten people. That’s why they behead people, not just execute them. It’s all meant to keep ISIS in the front pages.”
“These are acts of terrorism.”
About the differences between ancient destruction and current events:
“As Christianity became the dominant religion after Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion and Emperor Theodosius’ edict declaring Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, Christians sought to destroy and damage the monuments of past religions. “
“This happened in Antiochia ad Cragum. However, indications are there were practical reasons, too. After granite and marble columns toppled, the marble bases were salvaged to make lime mortar, but the granite columns are still lying there. Statues were broken up and melted to create lime. While they were getting rid of those naked statues of Aphrodite and other Gods because they no longer mattered in the Christian world, they were also doing it for a prosaic reason of getting lime mortar. Some temples, including the Parthenon in Athens, were converted to churches.”
“While we know a great deal of very zealous Christins who did perpetrate the destruction of antiquities, they did so almost certainly with religious zeal behind them. That’s not what ISIS is doing, in my opinion. They’re playing lip service to pure Islamic values, but they’re making a political statement. “
“Why play it out before the cameras? They’re very technology-savvy and they’re trying to get as much impact as they can out of it. I have no doubt the buildings of Palmyra are going to be heavily damaged by ISIS. Any major site that falls under their control will suffer the same fate.”
About looting of antiquities:
“ISIS absolutely will loot and sell some antiquities on the Black Market. That’s how they finance their operations. But they are not the only ones who sell antiquities. Ever since the Gulf War , antiquities have been political pawns. When the U.S. invaded Baghdad, there were thieves ready and poised to strike the Baghdad museum. As the troops made their way to the museum, they could see the looting going on, but could not intervene. The Baghdad Museum was totally looted and carted off.”
“There was no policy about antiquities. That has changed since then. Many of the objects were returned but many more were not.”
“Antiquities are among the first casualties of war.”