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What’s Been Lost to the Islamists’ Sledgehammers

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John Burger - published on 03/01/15 - updated on 06/07/17

Islamic State video showing destruction in Mosul Museum shocks historians.

A video showing Islamic State militants with sledgehammers and power drills on a rampage inside the Mosul Museum shows the destruction of both reproductions and priceless originals from at least two important eras in the region’s history, said a British expert on Iraqi culture.

Paul Collins, of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, in an email to Aleteia, said it was “distressing” to watch scenes of the destruction of colossal winged bulls of the seventh century BC. “These are certainly the real things and it looks from the video that the sculptures are those situated outside the museum at the site of Nineveh—the colossal figures guarded one of the city gates (the so-called Nergal Gate) and were created by king Sennacherib, famous from the Old Testament.”

“The videos show sculptures from the site of Hatra (1st to 2nd century AD),” Collins added. “Some of these may be casts, since the vast majority of objects had been removed to Baghdad in advance of the 2003 invasion when the museum was looted (the empty case that once contained the so-called Balawat Gate bronzes of the ninth century BC that were taken in 2003 appears briefly in the video). Some of the sculptures, however, look genuine. These represent one of the earliest Arab kingdoms in the region.”

The museum in northern Iraq showcases archaeological finds from the ancient Assyrian empire. Islamic State militants seized the museum—which had not yet opened to the public—when they took over Mosul in June and have repeatedly threatened to destroy its collection. The extremists appear to be trying to cleanse the region of ideas they consider un-Islamic, including artworks, library books and relics.

In the video, put out by the Islamic State’s media office for Nineveh Province, a man explains, “The monuments that you can see behind me are but statues and idols of people from previous centuries, which they used to worship instead of God.” A message flashing on the screen read: “Those statues and idols weren’t there at the time of the Prophet nor his companions. They have been excavated by Satanists.”

A professor at the Archaeology College in Mosul confirmed to the Associated Press that the two sites depicted in the video are the city museum and Nergal Gate, one of several gates to the capital of the Assyrian Empire, Ninevah.

"I’m totally shocked," Amir al-Jumaili said by phone from outside of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. "It’s a catastrophe. With the destruction of these artifacts, we can no longer be proud of Mosul’s civilization."

Reaction from around the world, particularly from historians and archaeologists, expressed horror and sadness. Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, denounced the destruction as "cultural cleansing" and a war crime that the world must punish. Bokova said she couldn’t finish watching the video, which she called "a real shock."

Speaking to reporters Friday, Bokova announced the creation of a "global coalition against the illegal trafficking of cultural goods" that will meet in coming weeks. She has also asked for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on protecting Iraq’s cultural heritage.

The Louvre Museum in Paris 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 civilization, the written word, and history."

Amr al-Azm, a Syrian anthropologist and historian, on his Facebook page called the destruction “a tragedy and catastrophic loss for Iraqi history and archaeology beyond comprehension."

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Islamist MilitantsMosul
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