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As ISIS loses ground, scholars return to beloved historical sites

April 5, 2016 at 7:41 PM EDT
The spread of the Islamic State militants and other extremist groups across the Middle East and North Africa forced international archaeologists to abandon dozens of beloved historical sites like Mosul and Palmyra. But as ISIS begins to lose momentum and territory, there is hope that scholars can return to the region and continue their work. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.
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GWEN IFILL: When ISIS captured the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria last year, they destroyed and looted priceless pieces of Middle Eastern history.

The city was retaken last week by Syria’s army, and as the extremists lose more ground in Iraq, archaeologists are returning to endangered sites to resecure the past.

Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Northern Iraq.

JANE FERGUSON: Badly damaged, but still standing. Surveying the harm done to Palmyra, a drone flies above the ancient Roman city.

Below, land mines and booby traps slow the work of Syrian experts, anxious to walk amongst these precious ruins again. When ISIS stormed into Palmyra nearly a year ago, many feared the UNESCO World Heritage Site was lost forever. The group used it for grisly execution videos and blew up two of its temples.

But much it is still intact, to the relief of Syria’s antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim.

MAAMOUN ABDELKARIM, Syrian Antiquities and Museums Directorate (through interpreter): We expected the worst because of the liberation fighting, but I think the nightmare is over. The panoramic picture of Palmyra is fine.

JANE FERGUSON: When they took the town, Islamic State fighters also executed archaeologist Khaled Asaad, one of the country’s top historical scholars, who had dedicated most of his life to preserving Palmyra.

The presence of ISIS and other warring groups across the Middle East and North Africa has seen international archaeologists abandon beloved historical sites, from Libya to Syria and Iraq, fearful for their security.

Now, with ISIS losing some territory, there is hope they may return to a region that had become so risky. In Northern Iraq, a team from Cambridge University is back to work, searching for signs of Neanderthal life in Shanidar Cave.

ISIS never took over this area, but came deep enough into Northern Iraq to cause them to delay their dig.

Professor Graeme Barker says the fighting across the region has upended much work in the field.

GRAEME BARKER, University of Cambridge: It has affected a lot of teams because they can’t get back to places. And I have worked before in Libya, and in an area where now it’s impossible to go to. So it’s had a huge impact in terms of access by foreign teams.

JANE FERGUSON: He and his team were not surprised to hear that ISIS was destroying historical artifacts on their rampage across the region.

GRAEME BARKER: Invading armies have always, liked, anything to do with heritage, because heritage is who we are. We very much — we may not think about it explicitly, but we are very much rooted in our past.

And archaeology is a highly political subject, which therefore comes back to why it’s really important that these kind of projects continue.

JANE FERGUSON: This dig was originally meant to take place in 2014. But it had to be delayed because ISIS came in and took over Mosul city, which is about 150 miles away from here. That year, say these archaeologists, was a write-off for that sort of work here.

But since then, they have come back twice, saying that the security is sufficient for them to continue their work. But for archaeologists across the Middle East, security is now a major concern, with the rise of ISIS and other armed groups targeting historical sites.

Mosul was taken over by the Islamic State in 2014. The city and its surrounding areas are rich in antiquities and historical sites. In nearby Irbil, ancient pieces from Mosul rest in the museum, beyond the reach of the Islamic State.

Dr. Abdullah Khorsheed, who leads the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage, is all too aware of the damage that has already been done.

ABDULLAH KHORSHEED, Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (through interpreter): We have very strong evidence of the damage because we are still in communication with the officials who have been working there in Mosul and because of the images and the videos being published throughout social media.

We are sure that most of these archaeological sites have been destroyed by ISIS. On a daily basis, we hear that ISIS is trying to destroy many such areas.

JANE FERGUSON: For archaeologists like him, they have mixed feelings about an imminent military campaign to retake Mosul. Getting ISIS out of its historical sites may mean damaging them in the process.

ABDULLAH KHORSHEED (through interpreter): When we talk about a war, it means entire cities will be devastated and destroyed. This is what wars usually bring. And, certainly, when we try to push ISIS from Mosul and use aerial attacks, those sites will be damaged again.

JANE FERGUSON: One ancient gem the Islamic State did not manage to capture sits in the heart of Northern Iraq’s Kurdistan. It remains one of the very few postcard images of the Middle East still open to historians.

The Citadel in Irbil is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in all of Syria and Iraq not on the danger list, and yet, when ISIS pushed into Iraq in 2014, they came within 30 miles of it, threatening one of the very last cultural treasures in the country.

Archaeologists from around the world have flocked to the Middle East for centuries to study and preserve evidence of humanity’s past. Now, after watching so much destruction, they will be needed to help piece it back together again.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jane Ferguson in Northern Iraq.

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