Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1236, (5 - 11 March 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1236, (5 - 11 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

IS destroys Iraq’s heritage

The Islamic State group last week destroyed the contents of the Mosul Museum, part of its campaign to destroy Iraq’s cultural heritage, writes David Tresilian in Paris

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The Islamic State (IS) group, currently occupying large parts of Iraq and Syria, last week released a video showing members of the group destroying statues and other ancient artefacts in the Mosul Museum in Iraq, attacking them with sledgehammers and pneumatic drills.

Part of the video showed a black-clad man destroying an 8th-century BCE Assyrian statue with a pneumatic drill. The accompanying commentary described the statues and other artefacts as “false idols” and said their destruction was required by the Muslim religion.

“The ruins that are behind me are the idols that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah,” a man on the video says. “The so-called Assyrians and Akkadians and others looked to gods for war, agriculture and rain, to whom they offered sacrifices. The Prophet Mohamed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our Prophet to take down idols and destroy them.”

There was immediate international protest against the destruction, with archaeologists and heritage professionals describing it as a catastrophe and a major blow to Iraq’s and the world’s cultural heritage.

Irina Bokova, director-general of UN cultural body UNESCO, described the actions as a “war crime.” Speaking at a press conference in Paris last week, Bokova said, “The tragedy is far from just a cultural issue; it’s an issue of security. We see clearly how terrorists use the destruction of heritage in their strategy to destabilise and manipulate populations.”

She said she has asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to convene an emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss the destruction. UN Security Council Resolution 2199, unanimously adopted in February, “condemns the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria particularly by ISIL [IS] and ANF [Al-Nusra Front] … including the targeted destruction of religious sites.”

Noting that IS has reportedly been selling looted cultural artefacts abroad to fund its activities in Iraq and Syria, the resolution calls on UN member states to “take appropriate steps to prevent the trade in Iraqi and Syrian cultural property and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific, and religious importance illegally removed from Iraq … and Syria.”

Ihsan Fethi, an Iraqi professor of architecture in Jordan, speaking to the news agency Agence France-Press, said the destruction is “a terrible loss and an unbelievable act of cultural terrorism.”

Amir Al-Jumaili, a professor of archaeology in Mosul, told the Associated Press that the actions are “a catastrophe. With the destruction of these artefacts, we can no longer be proud of Mosul’s civilisation.”

In the wake of the destruction, the Iraqi government in Baghdad brought forward to last week the re-opening of the Iraqi Museum, looted during the 2003 US-led invasion of the country.

In comments made at the ceremony, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi promised to punish those responsible for the destruction of the heritage in northern Iraq.

“Those barbaric, criminal terrorists are trying to destroy the heritage of mankind and Iraq’s civilisation,” Al-Abadi said. “We will hunt them down in order to make them pay for every drop of blood shed in Iraq and for the destruction.”

IS has controlled Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, since June 2014, and the region under IS control is thought to include nearly 1,800 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites.

Last week’s destruction in the Mosul Museum came in the wake of reports that IS had burnt the Mosul Central Library, destroying ancient manuscripts, along with bookshops in Al-Nujaifi Street in central Mosul. The group is also reported to have destroyed Islamic sites in other parts of northern Iraq.

Archaeologists and heritage experts this week continued to try to determine the extent of the damage by examining the IS video. Reports say that all smaller items were removed from the Mosul Museum long before last June’s IS takeover of the city for safekeeping in Baghdad, leaving only larger pieces that could not be moved in situ.

According to unconfirmed reports circulating this week, these pieces included the larger objects in the museum’s Assyrian and Hatra Halls, among them pieces recovered at the nearby Assyrian site of Nineveh and the Roman city of Hatra.

There were 24 Assyrian reliefs and statues from the sites of Nimrud and Nineveh in the Assyrian Hall, the reports said, the majority of them genuine, and 30 statues and reliefs in the Hatra Hall, all but four of which were originals.

It is these statues and reliefs that the IS militants are shown destroying in the video, apparently unaware that some of the objects destroyed were plaster casts of originals kept elsewhere.

According to discussions on archaeological social networking sites this week, as far as the Assyrian objects are concerned, the most important loss may be that of a lamassu, a large human-headed and winged bull statue that once guarded the entrance gates to Nineveh.

Several lamassu, excavated by British and French archaeological expeditions in the 19th century, are today on display in the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. The IS video from inside the Mosul Museum shows a man wearing black clothing using a heavy drill to attack a remaining lamassu guarding Nineveh’s Nergal Gate.

The Nergal Gate was built during the Assyrian King Sennacherib’s expansion of Nineveh, sometime between 704 and 690 BCE. Nineveh was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world and was used by the Assyrians as their political capital, being next in importance to their religious capital at Ashur.

The city was surrounded by a 12-km-long wall, of which 12 gates have been excavated, and was continuously occupied until its destruction in 612 BCE.

The Hatra statues and reliefs, shown being destroyed in the video, were excavated from the remains of the fortified city, 110 km southwest of Mosul. The city flourished particularly in the 2nd century BCE and was a major staging post on trade routes in the region, along with cities like Palmyra in Syria, Petra in Jordan, and Baalbek in Lebanon.

It was attacked by the Roman Emperor Trajan in 116 CE and again by Emperor Septimius Severus in 198. The city was destroyed by the Persian Emperor Ardashir I (226-42 CE), founder of the Sassanid Dynasty.

The Mosul Museum also contains an Islamic Hall, not shown on the IS video, that is believed to contain 30 original objects. Since taking over northern Iraq last year, the group has also targeted Islamic sites, such as mosques and shrines, for destruction.

Information from the region has been fragmentary and difficult to verify, but videos and photographs released on the Internet appear to show the group destroying Islamic sites that conflict with its interpretation of Islam.

Reports surfaced in January that the group had destroyed Al-Fatih and Al-Ummawiya Mosques in the Qasim Al-Khayat neighbourhood of Mosul, along with the mausoleum of Imam Yahya in Al-Qasim in the same area and the shrines of various Sufi sheikhs.

IS militants are believed to have destroyed the shrines of Imam Al-Muhsin and Sultan Waiys in Mosul, along with the shrines of Nabi Shiet (the Prophet Seth) and Nabi Younis (the Prophet Jonah), also in Mosul, along with the shrine of the Prophet Daniel.

It has been reported that a number of Christian churches have been destroyed in or around Mosul and that IS forces blew up parts of the mediaeval Tal Afar Citadel in December, having previously used it as a prison.

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