Iraq’s heritage is in grave danger of being demolished or sold, archaeologists warn, after members of the radical Sunni group Islamic State (IS) destroyed statues, mosques and shrines in and around Mosul.
“Islamic State promises it will protect Islamic cultural artifacts and destroy others promoting polytheism,” the Al Khorasan Media tweeted recently, declaring it would “bring the latest news on Islamic State.”
That must be the explanation for a wave of destruction by the group, targeting statues of poets or historians, Shiite mosques and tombs of sheiks, saints and holy men – even a Christian statue of Mary.
Islam does not allow mosques to be built on tombs, nor does it allow the worship of “idols,” is the message. Some of the destroyed buildings were ancient, like the shrine of Sheikh Fathi in the al-Mushahada neighborhood of Mosul, which dates back to 1760 AD. Civilians tried to protect it, fending off the bulldozer, but it returned after they had left for the night.
IS is also said to have demolished the ancient shrines of the prophets Yunus, Jarjis and Sheet, which are inside some of the oldest mosques in the city. However, one of the spokesmen for the new rulers in Mosul has denied the report, saying that objects inside were only moved elsewhere.
Archaeologists from around the world have sounded the alarm, fearing for the fate of the rich heritage in the areas under IS control. Mosul is known to have almost 1,800 historical sites, many of them hardly excavated because of the security situation in Iraq.
Some sites of the UNESCO World Heritage List are now under IS control, like the temples of Hatra and Ashur.
Other sites, like the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, have applied for a place on the list. Blowing up mosques and tombs is part of the IS ideology, says Christopher Jones, a PhD student in ancient Near Eastern history at Columbia University in New York.
It is “because IS has declared itself to be the new Islamic caliphate, the leader of the entire Islamic world,” he says on his weblog. As IS radicals do not accept Shiites as Muslims, their mosques “represent a threat to IS’ legitimacy.
So long as those mosques stand, they are a reminder that all Muslims are not unified under the rule of one caliph, and IS’ claim to be leading Muslims back to the old golden days of Islamic unity looks very questionable,” Jones says.
Some archaeologists have pointed out that IS destroys not only over faith. It does so to “steal the identity of the people they want to rule,” according to Simone Muehl, a German archaeologist who has worked extensively in Iraq.
She has set up a special “Endangered Heritage” Facebook page to share information about the fate of sites under IS control. The urgency of the warning was illustrated when militants recently tried to take over the huge excavation site of Nimrud: guards and locals were able to keep them out.
Destruction is not the only way IS gets rid of artifacts it does not like. The group is known to have sold many valuable pieces from Syria on the black market abroad, most probably earning as much as $36 million dollars.
“While proclaiming pure aniconic Islam on one hand, they are perfectly happy to tolerate artifacts when they can make money off of them,” Jones notes. In Iraq this process might have started in Mosul, as some rare manuscripts have been taken from the main library.
According to some reports, a valuable Koran from Mosul was intercepted when it was offered for sale on the black market in Turkey. The main Mosul Museum, with countless valuable artifacts, has been closed by IS.
It is said its members are waiting for a decree from their leader about what to do next. IS could be involved in the trade of antiquities in a number of ways, according to Sam Hardy, an archaeologist at University College London, who studies this trade.
“They might be running a trafficking network, facilitating smuggling through offering a service, or levying a tax on traffickers who move looted artifacts through their territory,” he says. Muehl says poverty is one reason why locals become involved in digging up artifacts, which are then sold to middlemen or to IS, before finding their way out of the country.
To help customs, police, art dealers and collectors identify objects that could originate from Iraq, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has published a red list, so that items may be detained wherever they surface.
It lists types of objects from Iraq which are particularly at risk and are likely to have been stolen. ICOM is appealing to museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors not to acquire the artifacts, or anything else from Iraq.
“Because of the tremendous variety of objects, styles, and periods, any antiquity from Iraq should be treated with suspicion,” it says.
By Judit Neurink