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August in Iraq: More Destruction, Humanitarian Catastrophes

August 14, 2014

Since my last post at the end of July the situation in Iraq has changed dramatically in a number of ways. Obviously, at this point the heritage crisis takes a back seat to the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. Nevertheless, destruction of Islamic sites has continued unabated in areas under the control of ISIS.

Strategic Synopsis

On August 1, forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) launched an offensive against Kurdish forces in the region of Jebel Sinjar. Kurds had occupied the area two months prior but only stationed two brigades of light infantry in the area. Jebel Sinjar is a mountain ridge which rises 2800 feet above the surrounding flat plains. The mountain itself is inhospitable rocky terrain with very little water. The Kurdish troops were surrounded on three sides by ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria while trying to hold mostly indefensible territory.

ISIS forces already held Tall Afar, and quickly captured Sinjar (Shingal in Kurdish) as well. The primary thrust of the offensive was not at the mountain but the plains to the northwest of Tall Afar. By doing so, ISIS hoped to link up with ISIS forces in Syria at Jaz’ah, Yarubiyah and Tall Hamis, thereby surrounding Jebel Sinjar. Within days, this was accomplished.

The result was mass panic followed by a clearly emerging picture of a humanitarian disaster amongst Iraq’s Yezidi religious minority. Tens of thousands fled to Jebel Sinjar. Reports have steadily increased of widespread massacres, rape, and the taking of women as slaves by ISIS fighters. Some reports indicate that the local Sunni Arab population joined in pogroms against the Yezidis as soon as ISIS forces drew near.

On August 6, in an even more stunning move ISIS launched another offensive into the region of Nineveh Plains. Assyrian-majority cities such as Bakhdida and Bartella emptied of their inhabitants in another wave of refugees. ISIS forces also captured Al-Kuwayr and Makhmour to the south of Arbil.

The August offensive exposed major deficiencies in the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Kurdish troops lack adequate equipment and ammunition. Kurdish commanders are experienced fighting defensive and guerrilla campaigns in the mountains but have little experience in maneuver warfare. No heavy weapons seem to have been deployed to protect Sinjar or Nineveh Plains as they were all shepherded for the defense of the capital of Erbil. Command and control is a jumble of political loyalties with the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan each controlling their own militias outside of KRG control. Battlefield reverses led to recriminations between the KDP and PUK as to who was to blame. Command was further fragmented by inviting armed units of the YPG and PKK (Syrian and Turkish Kurdish militant groups) into Iraq to aid the KRG (further complicating matters, the PKK is Marxist in political orientation and is considered a terrorist organization by the US, EU and NATO).

The fall of Erbil to ISIS would be a disaster beyond imagining and on August 8 F/A-18 Hornets from the USS George H.W. Bush began airstrikes against ISIS forces advancing towards Erbil. Further airstrikes have been carried out against ISIS forces in the Sinjar region. The United States, Germany, France, the UK and several other nations have pledged military assistance to the KRG. The initial airstrikes seem to have helped blunt ISIS’ advance while the Kurds have opened a corridor to evacuate refugees from Sinjar.

Predictably, ISIS has responded to the airstrikes by dispersing its forces, making them harder to hit from the air. This will protect their forces from airstrikes but also make it harder to concentrate them for new offensives. Dispersed forces are vulnerable to ground attack, especially in flat areas like Nineveh Plains and Sinjar, and in this way even limited airstrikes can aid Kurdish troops in re-taking those areas.

Heritage Sites Destroyed

ISIS released another series of photographs of the demolition of shrines and mosques yesterday. Many of the photos show the already well documented destruction of the shrines of Jonah and Seth and the tomb of Imam Hassan Aoun al-Din in Mosul last month. Nevertheless, others show destruction of other sites not widely reported previously:

The Tomb of the Prophet Daniel

Daniel 1Mosul official Zuhair al-Chalabi told al-Sumaria News on July 24 that the Tomb of Daniel in Mosul had been destroyed, but his claim was not widely reported. ISIS have now released photos claiming to show the shrine being destroyed. I have been unable to locate any photographs of the shrine before its destruction in order to confirm the reports.

Daniel 2 Daniel 3

Mausoleum of Imam Yahya ibn al-Qasim

Inb al-Qasim 3

Picture (c) Yasser Tabbaa 1983. From ArcheNet.

This tomb was built Badr al-Din Lu’lu, a 13th century Mamluk sultan of Mosul and the patron of historian Ibn al-Athir whose tomb ISIS destroyed last month. Badr al-Din was a Shia, and so was the Imam who he honored in 1239 with a massive mausoleum on the banks of the Tigris.

At one point riverbank erosion caused the structure to begin leaning and massive buttresses had to be constructed to keep it from collapsing into the river. Its interior was decorated with ornate carvings, mosaics and architectural features, all of which are now gone since it has been blown into tiny pulverized pieces.




Inb al-QasimInb al-Qasim 2







Tomb of Sheikh Qadeeb al-Ban al-Mosuli

Sheikh Qadeeb, born Abu Abdullah Ibn Isa Ibn Yahya Ali al-Mosuli, was another local figure in Mosul and both a disciple of and son-in-law to the 12th century Persial Sufi imam Abdul-Qadir al-Jilani.

Pictures claim to show his shrine and tomb being destroyed. I am unable to find any pre-destruction photographs to confirm.

Qadeer al-Ban Qadeer al-Ban 2


Images published by ISIS show the destruction of two sites labeled the Tomb of Ibrahim and the Shia al-Faisaliyah Mosque. No other information is available.

tomb of Sheikh Ibrahimal faisaliyah

al-Mufti Mosque

al Mufti MosqueAccording to CNN, last week Iraqi Air Force Su-25 attack aircraft bombed the al-Mufti Mosque in western Mosul, which an Iraqi government security official and two local residents alleged was being used as a military recruiting center by ISIS. There are no reports as to what damage, if any, the mosque sustained in the raid.

What’s Next?

The region of Nineveh Plains was the heartland of ancient Assyria and is full of archaeological sites, many of which will now be open to ISIS’ by now well known propensity to profit from archaeological looting. On the other hand, it is also currently the front line of the battlefield between Kurdistan and ISIS, which may reduce the looting in the immediate future but raises the possibility of damage to sites from heavy weapons.

The choice of more obscure targets in the latest ISIS release is sadly indicative of the fact that ISIS has already destroyed most of the better known shrines and monuments in Mosul. Sufi and Shia sites continue to be especially targeted. At the same time, the use of Sunni mosques for military purposes by ISIS makes them targets for attack and destruction.

This conflict is not likely to end any time soon, and threats to Iraq’s cultural heritage can only be expected to increase with time.

Even More Islamic Heritage Destruction in Iraq

July 29, 2014

Sadly, it appears that last Thursday’s demolition of the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul was only the beginning of a weekend of destruction by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Several more sites sacred to Sunni Islam have been destroyed in the Mosul area.

It seems that ISIS first moved against Shia shrines and mosques in their territory. This is because the Shia, as embodied by Iran and the Iraqi government, are the most immediate threat to ISIS’ goal of establishing a Sunni Islamic caliphate.

The second phase appears to be targeting graves and shrines venerated by Sunnis. This is not about extirpating a perceived threat from their territory but about establishing ISIS’ austere interpretation of Islam as the norm for the local populace, and thereby consolidating ISIS’ own power over the territory that it controls. If the shrines are destroyed, they can no longer be venerated. If they can no longer be venerated, then ISIS has ensured that local practice of Islam will not include venerating shrines, thereby conforming to ISIS’ interpretation of proper Muslim practice.

Although it has been suggested that the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah was an act aimed at Mosul’s Christian population, given the large number of other Islamic shrines destroyed it seems that it was in fact targeting Mosul’s Sunni Muslim population.

Amongst the other Sunni sites destroyed in the past few days:

Tomb of Jarjis

Mideast IraqJarjis was a legendary 1st century AD prophet said to have been an associate of Jesus’ disciples. In one rendering of the story, he is said to have traveled from his home Palestine to Mosul, where he sought an audience with the pagan king who forced the people of Mosul to worship a god named Aflûn. In the court of the king he denounced the worship of the idol “that can create nothing nor provide anyone with food” and preached the virtue of monotheism, using the examples of Elijah and Jesus. Enraged, the king ordered Jarjis to be savagely tortured, but the hot irons did not cause him any pain. He was then thrown into a vat of molten brass and lifted out unharmed, before finally being cut in two and thrown into a den of lions.

Jarjis’ two halves were miraculously put back together, and he stunned the king by walking into his court the next morning. The king, who feared the loss of his kingdom to a powerful usurper more than he feared God, refused to believe him. This led to a long competition between Jarjis and the king’s magicians to see who could produce the best miracle. Jarjis produced an ever-increasing series of fantastic miracles, which convinced many of the people of Mosul that he was a true prophet but failed to convince the king. Finally, the king’s wife believed Jarjis and the king had her executed. Finally, a cloud appeared and began to rain fire on the king and his city. The enraged king and his court fell upon Jarjis and cut him to pieces with swords, while the fire fell on Mosul and killed all nonbelievers while those who had believed Jarjis were miraculously spared.[1]

Jarjis is not mentioned in the Qur’an. His name is an Arabic version of George, and indeed the whole story sounds very much like early legends of Christian martyrs appearing before kings and emperors and withstanding brutal tortures while working miracles. The Islamic version of the story is old, dating back at least to the twelfth century.[2] It seems likely that the story of Jarjis began as the story of a Christian saint, possibly buried in Mosul, whose story was adapted by Muslims over time.

The tomb and associated mosque is old, having been renovated by Tamerlane in 1392 around the same time that the mosque at Nebi Yunus was being rebuilt. It was destroyed on Sunday by ISIS militants.

Mideast Iraq

The moral of the story, of course, is that love of power can blind one to even the most obvious truths right before one’s face, a lesson that ISIS might have done better to heed.

You can see a video tour of the Shrine of Jarjis (in Arabic) here, courtesy of the Waqf of Nineveh Youtube channel:

Tomb of Seth

Another tomb and mosque, said to be of Adam’s son Seth, has also been destroyed.

The destruction seems to be conducted in much the same manner as the destruction of Nebi Yunus, with the minaret rigged with demolition charges.

Tomb of Seth

Tomb of Seth in Mosul. Photo by A. Kerim.

Although not mentioned in the Qur’an, Seth (Nebi Sheet in Arabic) is revered as a prophet in Islam and one of the common ancestors of all of humanity. There are numerous tombs of Seth throughout the Middle East, as there are shrines of Jonah. There is one in the village of al-Nebi Sheet in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, and there was another in the village of Bashsheet near Ramla in Israel (depopulated in 1948, and now abandoned). Jews have venerated a different site as Seth’s tomb, in Tiberias.

Gnostics also venerated Seth, and some have drawn comparison between the strange fluted cones on top of the Tomb of Seth in Mosul and Yezidi architecture in Iraq.[3]

A video tour of the Tomb of Seth is also available:

Tomb of Imam Ibn Hassan Aoun al-Din

ibn hassanThe tomb of Ibn Hassan Awn al-Din in Mosul was built in 1248 by the Atabeg of Mosul Badr el-Din Lu’lu. It was the tallest mausoleum in Iraq. It was destroyed on the same day as the Tomb of Jonah and video of its demolition made available.

More Shia Mosques Targeted

On July 17, ISIS released another series of photographs documenting the destruction of Shia mosques in Bashir, south of Kirkuk.

UNESCO to the Rescue?

UNESCO held a consultation with Iraqi and international experts on July 17 to come up with an Emergency Response Action Plan in hopes of safeguarding Iraq’s cultural heritage. Their plan includes:

- Ensure that international agreements such as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Properties in the Event of Armed Conflict, the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and the 1972 World Heritage Convention.

- Enforce the 2003 UN Security Council Resolution 1483 which repealed trade sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990. It called instituted a ban on trade in Iraqi cultural objects and called on all member states to return Iraqi cultural property which had been taken from the country illegally.

- The plan also “urges close monitoring of the state of conservation of heritage and training of conservation professionals while helping those in place prepare emergency measures for the possible relocation of moveable heritage, including libraries.”

Aside from banning things that are already illegal and reiterating that sixty year old treaties exist, the main effort of this action plan seems to be to direct resources into potentially moving antiquities that are under threat to other regions for safekeeping. It is not clear if this means taking them out of the country temporarily or moving them somewhere else in Iraq. If ISIS ever makes its long-feared push on Baghdad this sort of plan might have to be put into motion very quickly.


[1] Muḥammad ibn Khāvandshāh Mīr Khvānd, The Rauzat-us-safa, Or, Garden of Purity: Containing the Histories of Prophets, Kings and Khalifs, Part 1, Vol. 2, trans. by E. Rehatsek (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1892), 214-225.

[2] Mahmoud Ayoub, The Quran and its Interpreters, Vol. II: The House of Imran (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), 185-186.

[3] Harry C. Luke, Mosul and its Minorities (London: Martin Hopkinson & Co., 1925), 22.

And Now It’s Gone: Shrine of Jonah Destroyed by ISIS

July 24, 2014

Two weeks ago Sam Hardy (at Conflict Antiquities) and I worked to debunk a horribly fact-checked Daily Mail story about the destruction of the Shrine of the Prophet Jonah in Nineveh. The Shrine of Jonah (Yunus in Arabic) is built on top of the smaller of Nineveh’s two ancient tells. The site that was once an Assyrian palace, and is now occupied by a late 14th century structure revered by both Muslims and Assyrian Christians as the tomb of the Biblical prophet Jonah.

(Read more about the Tomb of Jonah at my previous post on the topic).

Today, our efforts matter little, because it seems that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has decided to dynamite the shrine anyways.

A large explosion seems to have reduced most of the structure to rubble. Previous footage of shrines and graves destroyed by ISIS indicates that some in the organization are skilled in the use of squibs and controlled demolition techniques needed to collapse large structures.

Photographs of the now-demolished shrine are just now trickling out through Twitter:

A video of the destruction has been posted on YouTube. The minaret bursts at the beginning of the explosion rather than collapsing, indicating the structure was carefully prepped with demolition charges to ensure a more complete destruction:

The Damage

Mosul is a closed city. Journalists are not free to operate openly in any capacity. Back in, say, 2004 we would have to wait for satellite or aerial photos or smuggled film capsules in order to confirm that the Shrine of Jonah had been destroyed, and that could take weeks. But this is 2014, and if you blow things up in a major city there are immediately hundreds of people taking pictures of it with their phones and posting in on YouTube and Facebook. As a result, time from explosion to confirmation to damage assessment is measured in hours rather than weeks.

This video posted anonymously to YouTube shows us that the outer courtyards of the structure seem to have sustained only cosmetic damage and appear structurally stable. There is a large amount of rubble in them but this is from the minaret and other taller parts of the structure which totally collapsed.

The parts of the structure which contained the tomb, however, seem to be heavily structurally compromised and there’s really not much left but a pile of rubble. The minaret was completely blown to bits.


Why would ISIS blow up the shrine of a Muslim prophet?

ISIS has attacked shrines and graves of figures in Sunni Islam before, such as the Tomb of Ibn al-Athir in Mosul. The most strict interpretations of the Wahabi school of Islam argue that revering a deceased person by building and visiting shrines is a form of idolatry, but this usually meant they tried to persuade Muslims to not visit the shrines or remember these figures in a less pagan fashion rather than blowing up their graves. Even the Saudi government, which has destroyed or closed off many early Islamic historic sites in Mecca, has certainly never touched the graves of Muhammad, Umar and Abu Bakr in Medina.

On one level, ISIS’s destruction of the shrine is a pure display of power. They can blow up historic buildings treasured by the people of Mosul, and no one can stop them. Bravo. We’ve got a bunch of real badasses over here.

But it hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed that a bunch of young men with C4 blowing up mosques in a testosterone-fueled rampage rather undercuts the whole sacred-warriors-for-God, fighting-to-restore-pure-Islam image. On one level, like the videos of ISIS fighters shooting random people in the streets of Syria, this suggests that at some level ISIS is really all about committing acts of violence for the sake of gaining power, and gaining power for the sake of committing acts of violence.

But violence as an end to itself tends to make others turn on you, and the militants who ordered everyone to leave and then blew up the shrine allegedly said that it was destroyed because “the mosque had become a place for apostasy, not prayer.” This vague and not particularly enlightening justification is even stranger coming from ISIS, since few of their fighters are Iraqi and several thousand are from the West and can’t even speak Arabic.

Some other ISIS fellow-travelers on Twitter have claimed that they have not dug up the prophet’s grave or destroyed his tomb or the mosque but only destroyed the (presumably idolatrous) structure above the grave. This is pure nonsense, since the grave is under a shiny structure that was almost certainly damaged or destroyed, and under the shrine is an ancient tell. Furthermore the video footage makes it clear that the minaret, an indispensable part of every mosque, was not only destroyed but deliberately rigged with explosive charges.

What’s Next?

On July 24, the Iraqi Interior Ministry accused ISIS of removing over a hundred artifacts from museums in Mosul and Tikrit and selling them on the black market in Syria.

“ISIL gangs have seized at least 100 artefacts, including statues, jewellery, crockery and ancient historical items dating back to the Babylonian, Sumerian, Akkadian and Abbasid eras, and smuggled them to Syria to sell them there through organised international gangs,” Col. Mahmoud al-Issawi, director of the ministry’s antiquities protection unit, told Al-Shorfa.

“These barbaric acts are a proof that this group which makes claims to a caliphate and Islam is nothing but an organised gang that steals, loots, launches armed robberies and kills citizens,” he said.

But doesn’t ISIS believe these are idols which are against Islam? Why spread the idolatry to other places? Apparently if they can be sold, they’re a moneymaking opportunity. If they’re too big to move, they’re idols and need to be blown up.

(As a side note, if you’re reading this and happen to be buying or thinking of buying looted antiquities from Syria in order to save them from destruction, stop. You’re funding terrorist organizations. Don’t buy. Remove the market for looted antiquities and the looters will stop looting).

After Al-Qaida in Iraq bombed up the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra in 2006 and 2007, it was painstakingly restored and re-opened in 2009. If peace and civil government can be restored in Iraq, eventually the Shrine of Jonah will be rebuilt. If we can even dare to hope, maybe the Iraqi Ministry of Antiquities will even conduct a salvage excavation of the Assyrian ruins underneath the building while they rebuild it. Many, many archaeologists for the past 150 years would be salivating at that possibility.

What is the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah?

July 11, 2014

Yesterday the Daily Mail made waves when it reported that ISIS militants in Iraq have smashed the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah (Nebi Yunus in Arabic) in Mosul. A video claiming to show the destruction is included in the article, which shows a black-hooded man taking a sledgehammer to a row of green-painted concrete tombs.

The claim appeared in several places on social media in the past week before the Daily Mail picked it up. However, as detailed at Conflict Antiquities, the scene in the video looks absolutely nothing like the interior of the Tomb of Jonah seen in other pictures. Some sources claimed that the Tomb of Seth was also destroyed, but it doesn’t look like that either. In fact, the pictures were in fact taken in the city of Raqqa in Syria, where ISIS has also destroyed ancient portal lion sculptures.

For now, the Tomb of Jonah appears to be safe. But this might be an opportune time to highlight this intriguing monument and its history.

Nineveh_map_city_walls_&_gatesWhat is now called the Mosque of Jonah is situated on top of a hill in eastern Mosul called Tell Nebi Yunus. The hill is one of two city mounds that form part of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. The northern mound, known as Kuyunjuk, is the oldest part of the city dating back to the fourth millennium B.C. The southern mound is Nebi Yunus, and its early history is not known with any certainty. Austen Henry Layard was shown a stamped brick dating to the reign of Ashurnasirpal (884-859 BC) but he was not sure it originally came from Nebi Yunus. George Rawlinson found a stamped brick of Adad-Nirari III (811-783 BC) on the hill but not much else.

In 1852, the Ottoman governor of Mosul carried out his own excavations on Nebi Yunus and uncovered a winged bull-man, a statue of Gilgamesh, a statue of a lion, and a lengthy inscription of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705-681 BC). The governor used chain gangs of prison convicts to do the work. Iraqi Assyrian archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam observed the proceedings and noted “there was no idea of system; therefore the diggings were most irregular, and the tunnels they tried to burrow looked more like the work of those who merely wanted to search for treasure than to uncover an ancient building. The amount of work done by them in one day with four gangs of men I could excavate in a quarter of the time.”[1]

The hill of Nebi Yunus and its shrine tower above the surrounding city of Mosul.

The hill of Nebi Yunus and its shrine tower above the surrounding city of Mosul.

Deficiencies in their excavation methodology notwithstanding, the inscribed slab was the first discovery that began to reveal the history of Nebi Yunus. In the inscription, dated to 690-689 BC, Sennacherib described how a facility called the Rear Palace (ekal kutalli) inside Nineveh was now too small for its purposes and was torn down. “As an addition, I took much fallow land from the meadow (and) I added (it) to it. I abandoned the site of the former palace and filled in a terrace in the fallow land that I had taken from the meadow. I raised its superstructure 200 courses of brick high, measured by my large brick mold.”

A new palace called an ekal masharti was built on top of the artificial hill, and Sennacherib’s inscription went on to describe in detail the construction of the palace. Its roof beams were made from cedars of Lebanon, its doors of copper, cypress and white cedar, and giant bulls made of limestone and pendu-stone guarded the doorways. Below the mound there was a large area for training chariot horses. Much of the cavernous interior was used for storing plunder and tribute from foreign lands, including Media, Elam and Babylon.[2]


Remains of a lamassu or winged human-headed bull from the Assyrian palace at Nebi Yunus.

In 1954, some construction work created a window for a limited excavation by Muhammad Ali Mustafa and the Iraqi Department of Antiquities, which uncovered an ancient retaining wall with a cylinder inscription of Esarhaddon inside. They also uncovered a massive 35 meter wide gatehouse. At the bottom of the tell they found watering troughs labeled “belonging to the palace of Sennacherib.” Further work was carried out from 1988 to 1990 by David Stronach from the University of California at Berkeley before the Gulf War cut off American access to Iraqi sites. The results have not yet been published, but available photographs show a number of giant bull colossi and sculptures.[3] They confirm the inscriptions describing a major structure built on the site.

The palace was renovated and expanded by Esarhaddon (681-669 BC), and renovated again by Ashurbanipal (669-627). It was destroyed during the Sack of Nineveh in 612 BC. But extensive excavation has always been impossible, because sometime in the early Christian period a church was built on top of the tell. In the thirteenth century John the Lame, the patriarch of the Assyrian church in Mosul, was buried at the site. At some point, and it is not at all clear when, the tradition seems to have developed that the tell and the church on top of it marked the grave of the Biblical prophet Jonah.[4]

In the Biblical Book of Jonah the prophet was sent to prophesy not to Israelites but to the people of Nineveh, and as a result Jonah has always been especially venerated in the Assyrian Church of the East. The church became a holy place for Assyrian Christians.

The shrine at Nebi Yunus, sometime between 1950 and 1977.

The shrine at Nebi Yunus, sometime between 1950 and 1977.

But one of the great archaeological quirks of sacred space is that it always stays sacred. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the most obvious example: throughout its history it has hosted a long sequence of Jewish temples, pagan temples, churches and mosques. Sacred space stays sacred in two ways: Sometimes the practitioners of a new religion feel compelled to recognize a place as sacred, and develop their own reasons to continue to venerate it. Other times, they choose to demonstrate the superiority of their own religion over other belief systems by destroying their sacred spaces and building their own in their place.

Read more…

Blogging Heritage Destruction in Conflict Zones: An Addendum

July 6, 2014

Another day, another deluge of news stories highlighting ever more destruction of archaeological and cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria.

It’s all so wearying that one has to take a step back and remember some perspective: Archaeological looting and destruction is one of Iraq and Syria’s least important problems right now.

The United Nations estimates that 9 million people have been displaced by the Syrian civil war. After three years of fighting in Syria well over 100,000 people are dead. Iraq is about to break into three countries and possibly draw all of its neighbors into a major regional war. In the past month 2,400 people have been killed and an additional 1 million are refugees.

In Syria last year the government gassed over a thousand people. A rebel commander videotaped himself eating a dead government soldier. Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria proudly made a video of themselves driving around towns shooting random people in the street. In Iraq the same group sorted Shia prisoners out from the rest, machine-gunned them, buried them in mass graves, and proudly posted the pictures on the Internet.

And we’re worried about the statues and ancient buildings?

What good does it do to save a statue when an entire country is being destroyed?

Those of us who study the ancient Near East may appear to be focused on narrow-self interest. After all, sometimes our careers seem to be going up in smoke right before our eyes. But that would be a unwarranted judgment. Many scholars who study Iraq and Syria have traveled there and know many local people. They care about what happens to the country and its inhabitants, not just its artifacts.

But the artifacts are what we have expertise in. Scholars who are experts in counterinsurgency, the modern Middle East, or resolving sectarian civil wars can contribute to solving the conflict through their consulting and publications. Scholars who are experts in the ancient Near East can do what they can to cultural heritage. As Sam Hardy has pointed out, “If nothing else, people who cannot help otherwise can help in the protection and/or documentation of cultural heritage, so it does not (necessarily) detract from more immediate humanitarian efforts.”

In short, if there’s nothing else we could be doing to improve the situation, documenting the destruction of cultural heritage is better than doing nothing.

Two years ago, with sites in Mali and Libya being destroyed or under threat, Alexander Joffe asked “But are we willing to kill or die for the past?” He never quite answered that question, but our answer should be clear: No. We don’t invade a country to save its artifacts. If we stage a humanitarian intervention we do so to save its people. They are always more important than the statues.

Keeping with this principle requires that we also avoid furthering the goals of tyrannical regimes as we try to save cultural heritage. While rumblings have been made that artifacts are better ransomed then destroyed, if the money paid for them goes to fund a brutal terrorist organization massacring human beings in two countries, this is not a price worth paying. Again, human life is more important than statues.

When a nation is burning, what good does it do to document the fire?

First, by keeping track of what is lost, we keep alive the hope that artifacts that are lost or damaged may someday be found again or repaired and restored. The al-Askari shrine was built again after it was destroyed in 2006. Poland used old 17th century paintings to rebuild Warsaw after the Nazis demolished most of it in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising.

Second, tracking the destruction communicates something.

It won’t shame ISIS, because ISIS has no shame. Even the Nazis tried to hide their atrocities. ISIS proudly posts them all on the Internet for everyone to see. They’re not looking for sympathy. They’re looking to spread fear. Their videos are the chest-thumping of young men for whom possession of a gun and the ability to kill free of legal consequences has allowed them to feel real power for the first time in their lives.

But it could dissuade others from following.

A person with sympathies to ISIS probably won’t be convinced by the argument that ISIS and its sympathizers are evil, because hardly anyone sees themselves as evil. But their attraction to ISIS’ ideology could be broken if ISIS are shown to be hypocrites.

In multiple cases, ISIS declared that statues and shrines were against Islam and either locked them away or destroyed them. They also derive significant funding from smuggling antiquities which are allegedly against Islam abroad and then selling them. While proclaiming pure aniconic Islam on one hand, they are perfectly happy to tolerate artifacts when they can make money off of them.

This in turn raises questions about other artifacts that ISIS has destroyed. When ISIS confiscated Assyrian sculptures last February that looters had unearthed at Tell Ajaja and then smashed them with sledgehammers, did they do it because statues of Assyrian gods and lions are against Islam, or because the looters didn’t give them a cut of the proceeds?

Finally, artifacts and other cultural heritage objects are important because they represent ideas.

ISIS didn’t blow up a half-dozen Shia mosques because they thought they were an architectural eyesore. They blew them up because ISIS has declared itself to be the new Islamic caliphate, the leader of the entire Islamic world and the successor to the Rashidun Caliphate which immediately followed Muhammad. This is opposed by Shia Muslims, who believe that Caliphs cannot be chosen by popular acclamation, rather, they must be chosen by God from among the descendants of Muhammad. Mosques where Muslims gather to remember the death of Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad who refused to pledge allegiance to the caliphate and claimed he was the rightful successor to the Prophet, represent a threat to ISIS’ legitimacy. So long as those mosques stand, they are a reminder that all Muslims are not unified under the rule of one caliph, and ISIS’ claim to be leading Muslims back to the old golden days of Islamic unity looks very questionable.

In the two hundred years from 1791-1991, war was waged primarily by nation-states, who fielded huge armies raised by conscription. War has changed. War is now fought by smaller and smaller armies made up of volunteers who joined for ideological reasons. In modern war, ideas matter. Ideologies matter. And wars end when ideologies shatter.

Mass Destruction of Islamic Cultural Heritage Sites in Iraq

July 5, 2014

In the past few days, pictures have been posted online which make it clear that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has engaged in widespread destruction of shrines and graves related to Shia Islam.

While initial fears since the fall of Mosul nearly a month ago focused on the threat to Assyrian monuments and archaeological sites, it appears that the Shia are viewed as a more pressing threat to ISIS.

By destroying Shia holy sites, ISIS hopes to erase Shia culture from the regions they control and also provoke a response from Iraq’s Shia, which will in turn drive more Sunnis to supporting ISIS.

Shrine of Sheikh Fathi – Mosul

Last week, ISIS attempted to destroy the shrine of Sheikh Fathi but where prevented by local citizens who surrounded the shrine and threw rocks at them until they left. It appears that ISIS returned in the middle of the night with a bulldozer and at least seriously damaged the structure.

The current shrine was built in 1760, but seems to contain mihrabs from the 13th century.




The Tomb of the Girl – Mosul

Tomb of the Girl in an undated photograph.

Tomb of the Girl in an undated photograph. (Source)

Local popular legend holds that the Qabr al-Bint or Tomb of the Girl is the tomb of a beautiful girl who died of a broken heart. Historians believe the tomb, which sat in the middle of the street in Mosul, is in fact the tomb of the noted 12th-13th century medieval historian Ali Ibn al-Athir, who traveled with Saladin in Syria and wrote a history of the Islamic world from the Crusades to the Mongol invasions.

The tomb sat in the middle of Ibn al-Athir Street in Mosul until ISIS fighters pulverized it with a bulldozer last month.

Fortunately, it seems that the tombstone situated in the outdoor shrine is a modern replica and the original was long ago removed to the safety of a museum.

Ibn al-Athir was a Sunni, and shows that ISIS is not only targeting Shia sites for political reasons but also any graves that could be viewed as shrines. The destruction is not only political but also theological.


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Tombs of Ahmad ar-Rifa’i and Sheikh Ibrahim - Muhallabiyah

Photos published by ISIS show the destruction of a building in the tiny town of Muhallabiyah, southeast of Tall Afar, labeled “Tomb and shrine of Ahmed ar-Rifa’i.” Ahmed ar-Rifa’i was a Sufi mystic and philosopher (died 1183) and founder of the Rifa’i order of Sufi mysticism. ISIS and other Wahabi and Salafist Muslims view Sufism as a heresy.

More photos show the destruction of another building in Muhallabiyah labeled “Shrine and grave of Sheikh Ibrahim.” I have been unable to learn any other information about this monument. There is a village named Sheikh Ibrahim near Muhallabiyah, as well as a neighboring mountain.


Shia Mosques – Tal Afar

The city of Tal Afar, 35 miles west of Mosul, is almost entirely populated by Iraq’s Turkmen minority, a quarter of whom are Shia. Since capturing Tal Afar, ISIS has reportedly kidnapped forty Shia Turkmen and driven 950 from their homes.

On June 25 and 26, the attackers blew up several of Tal Afar’s Shia mosques, as documented in a series of photographs shown below.

The Shia Sheikh Jawad Mosque in Tal Afar was rigged with explosives and destroyed. It had previously been attacked by suicide bombers in 2008.

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The Qaddo Mosque, the Mosque of Imam Saad bin Aqeel and the Mosque of the Martyr of Lashkar-e-Mulla were also destroyed:

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ISIS identified each mosque as a “Temple of Hussein.” Certain Shia mosques used for ceremonies in remembrance of Hussein Ibn Ali‘s death on October 13, 680 at the Battle of Karbala are called Husseinias, however ISIS’ use of the term appears to be to condemn them as idolatrous pagan structures.

A number of other mosques have been reported destroyed in Tal Afar. A report from Human Rights Watch lists the Mosques of Imam Sadiq, al-Abbas, Ar-Mahmoud, Ahl al-Beit and Hashim Antr as destroyed. Another from Shafaq News states that the Mosque of al-Hakim has also been destroyed. I must admit that I am not well versed enough in the region’s architecture to know if any of these are different names for the structures depicted above.

ISIS in Tal Afar have also destroyed smaller shrines. Images have been published of the destruction of the Shrine of Arnaout (or ar-Mamut). I cannot find any more information about this structure:

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The Human Rights Watch article also mentions the destruction of a shrine of Khidr al-Elias in Tal Afar which is revered by Shia Muslims, Christians and Yezidis. Khidr is a figure in Shia and Sufi Islam often associated with Elias/Elijah. Shrines to a combined “Khidr Elias” have been venerated all throughout Mesopotamia.

Shia Mosques – Mosul

Footage has been released of a small Shia mosque in Mosul being destroyed. Squibbing around the minaret shows that the structure appears have been rigged with demolition charges in a carefully planned fashion.

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Future Plans

ISIS has threatened to attack Najaf and Karbala and destroy the ancient Shia mosques there. According to ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, “These differences go back a long way. We will settle our differences not in Samarra or Baghdad, but in Karbala, the filth-ridden city, and in Najaf, the city of polytheism.”

The al-Askari Shrine in Samarra was destroyed in 2006, an event which triggered massive sectarian violence in Iraq. The shrine, originally built in 944, is the burial place of the Tenth and Eleventh Shia Imams, and adjacent to it is the spot where the Twelfth Imam allegedly disappeared in 874. It has been rebuilt. Last week ISIS attacked it again with mortar fire.

Najaf is home to the Shrine of Ali, the burial place of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Islamic Caliph who is revered by the Shia as the rightful successor to Muhammad. Karbala contains the Shrine of Hussein, built over the grave of Ali’s son Hussein who was buried there after he was killed in the Battle of Karbala. Both structures were built in 979-980 AD.

Some ISIS members have gone even further in their threats to Islamic sites. ISIS member Abu Turab al-Mugaddasi said on Twitter last week that “If Allah wills, we will kill those who worship stones in Mecca and destroy the Kaaba. People go to Mecca to touch the stones, not for Allah.” One can hope that publicizing ISIS’s destruction of Islamic history will dissuade Sunnis from supporting ISIS who may be considering doing so.

What Were Uzziah’s Machines?

June 19, 2014


The biblical book of Kings lists Uzziah as reigning 52 years over Judah, and besides that it has precious little to say about him except to note that he “did right in the eyes of YHWH,” did not remove the high places, and eventually contracted leprosy and spent the last years of his reign as a figurehead while his son did the actual work of governing the kingdom.[1]

By contrast, the book of Chronicles contains a whole host of details about Uzziah’s reign which portray him as the head of a powerful kingdom. Uzziah defeated the Philistines and the Arabs, extended Judah’s territory as far south as Eilat, placed Ammon under tribute, and maintained a large army. We know not the author’s sources for this information, except for a vague note that the prophet Isaiah wrote about Uzziah’s reign.[2]

Among this list of accomplishments is a more enigmatic statement in 2 Chronicles 26:15, which the NASB renders thus:

In Jerusalem he made engines of war invented by skillful men to be on the towers and on the corners for the purpose of shooting arrows and great stones.

The NIV translated it more loosely:

In Jerusalem he made devices invented for use on the towers and on the corner defenses so that soldiers could shoot arrows and hurl large stones from the walls.

The Hebrew uses three related words to make a punny phrase that cannot easily be rendered into English. The things built on the towers are called hishbonot mahashebet hosheb. All three nouns come from the same consonantal root. A loose translation would be something like “little inventions of inventions of inventors” (scroll to the bottom for a more technical discussion). It’s a literary device, and being used to describe something new that the writer didn’t have good vocabulary to describe.

The second half of the description mentions that these devices were installed in the migdalim (towers) and pinnot (“corners,” probably towers at the corners of the wall) and somehow enabled the shooting of stones and arrows.

An early Greek catapult, basically a scaled-up crossbow.

The obvious explanation is that these devices were catapults. But this merely raises another question. The generally accepted history of the catapult holds that it was first invented in the Greek city-state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily in 399 BC. The Syracusan general Dionysius I had led a military coup in 405 BC that overthrew Syracuse”s democratically elected government and installed himself as a dictator. His first acts were to put Syracuse’s society and economy on a war footing in preparation for attacking Carthage, who controlled the western half of Sicily, and seize total control of the island.

In order to do this, Dionysius brought in engineers from around the Greek world to work on inventing new weapons. The Greeks in Italy had previously invented an early crossbow called the gastraphetes, which could shoot an arrow further than a bow. Dionysius’ engineers took this a step further and created even larger arrow and stone-throwing machines for attacking Carthaginian fortifications.[4]

But Uzziah reigned in the first half of the eighth century BC. He lived 350 years before the catapult was invented.

A few authors have argued that the Syracusans were not the first to come up with the idea of using levers, springs and torque to fling boulders at their enemies. They point to a few archaeological finds and clues from ancient writers to suggest a more ancient and eastern origin.[5]

In the mid eighth century, at the same time as Uzziah, a text from Egypt describing the Egyptian Pharaoh Piye’s siege of Hermopolis states that the attacking Egyptian army included “hurlers” made out of wood. Unfortunately, that is all we know. A “hurler” was something made of wood that hurled things.[6]

The Macedonian author Polyainos, who wrote in the second century AD, recorded in his book Strategems that during the Persian siege of Peleusium in 525 BC the defending Egyptians protected their walls with catapults.

They advanced formidable engines against the besiegers, and hurled missiles, stones, and fire at them from their catapults. To counter this destructive barrage, Cambyses ranged before his front line dogs, sheep, cats, ibises, and whatever other animals the Egyptians hold sacred. The Egyptians immediately stopped their operations, out of fear of hurting the animals, which they hold in great veneration.[7]

Stratagems is a rather whimsical book, containing both examples of concrete military strategy and suggestions such as seducing a tyrant’s daughter, or setting up honey traps for your enemies and then killing them on their wedding night.[8] The idea that the Egyptians would refuse to shoot their favorite animals is entirely within the character of the book.

More importantly, Polyainos wrote in the second century AD, and it is entirely likely that he was mistaken about what types of weapons were available 650 years before he lived.

A few bits and pieces from the archaeological record have been used to argue for early catapults. The first comes from Palaepaphos, a city in Cyprus which was besieged by the Persians in 498 BC. In 1984, excavators found 422 rounded stones which were flat on one side. The stones were of various sizes and weighed anywhere between 4.5 and 48 lbs (2-22 kg). Most weighed between 9-13 lbs (4-6 kg). They were all found on the outside of the walls. The flat sides were not the result of an impact, rather all of the stones were deliberately chiseled that way.

Some of the mysterious Palaepaphos balls.

Elisabeth Erdmann proposed that the rocks were shot at the city walls by Persian catapults. However, catapult ammunition was round, while the purpose of the flat sides of the Paleopaphos balls is unclear and it is hard to see what advantage it would give a catapult projectile. I myself have seen similar round balls flat on one side while excavating Persian period material in Ashkelon. They were used to build walls just like any other stones. In fact, the stones from Paleopaphos may simply be architectural elements ripped out of walls and dropped off the top of the wall on the heads of attackers.[9]

There is one round stone ball from this period, a 48-pound (22 kg) ball found at Phocaea in Asia Minor. But only one. Was it a catapult shot? A weight for a large scale? Something else? There is no way of knowing.[10]

Read more…


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