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He explains how the group is using the word "shirk," the worship of God through shrines, to refer to a much wider range of concepts it deems heretical.

This image drives home the permanence of the defacement of historical landmarks: Perhaps the church will be restored after the war, but much of the original detail has been lost. According to Christopher Jones, a Ph D student in Near Eastern history at Columbia, the statue being destroyed here (part of the Mosul Museum collection) depicts an ancient king of Hatra.Al-Asaad was no threat: He dedicated his life to studying the antiquities at Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with irreplaceable historical treasures such as 2,000-year-old Roman buildings and magnificent pre-Islamic statues.When ISIS conquered Palmyra in May, al-Asaad refused to flee, staying behind to try to protect the site from ISIS plunder.But ISIS has upped the game well beyond any of its modern peers, damaging and destroying priceless antiquities by the Saudi authorities destroyed this mausoleum, part of the al-Baqi cemetery in Medina, in early 1926, shortly after taking power in the city in the prior year.In fact, they flattened the entire site, which dated back to the seventh century and is thought to have contained the bodies of some of the prophet Mohammed's early compatriots.And when these groups storm cities and towns with historical treasure troves, the results often aren't pretty.

In 2012, Islamists from al-Qaeda and Ansar Dine overran the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali, a UN World Heritage Site.

The so-called "purification" of its territory is a means of asserting its control over the local population and sending a message that this territory will, from now on, be governed along Islamic lines.

"As ISIS fights to define the frontiers of its so-called caliphate," Noyes writes, "iconoclasm represents a means of bridging the principles of theological and political unity." That explains why you see so many videos like this one, which reportedly shows ISIS detonating the tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah (or Yunus) in Mosul, Iraq.

ISIS's hostility toward historical artifacts is shared by other militant Sunni Islamist groups, dating back at least to the 18th-century religious revival that led to the birth of modern Saudi Arabia.

More recently, Islamists' work has seen treasures destroyed from Afghanistan to Somalia.

"The Arabian peninsula used to have Jewish communities, pagan pre-Islamic tribes, shrines favoured by Shiite and Sufi pilgrims on the Hajj to Mecca and Medina, Ottoman and Egyptian influences, and the Hashemite kingdom," Noyes wrote via email.