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The Future of War in the Middle East and the Future of Archaeology

October 17, 2014

At the beginning of 2013, the Syrian Civil War was not going well for Bashar Assad.

He responded to the protests of 2011 in the same way his father had crushed the 1982 revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood: with massive firepower designed to slaughter all opposition. But he failed. His savage military response only drove more recruits to the rebels and attracted foreign support to their cause.

By December 2012, rebels at seized control of almost all of northern and western Syria. Major military bases began to fall. Rebel forces had surrounded Aleppo and were making a strong push to take Damascus. In March Raqqa fell, the first provincial capital lost to the rebels. Casualties among the troops of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) ran into the tens of thousands. Thousands more had defected to the rebels. The SAA lost hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles.

Enter Major General Qassem Suleimani.

The commander of Quds Force, the covert action and special operations division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, traveled to Syria in early 2013 to take personal command of Assad’s military effort. He had spent most of the previous decade directing Iran’s covert war against the United States in Iraq. There, he had played all sides, providing arms to both Shia and Sunni rebel groups while manipulating politicians at the highest levels of the Iraqi government. In Syria, his task was much different. There was no foreign army to fight, only a country tearing itself apart.

Iranian advisers fanned out across Syria to re-train government troops into a competent fighting force. Regular supply flights brought in tons of weapons and ammunition from Iran to replenish the SAA’s depleted stocks. No longer would the SAA expend thousands of men and armored vehicles in frontal assaults to retake rebel-held territory. Suleimani’s new strategy was to identify and attack strategic points and highways which controlled movement throughout the region.

The first test came in April, when Hezbollah and SAA troops successfully recaptured the town of Qusayr, between Homs and the Lebanese border. Further successes in this region led to the recapture of Homs itself a year later. In the summer, counterattacks cut off and surrounded the rebels in Damascus’ suburbs with the help of massive chemical weapons attacks. In the fall, a further offensive along the roads to Aleppo lifted the siege of that city.

Key to this success was a new force founded in January 2013: The National Defense Force (NDF). The NDF is a local paramilitary militia, its members are recruited to defend their communities and cannot be forced to deploy elsewhere. In addition to being paid they are also allowed to keep loot captured from the enemy. Crucially, unlike Syria’s cosmopolitan army the NDF is recruited primarily from among the minority communities in western Syria who stand a substantial risk of being massacred in the event of a rebel victory: The Alawites, Syrian Orthodox Christians, Druze and Armenians.

By creating and training the NDF, Suleimani recast the war as an ethnic struggle for survival. Minorities could no longer remain neutral: either they joined the NDF or became targets for both sides. What was once a war to preserve the power of a dictatorship became a war for community survival against Syria’s Sunnis. If Assad fell or the SAA collapsed, the NDF would still exist, fighting against Sunni dominance and in support of Iranian interests in Syria.

The addition of 60,000 NDF troops in a defensive role allowed the armored formations and elite units of the SAA to go on the offensive in April 2013. It also changed the face of Middle Eastern war.

Iran had used the strategy before on a smaller scale. Suleimani based the NDF off the Basij, the Iranian militia set up in 1979 to protect the Iranian regime. A similar model was used in Lebanon in the 1980′s to establish Hezbollah. In the 2000′s, Suleimani oversaw the creation of a variety of Shia militias in Iraq known as the “Special Groups.”

After ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014, Suleimani traveled to Baghdad. The Iraqi Army had suffered heavy losses. Since the beginning of the year estimates for losses from death and desertion run as high as 75%. Like the SAA, the Iraqi Army has suffered from sectarian defections as its Kurdish members have joined the Peshmerga and its Sunni members have sometimes joined ISIS.

Hundreds of Quds Force advisers were again deployed to Iraq as the Special Groups revived and over fifty Shia militias began recruiting and parading through the streets of Iraqi cities. In July and August ISIS besieged the town of Amirli in Salah-ad-Din Province. Suleimani took command and coordinated a counterattack by the Iraqi Army, Kurdish forces and Shia militias which lifted the siege of the town.

The militias mean that any significant ISIS advance into Shia territory in Iraq will result in a well-armed popular insurgency, as will any ISIS or FSA advance into western Syria. The only way to prevent this is through genocide, a strategy ISIS has already pursued against the Yezidis in Sinjar. The same is true for any advance by the Iraqi Army or the SAA into Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria.

Therefore, by implementing a strategy which prevented the collapse of the Assad regime and the Iraqi government, Suleimani seems to have put both of them in a situation where they are also unable to win.

What does this stalemate mean for archaeology?

First, it means things could get a whole lot worse before they get better. Massacres and genocide are usually accompanied by attempts to erase the heritage of those people being driven out in hopes that they will never return.

Second, archaeology will have to come to terms with the fact that Arab nationalism is dead.

Archaeology was well supported by twentieth century nationalists as a source of pride and a potential unifying force. National museums and antiquities authorities supported excavations and research. Sites were protected both as economic tourist magnets and national symbols. But since 2011 this system is collapsing. The idea that the Arabic-speaking world has one unified identity from Morocco to the Persian Gulf was shattered into pieces as country after country tore itself apart. As the ideology which held post-colonial states in one piece vanished, people fell back on identities that pre-date the formation of the modern Middle East.

Suleimani did not invent the sectarian militia, he just turned into a vital instrument of military strategy. Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen are all failed states degenerating into a patchwork of para-states ruled by ethnic or religiously based warlord armies. All have their own bases of support and interests they seek to protect. They are the real powers ruling the ground in much of the Middle East.

Working with the Iraqi government to protect archaeological sites can only go so far if the real power on the ground is in the hands of a Kurdish politician or a Shia militia commander. Last month, Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund spoke at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and proposed working with some Syrian rebel groups:

But as the conflict escalates, we are increasingly aware that these documentation and goodwill efforts cannot have any immediate impact, and that the destruction is also escalating. This calls for involvement on another level. As I read that U.S. military advisers will begin to train moderate insurgents in Syria to better defend themselves against the tide of fundamentalist terrorism, one immediate thought would be to encourage the U.S. military to incorporate heritage protection into the training that is being offered to these groups and to the Iraqi army. The example of the famed Monuments Men has not been seen on any scale in military and peacekeeping operations since World War II . It should be reinstated as part of the training that our own troops receive, as well as part of our assistance offering in the region.

This approach is daring but also fraught with great risks.  The environment that leads to the rise of warlords favors the rise of a type of leader who is able to command followers and control territory through a combination of patronage and violence. Archaeologists who work with such groups run the risk of being associated with questionable characters, or even have their work harnessed to promote sectarian causes. Financial pressures may make it irresistibly tempting for local strongmen to sell antiquities rather than preserve them. Finally, a close association with a para-state group may come at the cost of being blacklisted from working in certain countries or even run afoul of anti-terrorism laws.

But this is the world we live in, and any attempt to save antiquities on the ground will have to take into account who controls that ground. Obviously, archaeologists cannot work with groups like ISIS. But could other groups be more amenable to saving the region’s antiquities? Such a group would have to place a high value on their own historical heritage and have a general unity of purpose in seeking to create a functional political entity.

A possibility, therefore, could exist for archaeologists to liaison with the Kurdish YPG in archaeologically rich eastern Syria. Of course there are delicate risks here too. The YPG is on less than friendly terms with Turkey and has a close relationship with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who has waged a thirty year war for an independent Kurdish state in Turkey and is designated a terrorist organization by the United States, NATO, Australia and the EU.

Such work should proceed only with extreme caution and with limited objectives. Perhaps in the future as the front lines harden into states in everything but name more work will be possible. But with the changing nature of warfare in the Middle East new paradigms of archaeological engagement will be needed. And if we are going to use archaeology to help with postwar reconstruction, as Burnham and others at the Metropolitan Museum event suggested it can, we need to wrestle with how the Middle East is changing. I welcome a vigorous discussion on these topics.

P.S. – I realize this is a somewhat unusual post for this blog, and makes it seem that Gates of Nineveh is about to turn into Stratfor. But the changing political landscape of the modern Middle East affects the work scholars of the ancient Near East do in the present. Also, I even have some non-ISIS related posts in the pipeline for the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

ISIS October News Roundup

October 8, 2014

The past two months have seen a decrease in the number of reports of sites being destroyed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Sadly, this is likely partially due to ISIS running out of famous sites to destroy. However, the predominant reason is more likely the increased pressure which ISIS finds itself under due to airstrikes launched by the United States and allied countries.

ISIS’ advance on Irbil was halted by American air power and their once-rapid advance has stalled into a fairly static front line in the north. The siege of Sinjar was lifted within days and Kurdish forces recaptured the Mosul dam in mid-August. Otherwise, the front lines have stabilized into a stalemate that will likely persist for some time.

But ISIS’ main strength is their mobility, and in the past few weeks their forces have overrun several Iraqi Army bases in Anbar province and approached Baghdad. In Syria, ISIS has concentrated their attacks on the Kurdish YPG-held enclave of Kobane. Over the past week ISIS forces (including tanks) have steadily shrunk the perimeter around the town until the last few days when fighting reached the streets. Most of the civilian population has fled into Turkey but fears of an impending massacre are well justified as ISIS has already beheaded and massacred Kurdish prisoners. The news coming out of Kobane appears desperate, with reports that at least one YPG fighter blew herself up with her own grenade to avoid capture. Airstrikes have increased around the town in the past 48 hours, bringing at least a brief respite for the defenders.

Nevertheless, US officials have admitted that despite American efforts Kobane will probably fall to ISIS and they have assessed that the town has no strategic significance. Kobane is an isolated enclave a hundred miles from the main YPG-controlled territory in eastern Syria. But while ISIS and the United States have the luxury of focusing entirely on strategic control points the YPG was formed to protect the Kurdish population and must defend every Kurdish area, no matter how militarily indefensible.

Destruction in Tikrit – The Shrine of the Forty

shrine of the forty 2

Shrine of the Forty in Tikrit prior to its destruction (source).

On or around September 24, multiple reports indicate that ISIS destroyed several structures in Tikrit. One was the Shrine of the Forty, an ancient monument marking the graves of forty soldiers from the army of Caliph Omar who died during the Islamic conquest of Mesopotamia in 638 AD.

The shrine can be seen on Google Earth at this link. The shrine appears to have alternated between periods of disrepair and restoration. It was quite old and during the medieval period served as an Islamic university.

Photos of the destroyed building were taken anonymously and given to Al-Arabiya. They show that most of the structure was leveled except one of its five domes. Oddly, two of the photos show what appears to be the tail cone of a Russian-made FAB-500 M62 500kg bomb. Such bombs can be carried by Su-25 ground attack aircraft flown by the Iraqi Air Force.

FAB 500

Russian FAB-500 M62 bomb (source).

bomb Tikrit

Bomb tail cone from Tikrit (source).

In August, Iraqi Su-25s bombed the al-Mufti Mosque in Mosul due to its use as a recruiting center by ISIS. Did something similar happen in Tikrit? This seems unlikely. Witnesses informed Almada Press that ISIS fighters entered the shrine and destroyed it with explosive charges. The site’s status as a shrine, not just a mosque, means its deliberate destruction would be consistent with numerous other shrines destroyed by ISIS.

Destruction of the Shrine of the Forty, Tikrit (source).

Destruction of the Shrine of the Forty, Tikrit (source).

Finally, the pattern of destruction in the photographs obtained by Al-Arabiya show a comprehensive leveling of the building in a manner consistent with a controlled demolition using explosives placed throughout the structure. An aerial attack on such a spread-out structure, on the other hand, would result in a few impact points and craters, distributing the damage in a more uneven fashion.

The most likely explanation could be that ISIS captured a few FAB-500 bombs at Camp Speicher airbase just outside Tikrit and used them as demolition charges to blow up the shrine. Alternately, there could have been an air raid in the vicinity of the shrine before or after its demolition, but not responsible for the complete destruction of the shrine.

Destruction in Tikrit – The Green Church

The Green Church, also known as the Church of Mar Ahudama was once an important Christian cathedral in Tikrit, first established at around 700 AD. It was destroyed in 1089 on the orders of the governor of Tikrit. Its ruins have persisted to this day. The church was the scene of a massacre of Assyrian Christians during the Mongol invasion of 1258. It was excavated and partially restored during the late 1990s.

The following is a short piece on the church filmed for an Iraqi TV station:

There are no photographs of the destruction, but several news reports indicate that the structure was destroyed at around the same time as the Shrine of the Forty. The extent of the destruction is unknown at this time.

Looting and Foreign Sales

Rick St. Hilaire has written a blog post showcasing U.S. Customs and Border Patrol figures for the importation of art and cultural artifacts from the Middle East. The importation of artifacts from Iraq, Syria, and Turkey has spiked through the roof from 2012-2013, leading to reasonable suspicion that many of these artifacts have been looted from Iraq, Egypt or Syria and smuggled overseas with fraudulent documentation.

On the other hand, as Paul Barford and Sam Hardy have repeatedly pointed out, no one has any idea what the actual dollar value of antiquities sales is, or how much money ISIS is making from the trade. Every dollar figure given was probably pulled out of thin air, because there is no way to get reliable data about the international black market antiquities trade. The closest we have is a report in The Guardian based on Iraqi intelligence sources who had seen computer files captured by the Iraqi Army in an ISIS safe house in June, but the report did not give any specific dollar figure obtained from archaeological looting.

The Guardian report did say that before the fall of Mosul ISIS had $875 million in cash and assets. Reports that ISIS stole a half billion dollars from banks in Mosul turned out to be overblown. In fact, the largest source of funding for ISIS appears to be black market oil sales, providing somewhere between $300,000 and $3 million dollars per day. Much of the rest comes from extortion rackets, robbery, trade monopolies, kidnapping for ransom and taxes and tolls levied on locals.

With that said, ISIS doesn’t have its own diggers, rather, it takes a 20% cut of proceeds from looted antiquities as khums, an ancient Islamic custom to tax one-fifth of the proceeds from finds of buried treasure from pre-Islamic times. This is doubtless one form of the extortion rackets and taxes which provide numerous sources of funding to ISIS.

In short, where there is a ton of smoke there is probably some fire. Antiquities trafficking may not be ISIS’ most important source of funding, and it is probably one that the group could survive without. But it’s a contributing factor. The first waves of American airstrikes on Syria targeted oil facilities in a bid to financially cripple ISIS. If ISIS is less able to sell oil, it will have to rely on other sources of funding. However, those sources of funding will be much harder to shut down. One cannot destroy an extortion racket with air power, for unlike oil production it has no center of gravity that can be destroyed. The same is true for antiquities smuggling – it can only be cut off at the other end of the chain, at the destination markets.

Iraq and Syria Cultural Heritage Destruction Resources List

September 23, 2014

Here’s a quick round-up of a few of the programs and resources mentioned last night:

  • The American Schools of Oriental Research is running Heritage Monitor, a website to enable people to submit anonymous reports when they observe the destruction of cultural heritage sites and objects. The website is available in both English and Arabic and allows users to submit photographs and tag geographic locations.

  • ASOR’s Syrian Heritage Initiative publishes weekly updates on new destructive actions in Syria.

  • The American Association for the Advancement of Science is sponsoring the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project, which is providing satellite photographs of war damage in Syria.

  • The International Council of Museums maintains a Red List Database for a number of countries, including Iraq and Syria. The database is not a database of stolen artifacts and is not exhaustive, rather, the lists are designed to help customs officials and art collectors identify types of artifacts which are likely to have been stolen.

  • The International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property runs programs based in the United Arab Emirates to train heritage conservation professionals from throughout the Arab world.

  • The Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage works with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and the Kurdistan Regional Government also works to train Iraqis in historic preservation and heritage conservation.

“Heritage in Peril: Iraq and Syria” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 22)

September 23, 2014

Last night I was invited to attend an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Heritage in Peril: Iraq and Syria” where I took a seat in front of the Temple of Dendur amongst an audience of journalists, professors and diplomats and listened to a number of speakers outline plans for doing something to save historic and cultural sites in Iraq and Syria.

First to speak was Michael Danti, co-director of the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) Syrian Heritage Initiative. The initiative seeks to improve monitoring of heritage destruction and pursue mitigation wherever possible. ASOR and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have done some excellent work on this, including commissioning satellite photographs of threatened sites.

Aleppo Citadel

Damage to the Aleppo Citadel. Photo from AAAS.

Such photos revealed, for example, that in the summer of 2014 rebels assaulted the Aleppo citadel using shaft mines, Battle of the Crater style. The explosions completely destroyed several historic buildings.

According to Danti, most destruction in Syria has either been a side effect of combat or caused by for-profit looting. Destruction of heritage sites for ideological reasons has been primarily carried out by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in a campaign Danti called “unparalleled since the end of the Second World War.” ISIS has proudly published at least 50% of their site destructions themselves. That their intention is clearly political and sectarian is demonstrated by the statistics Danti provided: 54% of sites destroyed by ISIS are Shia, 14% are Sufi, 11% Yezidi, 9% Christian and 4% ancient.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke next, forcefully stating that we are “in the midst of one of the most tragic and one of the most outrageous assaults on our shared heritage that perhaps any of us have seen in a lifetime” and “no one group has done more to put our shared cultural heritage in the gun sights than ISIL.”

ISIL is not only beheading individuals; it is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations. It has no respect for life. It has no respect for religion. And it has no respect for culture, which for millions is actually the foundation of life. Far from hiding their destruction of churches and mosques, they broadcast these, purposefully and with pride, for all the world to see their act of depravity and for all of us to be intimidated and to perhaps back off from our values. For the proud people of Iraq and Syria – ancient civilizations, civilizations of great beauty, great accomplishment, of extraordinary history and intellectual achievement – the destruction of their heritage is a purposeful final insult, and another example of ISIL’s implacable evil. ISIL is stealing lives, yes, but it’s also stealing the soul of millions.


Photo: U.S. State Department

ISIS, he said, wants “to rob future generations of any connection to this past.” “The looting of Apamea and Dura Europos, the devastation caused by fighting in the ancient UNESCO heritage city of Aleppo, the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah – these appalling acts aren’t just a tragedy for the Syrian and the Iraqi people. These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilized people, and the civilized world must take a stand.”

For Kerry, taking a stand at the State Department means funding efforts by ASOR to document the destruction of heritage sites in both Iraq and Syria, training Iraqi conservation experts, and working with AAAS to continue taking satellite photographs of destroyed sites.

Kerry was followed by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO. It is a good thing that the State Department is funding conservation efforts independently, because the United States stopped funding 22% of UNESCO’s budget three years ago after the organization admitted Palestine as a full member state. Bokova outlined UNESCO’s efforts to, as she put it, “save the past of Syria and Iraq”: mitigate the risk to heritage objects by funding efforts at emergency safeguarding and working for increased vigilance in potential markets for antiquities. She also expressed hope that those who intentionally destroy historic sites will someday be prosecuted.

Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund proposed an even more radical step: incorporating heritage protection training into American efforts to train Syrian rebels and Iraqi military personnel, modeled after the famous “Monuments Men” from World War 2.

Damage to the Umayyad period Grand Mosque of Aleppo. Source.

Damage to the Umayyad period Grand Mosque of Aleppo. Source.

I found this last idea quite interesting because it pointed towards a real problem with many efforts to conserve cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria: They can work with the Iraqi government, but that government does not control much of Iraq. They can work to take pictures from space, seize artifacts smuggled out of the country, and keep track of what is being destroyed. But they can’t do anything on the ground. Could efforts be made to work with the powers that be on the ground, such as the Kurdistan Regional Government, the YPG or the Free Syrian Army?

What I took away from last night is that there is an encouraging level of attention being paid to the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria, and a lot of resources being directed towards doing what can be done. Unfortunately, that is the key clause – what can be done. Because sometimes what can be done is not a whole lot.

Ultimately, the only way to stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage is to stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria.

In Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and elsewhere many ancient buildings have been destroyed in the crossfire between armed factions. I am a person who values heritage, but if I were a combatant fighting in Syria’s civil war and a tank was shooting at me, I’d probably dive behind whatever provided cover without taking too long to consider if it was the wall of a modern building or a medieval one. If I were in a tank and someone hiding in that building was trying to kill me, I might blow it away too rather than die a horrific death trapped inside a burning tank penetrated by a shaped-charge armor-piercing missile. Sometimes it’s not a matter of guarding or not guarding heritage or training people to protect it.  It’s a matter of primal survival instinct.

Looting can likewise be a survival instinct, if it is driven by poverty and desperation. Targeting buyers and auction houses helps, but they can’t get everyone who buys items. As for the intentional destruction of sites, only the groups in power on the ground can stop them.

Peace is what Iraq and Syria need, not only for their heritage but for their people.

Unfortunately all I have seen seems to indicate that peace is a long way off.

PS – I’d really like to take this opportunity to thank whoever put me on the Met’s invitation list for this event. Thank you for your willingness to support non-traditional media as we pursue the issue of heritage preservation.

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.


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