A sledgehammer to civilisation: Islamic State’s war on culture

Isis has destroyed countless irreplaceable artefacts and heritage sites across the areas it controls of Iraq and Syria – and some are comparing its assault on human history to the atrocities of Mao and Pol Pot. Are they right?

As masked men with sledgehammers and drills stood amid priceless antiquities in Mosul museum in late February, a narrator on this Islamic state video read a justification for what was about to come.

“The so-called Assyrians and Akkadians and others looked to gods for war, agriculture and rain, to whom they offered sacrifices,” he said. “The prophet Mohammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca,” he added, underscoring the seventh-century precedent that the terror group has used to underpin its recent rampages.

“We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.”

And so began the most devastating moment yet in the destruction of Iraq’s archaeological heritage at the hands of Isis, which, in the 10 months it has controlled western and central Iraq, has destroyed several millennia of human coexistence and steadily eroded one of the richest and most diverse cultural landscapes in the world.

Since the attack on the museum, the extremists have turned their bulldozers towards other globally significant areas, decimating sites that had withstood empire and insurrection and borne witness to the rise of humanity.

Militants destroy ancient artefacts in Mosul.

The aftermath has prompted cultural bastions from the Louvre in Paris to the British Museum to denounce what amounts to an annihilation of Iraq’s heritage has and led frantic Iraqi officials to ask for the UN security council to help protect what is left.

The Louvre said in a statement: “This destruction marks a new stage in the violence and horror, because all of humanity’s memory is being targeted in this region that was the cradle of civilisation, the written word and history.”

The ancient city of Hatra was the latest to be attacked by Isis, whose fighters last weekend released a video of its efforts to destroy the best preserved Parthian city anywhere in the region. The Assyrian city of Nimrud, which along with Hatra and Dur Sharrukin and most of the other sites so far targeted are in the Isis stronghold of Nineveh province in northern Iraq, was the first that Isis turned to. There, the extremist group is doing all it can to revert the region to “year zero”, the time when the prophet Mohammed ruled and was personally responsible for destroying some symbols of earlier eras.

This fanatically literal interpretation of Islamic life was revived by an 18th-century cleric, Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, whose influence on thinking at the time led to around 90% of Islamic monuments in the Arabian peninsula being destroyed because they detracted from the “oneness” of God.

Churches, Shia and Sufi mosques and libraries have also been targeted by Isis as it attempts to assert itself as an uncontested power in the swath of land it now controls from eastern Aleppo in neighbouring Syria to Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul.

But in Baghdad there is a sense that, while some of the more recent monuments can be rebuilt, the ancient heritage of the region is much less replaceable.

“We have lost about 10% of our heritage so far,” says Qais Hussein Rashid, the director of Iraq’s state board of antiquity and heritage, although Iraqi media and other officials suggest the real figure may be far higher. “Isis has destroyed many statues and sold the rest. The museum [in Mosul] was considered number one in Iraq. The local government had spent so much money to open the museum till the day before Mosul fell. They got everything ready and they they lost it all to Isis.”

Getting Mosul museum ready to showcase the treasures that had emerged throughout the ages from Mesopotamia had been seen as a seminal moment in Iraq’s recovery from its last invasion – the US-led war to oust Saddam Hussein. That campaign had led to a pillage of antiquities across the country. The Baghdad museum was almost emptied out by Iraqi civilians and US soldiers as the capital fell and, more than a decade later, efforts to recover the artefacts have been only moderately successful.

And, as was the case at the Iraqi national museum, few of the stolen or destroyed pieces were replicas. At Hatra, images released by the jihadists showed some artefacts had steel rods inserted in them, suggesting that original pieces were elsewhere and possibly safe. But of Mosul, Rashid says: “They were the real thing. They were priceless.”

This time, there is a strong suspicion that, by attacking archeological sites, Isis is not just adhering to a literal creed – it also wants to make money by selling pieces on a global black market.

A militant destroying a statue on a wall at Hatra.
A militant destroying a statue on a wall at Hatra. Photograph: Uncredited/AP

“We sent photos and copies of all of the antiques to Unesco, to neighbouring countries and to our embassies, and we managed to stop some smuggling in one European country,” claimed Rashid as evidence that the pillage of the Nineveh sites may have opened a new trade in global antiquities smuggling. “Isis has turned to our museums because they need money and it’s the easiest way for them to fund themselves.”

Iraq’s leading expert on Isis, Dr Hisham al-Hashimi says: “Isis says it is destroying the museums because, according to their ideology, they have to destroy every statue that is a symbol of worship, but the real reason behind the destruction is they don’t have much money right now.

“Their funding is limited, so they destroy some pieces from the museums and sell the rest to Turkey and other European countries via the mafias. Also, it is a very important way to make the world angry; get the media’s attention and bring the international forces back to Iraq.”

Al-Hashimi says Isis wants to drag the international community back into a land war to prove to its followers that the sectarian dimension of what is taking place was preordained in a prophecy that said that Sunni and Shia Muslims would fight a re-apocalyptic battle in the ancient land of Sham (roughly where modern Syria now stands).

Dr Ihsan al-Shimari, a professor of international relations at Baghdad University, says Isis was not shy about selling antiquities, nor about ransacking museums in a bid to attract followers.

“Daesh is against the humanity and against civilisation,” he says, using a pejorative Arabic acronym for the organisation. “They are not ashamed of anything. They publish that they behead and burn people, so I can’t see why they would want to hide selling antiques. They want to get lots of sympathy from the ideologues who believe in destroying monuments.

“In this scenario, they are repeating what the followers of prophet Mohammed did in Mecca, how they destroyed the statues people used to worship.

“I don’t think there are any more museums left under their control, so they can’t destroy more unless they (seize) more land.”

A militant attacking an ancient wall in Hatra.
A militant attacking an ancient wall in Hatra. Photograph: Uncredited/AP

With Iraq’s central government having no control over Nineveh province, it has been left to eyewitnesses to report the extent of the destruction in the pillaged sites. Isis refuses to allow civilians near Hatra and Nimrud, however the group has forced locals to assemble to watch it go about destroying smaller sites, such as tombs, or Sufi mosques within cities like Mosul.

One Mosul local, who refuses to give his name, says: “I saw the destruction of the Prophet Jonah mosque, which is build on one of the oldest hills in Mosul. Isis called people and asked them to come and watch the destruction. It happened at 5.30pm on 24 July.

“They wanted to spread fear and agony in our hearts. It was the hardest thing to witness. After that, when I hear about the destruction of any other old mosques, I avoid going to that neighbourhood.

“The museum was a different story. It was under the control of Isis and no one could see what was happening inside unless they were one of them.

“If the government says they only lost 10%, it’s because they want to contain people’s anger or are probably ignorant about what Mosul has. They destroyed the Assyrian civilisation, Nimrud, Hatra, mosques built from the Ottoman and Abbasi time and the Winged Bulls [two colossal human headed statues at Dur Sharrukin].”

North of Mosul on the Nineveh plains, ethnic groups that have lived together for several thousand years, among them Yazidis, have been forced en masse into exile. Vian Dakheel, the only Yazidi MP in Iraq’s national parliament, said the destruction of Iraq’s heritage was secondary to the end of its co-existence.

Between Mount Sinjar and the frontier with Iraqi Kurdistan, where Yazidis who survived Isis’s attempted genocide late last summer have now fled, few of their mosques, or the churches of the Chaldean Christians who also lived in Nineveh, have been left unscathed.

“We are hurt to see our monuments and temples being destroyed, but this is nothing compared to what we really lost. The majority of our temples were destroyed; we have only two temples left – one in Sinjar and the other in Al-Sheikhan. But, beyond that, we lost our own people and our safety. I don’t think our people will be able to go back to their homes without international protection.

“They won’t be able to go home, and nor will anyone else,” says a second Mosul local who fled the city five months ago and now lives in Istanbul. “Isis are trying to destroy our collective memory. This is worse than Mao and it is worse than Pol Pot. It is the worst kind of cultural revolution. They want people to know that nothing was important before them.”


Martin Chulov

The GuardianTramp

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