What ISIS Destroys, Why, and Why We Must Document It (Hyperallergic)

by Christopher Jones on March 6, 2015 original article here.

A member of ISIS destroying an Assyrian (all images are stills from the infamous ISIS video unless otherwise noted)

A member of ISIS destroying an ancient Assyrian lamassu (all images are stills from the infamous ISIS video unless otherwise noted)

One week ago the world was shocked by a five-minute video posted online by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) showing its members toppling ancient statues inside the Mosul Museum, smashing them with sledgehammers, and pulverizing what remained with jackhammers. The destruction left scholars of Mesopotamia scrambling to figure out what exactly had been destroyed and what remained.

A destroyed statue in the Mosul Museum

A destroyed statue in the Mosul Museum

In some ways, the damage could have been worse. In April of 2003 around 1,500 smaller items in the museum were sent to Baghdad for safekeeping. A few of the items that remained, such as the Assyrian reliefs and the statues of Hercules and a seated goddess from the Roman-era desert city of Hatra, were replicas of originals kept in London or Baghdad.

Nevertheless, the losses are catastrophic. Five life-sized statues depicting kings of Hatra were smashed to bits. There are twenty-seven known statues of Hatrene kings, so this represents a loss of 15% of all such sculptures in existence. Three more life-sized statues of Hatrene noblemen and priests have likewise been destroyed, along with statues of Venus, Nike, and eagles and lions which once adorned Hatra’s temples.

Destructing in the Mosul Museum with some remaining items in the background.

Destructing in the Mosul Museum with some remaining items in the background.

Just as tragic are the loss of the four Assyrian stone lamassu, human-headed winged bulls which were installed in the Nergal Gate at Nineveh during the reign of Sennacherib sometime between 704 and 690 B.C. These were some of the few lamassu still installed at their original location, the same place where they had once greeted visitors to Nineveh over 2,700 years ago. Other lamassu survive on display in New York, Paris, London, Chicago, and Baghdad, but now only Nimrud and Susa retain lamassu at their original locations. (Recent reports indicate that the lamassu at Nimrud may have also been destroyed).

The excavation of an ancient Assyrian lamassu in the early 20th century and the statue in the Mosul Museum.

The excavation of an ancient Assyrian lamassu in the early 20th century and the statue in the Mosul Museum.

The media spokesman who narrates the video was quite explicit about why these artifacts were destroyed. According to a translation provided by MEMRI TV:

Oh Muslims, the remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshiped instead of Allah. The Assyrians, Akkadians, and others took for themselves gods of rain, of agriculture, and of war, and worshiped them along with Allah, and tried to appease them with all kinds of sacrifices.

Yet, when one takes stock of the items that were destroyed it is striking how few of them were actually depictions of gods. Of all the statues shown being shattered only four of them were actually depictions of deities: The statues of Venus and Nike, and the replica statues of the seated goddess and Hercules. At one point the video panned to a sign at the Nergal Gate and highlighted the section which identified Nergal as the god of the underworld, but the lamassu were not depictions of Nergal or any other deity but instead depicted protective spirits who guarded the doorway.

An ISIS narrator

An ISIS narrator

What’s more, several plaques depicting Hatrene gods and goddesses were shown early in the video, but at the end, when the camera pans through the rubble of the shattered museum, these plaques can be seen still hanging on the wall untouched.

But ISIS is quite open that their motives are not simply iconoclastic but also political. From later in the video:

The Prophet Muhammad shattered the idols with his own honorable hands, when he conquered Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues. This is what his companions did later on, when they conquered lands.

When Muhammad captured Mecca in 629 he famously destroyed the cult statues kept inside the Kaaba. In ISIS’ perverse logic, destroying physical evidence of the past serves to link themselves with an event from their own idealized version of the past.

In the Wahhabi ideology which informs ISIS, Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphs which followed him represent true Islam, and the embrace of classical philosophy and learning by the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties represents bid’ah or religious innovations that deviate from the teachings of the first Muslims.


The history of the excavation of the Assyrian lamassu.

Yet, when the early Muslims under Caliph Umar captured Egypt, they did not destroy the Sphinx or other clearly visible Egyptian antiquities. Churches in Jerusalem were respected rather than destroyed. Monks were left alone rather than expelled. ISIS’s videographer tries to rebut this objection, as towards the end of the video there is shown a photograph of the excavation of one of the lamassu with a caption stating that “These idols and statues were not visible in the days of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, but were extracted by the worshipers of devils.”

The half human animal that the Muslim prophet Muhammad rode on his fabled night journey, 17th century Mughal miniature painting from India (public domain)

The half human animal that the Muslim prophet Muhammad rode on his fabled night journey, 17th century Mughal miniature painting from India (public domain)

Furthermore, the influence of pre-Islamic cultures on Islam can be seen elsewhere. Al-Buraq, the legendary steed which carried Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem on his Night Journey, is traditionally depicted as a horse with wings and a human head, similar to the Assyrian lamassu which ISIS destroyed.

At this point it would be easy to simply mock ISIS as poor scholars of history. After all, its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was described as “a street thug” by US military officials, who gained most of his jihadist education not in a mosque but in a prison camp where he was confined for the majority of the Iraq War. But this obscures the purpose of ISIS’s actions: By erasing all evidence of both the pre-Islamic past and alternative interpretations of Islam, ISIS hopes to create a world where knowledge of any belief system except their own interpretation of Islam is forgotten forever.

As a result, the work of documenting what is lost takes on even more importance. Not only is it vital for future scholarship, it serves to remind the world of the existence of all that ISIS seeks to destroy.


ISIS Destroys Historic Sites in Iraq and Syria (Hyperallergic)

by Hrag Vartanian on July 9, 2014 original article appears here.

From the unverified video of a member of ISIS desecrating the alleged tombs of the prophet Jonah (GIF Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

The militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been destroying the artistic and religious heritage of Iraq and Syria as they continue to impose their fundamentalist Sunni doctrine on the lands they’ve occupied. Recent reports, which have been hard to independently confirm, have reported that ISIS most recently destroyed the alleged tomb of the Biblical prophet Jonah (Younis). A short video (posted below) of a black-clad figure hurling a sledgehammer at the tombs, which according to Iraqi authorities includes the prophet’s tomb, is the latest visual evidence of the group’s iconoclastic cultural policy. Jonah is the Biblical figure that was swallowed by a whale, and his tale is recorded both in the Old Testament and the Quran.

The latest bout of destruction by ISIS has raised concerns that the group threatens all religious minorities, including non-fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, and imperils all the monuments and sites affiliated with those groups. Archeological sites are also under threat, and in June the Guardian reported that ISIS “was also known to have reaped windfalls from smuggling all manner of raw materials pillaged from the crumbling state, as well as priceless antiquities from archaeological digs.”

Last month, European Union observers reported that 11 churches were torched by ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul, while the Sunni fundamentalists also raped civilians. Among the many architectural monuments destroyed included the grave of 12th–13th-century historiographer Abu al-Hassan al-Jazari, known as ibn al-Athir, and several churches that had been “burnt to the ground.”

An image posted on social media by ISIS showing what appears to be a Sufi shrine being bulldozed. (Al-Arabiya News/Twitter)

A Shiite Islamic site being destroyed by explosives (image via Al Arabiya)

ISIS’s animosity towards local Christians is not new, and the group has been targeting Christians heavily since they took over parts of eastern Syria. According to Al Jazeera, earlier this year the group demanded “every Christian man pay a tax of up to 17g of gold, a levy that was common in Muslim states centuries ago,” while the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) reported that ISIS has imposed a $250 minimum tax on Christians in the Iraqi city of Mosul. There are also numerous videos posted online of the fundamentalist group’s desecration of Christian churches.

The AINA has been regularly reporting about the destruction of historic and religious monuments by ISIS. Earlier this year they reported that the group destroyed Assyrian statues and artifacts believed to be 3,000 years old, while more recently they confirmed that ISIS had destroyed a statue of Arab poet Abu Tammam in Mosul last month.

ISIS is not limiting its destruction to non-Muslim sites and four shrines to Sunni Arab or Sufi figures, and six Shiite mosques have also been destroyed in the ISIS-controlled regions of Iraq’s Nineveh province, where Mosul is the capital. Al-Arabiya News is reporting that the “Sunni and Sufi shrines were demolished by bulldozers, while the Shiite mosques and shrines were all destroyed by explosives.”

Photos showing what appears to be ISIS militants destroying ancient Assyrian statues. (via apsa2011.com)



Destruction of a Shiite religious site by ISIS (Twitter via Al-Arabiya)


St. Etchmiadzin Armenian church in Mosul following attacks by ISIS. (via Asbarez)