As masked men with sledgehammers and drills stood amid priceless antiquities in Mosul Museum in Iraq in late February, a narrator on the 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 Muhammad 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 Islamic State militants, who, in the 10 months they have controlled western and central Iraq, have destroyed artefacts from 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 to other globally significant areas, destroying sites that had withstood empire and insurrection and borne witness to the rise of humanity.
The aftermath has prompted cultural bastions from the Louvre to the British Museum to denounce what amounts to an annihilation of Iraq’s heritage and has led frantic Iraqi officials to ask for the United Nations 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 the militants, who 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 militants’ stronghold of Nineveh province in northern Iraq. There, the extremist group is doing all it can to revert the region to “year zero”, the time when the Prophet ruled and was personally responsible for destroying 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 about 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 the Islamic State 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, although 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,” said 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 [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] 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 then they lost it all to Isis.”
Getting the 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 United States-led war to oust Saddam Hussein. That campaign had led to a pillage of antiquities around the country. The National Museum of Baghdad was almost emptied out by Iraqi civilians and US soldiers when the capital fell and, more than a decade later, efforts to recover the artefacts have been only moderately successful.
The National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad was looted during the United States-led war on Saddam Hussein in 2003. (Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images)
And, as was the case at the 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 the original pieces were elsewhere and possibly safe. But of Mosul, Rashid said: “They were the real thing. They were priceless.”
This time, there is a strong suspicion that, by attacking archeological sites, the Islamic State is not just adhering to a literal creed – it also wants to make money by selling artefacts on a global black market.
“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,” Rashid said, 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 the Islamic State, Hisham al-Hashimi, said: “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 said the militants wanted 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 Sunni and Shia Muslims would fight an apocalyptic battle in the ancient land of Sham (roughly where modern Syria now is).
Ihsan al-Shimari, a professor of international relations at Baghdad University, said the Islamic State was not shy about selling antiquities, nor about ransacking museums in a bid to attract followers.
“Daesh is against humanity and against civilisation,” he said, 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 Muhammad did in Mecca, how they destroyed the statues people used to worship.”
Locals forced to watch
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. The Islamic State refuses to allow civilians near Hatra and Nimrud, but the group has forced locals to assemble to watch it destroy smaller sites, such as tombs and Sufi mosques.
One Mosul local, who refused to give his name, said: “I saw the destruction of the Prophet Jonah mosque, which is built 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 who 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 only to the end of coexistence.
Between Mount Sinjar and the frontier with Iraqi Kurdistan, where Yazidis who survived the Islamic State’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.
Another Mosul local, who fled the city five months ago and now lives in Istanbul, said: “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 …
“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.” – Additional reporting by Mais al-Baya’a © Guardian News & Media 2015