Assyrian Gateway Human Headed Winged Lions ‘Lamassu’ from the North West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud at The British Museum – Room 6. In the background is the Balawat Gates are reminders of how ISIS is destroying history. Photo: Mujtaba Chohan/ via Wikimedia Commons
MOSUL, IRAQ–Islamic State also known as ISIS has done it again. After tormenting the world with videos of beheadings and burning people alive, the terrorist organization recently went after precious historical artifacts in Iraq. In a new propaganda video released Thursday by ISIS, members of the terrorist organization are shown destroying ancient Assyrian artifacts dating to 2500 BC.
Although many of the objects seen been destroyed in the ISIS video are copies and replicas, the destruction is proof of the cultural genocide endemic to Islamic terrorism. Of all the pieces destroyed, perhaps, the only authentic sculpture is the winged bull at the gates to Nineveh dating back to the seventh century.
In the ISIS propaganda video, members of the terrorist organization went after works they thought were original Assyrian artifacts at Mosul Museum in northern Iraq and nearby Nineveh archaeological site with the main objective of eradicating cultural history. While some men topple statues, others smash them with sledgehammers. In instances when the sledgehammer was not enough, drills and jackhammers were used.
The Mosul Museum in northern Iraq is one of Iraq’s most important museums second only to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. It houses many artifacts dating back to the city’s early days as the capital of the Assyrian Empire. After the US invasion in 2003, the museum, like many other Iraq institutions was ransacked, looted and destroyed. Fears that the looting and destruction may happen again led to the removal of the artifacts which were replaced with replicas. The Mosul Museum was close to reopening after an extensive renovation costing millions of dollars when ISIS invaded Mosul in June 2014. Soon after the occupation of Mosul last summer, ISIS threatened to destroy the museum’s collection.
The recently released video confirms that threat. But ISIS destruction of the historic cultural artifacts did not end at the Mosul Museum. Another section of the ISIS video shows some men destroying sculptures at the Nineveh archaeological site located across the Tigris river from Mosul. Nineveh, on the site of modern day Mosul, was the capital of the Assyrian empire that lasted from 2500 to 605 BC.
At Nineveh, the disturbing ISIS propaganda video shows beaded men using drills and sledgehammers to destroy tall statues of winged and bearded figures, some of which date back to the 7th century BCE. The large sculptures adorned the gates of the ancient city.
The tall statues of winged and bearded figures are just a few of what is left on the Nineveh archeological site. While many of the large-winged figures and bas-reliefs that used to adorn the ancient site are now part of collections in prominent museums in the West — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, and The Louvre — the destruction of the large-winged figures and bas-reliefs sculptures is catastrophic for human history.
Many of the artifacts destroyed by ISIS at Nineveh include recent archaeological finds from the ancient Assyrian empire. At the beginning of the video, a spokesman for ISIS describes the artworks as “the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshiped instead of Allah.” He provides a justification for the destruction of these important artifacts that speak to the history of the Iraq and Assyrians. “The prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues.”
The beaded spokesman for ISIS notes further that “This is what his companions did later on when they conquered lands. Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey and we do not care [what people think], even if this costs billions of dollars.”
Since ISIS released this disconcerting video, scholars, including archaeologists and historians have expressed disgust for the destruction of the artifacts, especially at Nineveh. In a statement on the destruction these important artifacts, Thomas P. Campbell, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, notes:
Speaking with great sadness on behalf of the Metropolitan, a museum whose collection proudly protects and displays the arts of ancient and Islamic Mesopotamia, we strongly condemn this act of catastrophic destruction to one of the most important museums in the Middle East. The Mosul Museum’s collection covers the entire range of civilization in the region, with outstanding sculptures from royal cities such as Nimrud, Nineveh, and Hatra in northern Iraq. This mindless attack on great art, on history, and on human understanding constitutes a tragic assault not only on the Mosul Museum, but on our universal commitment to use art to unite people and promote human understanding. Such wanton brutality must stop, before all vestiges of the ancient world are obliterated.”
Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova also could not hide her dismay after seeing the ISIS video showing the devastation at Nineveh and the Mosul Museum in Iraq: “I was filled with dismay by images of the attack on the Mosul Museum, as well as on other archaeological sites in the Nineveh region in Iraq.”
To preserve the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, Bokova called for mobilization to stop “cultural cleansing” in Iraq. She notes: “This tragedy is far from just a cultural issue: it’s an issue of major security. We see clearly how terrorists use the destruction of heritage in their strategy to destabilize and manipulate populations so that they can assure their own domination”.
ISIS has not only been responsible for the destruction of cultural treasures in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist groups is also known to smuggle antiquities out of Iraq and Syria and sell them to fund its operations. In 2014, the illicit sale of Iraq’s artifacts compelled some scholars who urged the United Nations to ban the sale of Iraq’s cultural properties.
When ISIS swept through Iraq seizing cities in 2014, there was a great outcry by archeologists, historians and other scholars about the fate of the artifacts and treasures. While reports show that ISIS began by selling some of the treasures to finance their operations, they also destroyed ancient artifacts, artworks shrines, tombs and statues ISIS viewed not in conformity to its theology.
With the releases of the propaganda video that shows ISIS members destroying important artifacts, the fear expressed by those that cautioned the world about ISIS advance in Iraq and what would happen to the artifacts seems to have come to fruition. Although many of the works destroyed are replicas and copies, except for the winged bull, it is clear what would happen to the originals if ISIS finds them.
ISIS destruction of important cultural artifacts follows in the tradition of the Taliban who blew up the Buddhas at Bamyan, in Afghanistan. The world watched in horror as the Buddhas were blown into dust. Mud tombs and ancient Islamic manuscripts in Timbuktu were also destroyed 2014 by Malian jihadi group Ansar al Dine for not conforming to its theology.
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