The War on Shrines: mapping the demolition of living religious heritage in the Middle East

Dick Douwes, Professor of Global History at Erasmus University Rotterdam, and Forerunner from the Heritage under Threat thematic group, works on the War of Shrines Project to map violent incursions upon living religious heritage, ranging from desecration to the mere destruction of holy sites in Syria and Iraq.

Next to the onslaught on archaeological heritage in the Middle East by terrorist groups and others, numerous shrines, mosques, churches and monasteries have been desecrated,  severely damaged or completely demolished. When compared to the damage done to archaeological sites and artifacts, the destruction of living religious heritage has attracted little (scholarly) attention in the West, apart from a number cases in which Christian heritage was damaged. Colonial consumption seems to play part on how ‘we’ and ‘our’ academic institutions respond to violent crisis in the Middle East; we do care about what we consider in way or another to be part of our heritage (be it Sumerian, Roman, Byzantine, etc.) but comparatively little about post-Byzantine, Islamic heritage even when that heritage feeds back into earlier times and constitutes until today a living tradition, be it seriously under threat. Subsequently, we disregard the impact of the demolition of holy sites, many of these ancient but often of local importance only, on local communities. In particular shrines dedicated to Muslim saints have been targeted by the jihadist iconoclasts.

The project aims to profit from techniques developed in the field of archaeological sites in order to assist local communities in recovering what has been lost. The project also aims to promote awareness of the importance of living heritage in future efforts of reconciliation. The Aga Khan University is partners in this project.

Syria shrine
Shrine of Hussein in Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, author: gray-um