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What’s Been Lost to the Islamists’ Sledgehammers

Irak. L’Etat islamique saccage le musée de Mossoul – en

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John Burger - published on 03/01/15

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."

A narrator of the video calls the objects “idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah.”

“The so-called Assyrians and Akkadians and others looked to gods for war, agriculture and rain to whom they offered sacrifices,” he says, according to a translation by the International Business Times. “The Prophet Mohammed 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, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.”

The website Gates of Nineveh, authored by Christopher Jones, a Ph.D student in ancient Near Eastern history at Columbia University in New York, has a summary of what appears to have been destroyed and historical information on the lost pieces. He said that of the Assyrian artifacts, "by far the most important losses are the lamassu at the Nergal Gate, one of which was exceedingly well preserved…. They were some of the few lamassu left in their original locations to greet visitors to Nineveh the same way they would have greeted visitors in ancient Assyria.”

The entrance to the gate was flanked by two large winged human-headed bulls known as lamassu in Akkadian. The gate and its lamassu were first excavated by Sir Austen Henry Layard in 1849 but then re-buried. The left lamassu (seen above behind the ISIS narrator) was uncovered again sometime before 1892, and a local man paid an Ottoman official for the top half of it, cut it off and broken down over a fire in order to extract lime. The right lamassu remained buried until 1941 when heavy rains eroded the soil around the gate and exposed the two statues. The gate was later reconstructed around them and they have remained on display ever since.

The gate was built during Sennacherib’s expansion of Nineveh sometime between 704 and 690 BC.

The video stops at 2:26 to emphasize the sign which states that “this gate is related to the god Nergal, the god of plague and the lower world.” The left lamassu, already missing its upper half, does not seem to have been targeted. The right lamassu had its face chiseled off with a jackhammer, likely causing irreparable damage.

The Iraqi region under the control of the extremists has nearly 1,800 of the country’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites, and the militants appear to be out to cleanse it of ideas they consider un-Islamic, including library books, relics and even Islamic sites considered idolatrous, said AP.

Islamic State militants ransacked the Central Library of Mosul in January, smashing the locks and taking about 2,000 books, while leaving only Islamic texts. Days later, militants broke into University of Mosul’s library and built a bonfire out of hundreds of books on science and culture, destroying them in front of students, reported the wire service.

Among the most important sites under the militants’ control are four ancient cities: Ninevah, Kalhu, Dur Sharrukin and Ashur, which at different times were capitals of the mighty Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians first arose around 2,500 B.C. and once ruled from the Mediterranean coast to what is now Iran.

Islamist MilitantsMosul
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