“The worst thing about wars is that they do not distinguish between the past and the future”. So says Abdallah Ismail, a Mosul calligrapher and expert on historical sites, as he is talking about the condition of various historic landmarks inside the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which was taken over by Sunni Muslim extremists over two weeks ago.
One of the first things that the extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, did was to show its authority and its beliefs by destroying or removing old statues and shrines around the ancient city, first mentioned by the ancient Greeks in 401BC. ISIS did this because to them the landmarks and monuments are signs of idolatry or polytheism.
Ismail says he’s seen the sad evidence of these removals with his own eyes. The statue of poet Abu Tammam, born in 788, is gone now, removed by ISIS gunmen on June 19 from the central Bab al-Toub area.
There is also an empty place now where what locals know as The Tomb of the Girl used to be. This tomb used to rise above a concrete dome in Ras al-Jada in western Mosul. Many people thought that the tomb belonged to a beautiful, young girl who died because of a broken heart. However, historians say the tomb actually belongs to Arab historian, Ibn al-Athir al-Jazari, born in 1160.
Both sites, with their statues, were apparently removed by ISIS’ bulldozers. The extremist organization did the same thing again just a few kilometres away when its henchmen removed the statue of musician and poet Mullah Othman al-Musili, born 1854, from the al-Mahata neighbourhood in southern Mosul. A lot of the music native to Mosul, played on festive occasions, was composed by al-Musili; a lot of his music is secular.
Article 13 of the city charter that ISIS distributed to locals says that false idols will need to be destroyed and Ismail believes that the removal of these icons was supposed to send a firm message to the people of Mosul that ISIS was in control; all of these statues are well known by locals and their absence would be noted daily. He also thinks it is a clever way of “taking the pulse” of Mosul’s people, to see how they react, before the group tried to do anything further in line with its more extremist doctrine of Islam.
“The reason I say this is because ISIS have removed statues of people that the city is really proud of,” Ismail explained. “But they haven’t done anything to statues like the Assyrian winged bull, which are thousands of years old and which look far more like idol worship than these other monuments. Despite what they did though, the people of Mosul have not reacted. They act as if these things are going on in another city, not their own,” Ismail complained.
ISIS has also removed other statues. Members of the group destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Chaldean Church of the Immaculate in the al-Shifa neighbourhood as well as the shrine of Sheikh Fathi in al-Mushahada, which dates back to 1760AD. There have been reports that local people tried to stop them destroying the latter.
Rumours were also spreading throughout the city that ISIS was threatening to demolish the ancient shrines of the prophets Yunus, Jarjis and Sheet – these are inside some of the oldest mosques in the city.
The statues that have already gone have been removed but they have not been destroyed, Ghanem al-Abed, one of the prime movers behind the Sunni Muslim protests held in Mosul’s own Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, told NIQASH. They were simply taken elsewhere.
The was confirmed by Jamal Abdallah, a member of the Naqshbandi army, an armed militia with close links to Iraq’s outlawed Baath party, who are allied with ISIS in Mosul. Abdallah confirms that the statues won’t be destroyed – they’ve just been removed because they were too visible. However, Abdallah added, some shrines and tombs as well as some other statues will be demolished –because they violate the teachings of Islam, he said.
An employee of the local archaeology department in Ninawa, who did not want to be named for security reasons, told NIQASH that, contrary to media reports, the ancient Assyrian statues had not been smashed by ISIS. They were still intact in the museum, the employee said. The pictures of smashed statues that had been circulated by media actually originated from Syria.
Still, the employee did not rule that this might well happen in the near future. Members of ISIS have seized inventory lists of items in the museum and items in other historically important parts of the province.
Rare manuscripts, some as old as 800 years, have also disappeared from the Department of Manuscripts in Mosul’s central library, the employee said. Most of these were religious books with writing on paper or leather, that included Koranic verses, religious arguments and explanations and poetry. Some were decorated with gold leaf. The same thing has happened in the Awqaf Library, which is run by the Sunni Muslim endowment, the body charged with looking after local Sunni mosques.
Members of ISIS were seen carrying the manuscripts away, the employee confirmed. And nobody but them could have done this, the employee told NIQASH, because their new city charter says that thieves of public or private goods and money will be punished by amputation.
It is hard to know exactly how many historic manuscripts ISIS have taken away because as yet, employees of the libraries have not returned to work and the libraries are surrounded by armed guards. ISIS is also keeping quiet about this.
Local and international historians and archaeologists have expressed grave concerns that ISIS will erase all evidence of the 7,000 years of civilization that exists in Mosul. If nobody reacts to ISIS’ destructive behaviour, then the organization will be encouraged to go further, they fear, perhaps to destroy the sculptures and statues in Hatra, or al-Hadr, an ancient city south of Mosul that was most likely built in the 3rd or 2nd century BC. They also fear for manuscripts in Mosul’s Museum, which is considered the second largest and most important museum of Iraqi heritage after Baghdad’s. The museum had actually been being renovated and work on it had finished only a few days before the city fell into ISIS’ hands.
Other areas of concern are unexplored heritage areas near Mosul and the heritage museum at the University of Mosul.
“Everything happened so quickly,” one of the university professors told NIQASH. “Nobody ever thought the army and police would just collapse like that. So there was no chance to save anything. This is the same tragic situation as 2003 when so many heritage objects fell into the hands of criminals and gangs.”
When US-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003, leading to the collapse of the Iraqi state headed by Saddam Hussein, many museums, including Mosul’s, were looted.
“ISIS’ gunmen should realise that the era of idolatry ended a long time ago,” the professor says sadly. “Preserving these artefacts is the only way to save Ninawa’s history and the history of civilisation.”