Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

More destruction by Islamic State

Islamic State forces in northern Iraq have reportedly destroyed parts of the ancient sites of Nimrud and Hatra, writes David Tresilian in Paris

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iraq1
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Islamic State (IS) group, according to reports from Iraq last week, has demolished parts of the ancient Assyrian site of Nimrud and the Parthian site of Hatra. Nimrud is some 34 km south of the city of Mosul, while Hatra is about 10 km south of Mosul.

IS forces, which occupies much of northern Iraq, as well as parts of neighbouring Syria, used bulldozers to destroy parts of the Nimrud site last Thursday. A few days later, on Saturday, they turning their attention to Hatra and carried out similar destruction, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Antiquities in Baghdad.

The reports came in the wake of a video released last month in which IS forces were seen destroying Assyrian and Hatran artefacts in the Mosul Museum. The artefacts, which included statues and other items excavated from Nimrud and Hatra were destroyed, according to narration on the video, because they were “false idols” and conflicted with the group’s interpretation of Islam.

The group has not released video evidence from Nimrud or Hatra showing the new destruction, but there were reports from the region of explosions at both sites and the group using bulldozers to demolish surviving structures.

Reacting to the reports, the head of the UN cultural organisation UNESCO, Irina Bokova, said the destruction constituted a “war crime” and called on the “international community, in solidarity with the people of Iraq, to put an end to this destruction.”

In a joint statement with the director-general of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO), Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri, Bokova said that the destruction of Hatra “marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing underway in Iraq.”

“This is a direct attack against the history of Islamic Arab cities,” the two officials said, referring to the destruction of the Hatra site. “With this latest act of barbarism, Daesh shows the contempt in which it holds the history and heritage of the Arab people, rightly recognised as a World Heritage Site.” Daesh is the Arabic acronym of Islamic State.

According to the Iraqi Ministry of Antiquities, local sources confirmed that the new destruction had been taking place even before the release of visual evidence by IS. Local residents told news agencies at the weekend that bulldozers and other vehicles were seen entering Nimrud last week.

The ministry said that there had been a less than concerted international effort to prevent the looting and destruction of Hatra and this had encouraged IS to attack the site. “The response wasn’t at the required level,” the ministry said. “This encouraged the terrorist gangs to commit another crime by looting and destroying the Hatra site.”

Nimrud was founded during the 13th century BCE and was the second capital of the Assyrian Empire, flourishing during the reign of King Ashurnasirpal. The site covers an area of 13 square km.

Most of the materials excavated from the site, including giant winged bull gatekeeper statues, wall reliefs, and other items, are now in international museums, some items were left in situ. There are fears that these have now been stolen or destroyed by IS.

The remains of Hatra date back to between the 1st century BCE and 2nd century CE when the fortified city, located at the meeting point of the Roman and Parthian Empires, developed a style of architecture that blended Hellenistic, Roman and Eastern decorative features.

According to UNESCO, the city of Hatra, like Nimrud a World Heritage Site, is “an excellent example of the fortified cities laid out on the circular plan of the eastern city, such as Ctesiphon, Firouzabad or Zingirli. The perfect condition of the double wall in an untouched environment sets it aside as an outstanding example of a series which covers the Parthian, Sassanid, and early Islamic civilisation.”

In the centre of Hatra lies the remains of a temple complex dedicated to Hatran gods such as the sun god Shamash. In the 2nd century CE, the city was governed by Arab rulers.

According to archaeological expert Christopher Jones, the destruction of the Hatran material by IS may be even more significant than the group’s destruction of material from Nimrud since it has been less studied.

Commenting on the IS destruction of the Mosul Museum, Jones wrote on his website that “Hatrene sculpture has been chronically understudied. Almost all of it was excavated in the 20th century and the finds never left Iraq. Very few scholars outside Iraq have had the opportunity to study the Hatrene statues.”

In the IS video of the destruction of the museum, statues of unidentified kings of Hatra, as well as of King Uthal and King Sanatruq II, the last king of Hatra before it was destroyed by the Persian Sasanid King Shapur I in 240 CE, are shown being smashed with sledgehammers by IS militants.

“We have 27 known statues of kings of Hatra, so the destruction of four of them represents a loss of 15 per cent,” Jones wrote, that loss now being compounded by the IS destruction of the archaeological site.

Scholars and heritage experts worldwide have reacted with incomprehension to the IS campaign to destroy Iraq’s cultural heritage. However, some have suggested that the group may only be destroying material that it cannot sell, being more concerned to loot heritage sites and institutions and then sell the finds than to destroy the country’s heritage.

There have been many unconfirmed reports that the group has been smuggling looted artefacts out of Iraq and Syria for sale on the international antiquities market in order to fund its activities.

The group has also been destroying the Islamic heritage of northern Iraq and eastern Syria. In January it was reported that IS had destroyed mosques, mausoleums and Sufi shrines in Mosul, along with the shrines of the prophets Seth, Jonah and Daniel.

It has also reportedly destroyed a number of Christian churches in or around Mosul and blown up parts of the mediaeval Tal Afar Citadel.

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