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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…

Mosul Cultural Heritage Under Threat: News Roundup

June 12, 2014

UPDATE 6/27: Iraqi news outlet Niqash has a story which states that some of the statues reported destroyed earlier (Othman al-Mosuli and Abu Tammam) were merely removed from public display and have been locked away. Several local figures report that Assyrian lamassu statues are safe and have not been harmed. The article also reports that ISIS fighters have removed several medieval manuscripts from Mosul’s central library and their whereabouts are unknown. This is consistent with earlier reports (6/22) from as-Sharq al-Awsat that rare manuscripts are being smuggled from Mosul to Turkey.

There are also reports that locals surrounded the 18th century shrine of Sheikh Fathi when ISIS gunmen came to destroy it and threw rocks at them until they left. There are conflicting reports about whether they returned later and successfully demolished the structure.

Video footage has appeared on RT Arabic that seems to show cranes and flatbed trucks removing three statues in Mosul. One of the statues appears to have been heavily damaged in the process, the other two seem to be intact:

UPDATE 6/24: The Telegraph reports that ISIS fighters are in control of ancient Hatra. No damage to the site has been reported.

UPDATE 6/22: The newspaper as-Sharq al-Awsat quotes Qais Hussein, the head of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, who reports that a number of rare manuscripts, including an Abbasid-era Qur’an, have been smuggled from Mosul to Turkey. He also alleges that ISIS plans have been uncovered to blow up the mausoleum of Jonah at Nebi Yunus.

Assyrian news outlet Ankawa reports that ISIS fighters have smashed a statue of the Virgin Mary outside al-Tahira Chaldean Catholic church in Mosul. They have a pictures alleged to be of the remains of the statue. The statue was on top of the church’s tower.

Archbishop of Mosul Emil Nona has confirmed that the statue of Mary was destroyed.

UPDATE 6/20: According to Reuters, ISIS fighters have destroyed the twelfth century tomb of Ali Ibn al-Athir, a philosopher and companion of Saladin. They have also destroyed public statues of the nineteenth century composer Othman al-Mosuli and the ninth century poet Abu Tammam.

ORIGINAL 6/12: A mere 48 hours ago, the stunning news broke that a few thousand fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The city was defended by four divisions of the Iraqi Army, most of whom seem to have fled their posts or surrendered to the vastly inferior force opposing them without a fight. The fall of the city has triggered a refugee crisis as as many as 500,000 people have fled for government-controlled areas.

Mosul is also a significant cultural and archaeological center. The capture of the city gives ISIS control of a wide swath of contiguous territory in both Iraq and Syria. In previous cities that have come under the control of ISIS, their fighters deliberately destroyed ancient monuments. Two eighth century BC portal lions from the neo-Hittite city of Hadatu (modern Arslantaş) which had been put on display in a park in Ar-Raqqa were smashed by earthmovers when ISIS took control of that city:

alrashid 1 alrashid 2The destruction of portal lions in Ar-Raqqa by ISIS, April 2014.

At Tell Ajaja (ancient Saddikanni), looters uncovered several large Assyrian sculptures which were then confiscated and pulverized with sledgehammers:

aajajah 3

The above two cases received the most publicity, but in 2014 ISIS fighters have also blown up a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic in Ar-Raqqa, smashed reliefs in the Roman cemetery at Shash Hamdan, and defaced reliefs on cliffs surrounding Aleppo.

Theologically, the interpretation of Islam followed by ISIS bans depictions of human beings for fear it could lead to idolatry, and especially depictions of deities. Such images are to be destroyed, as Muhammad destroyed the idols inside the Kabaa shrine after his capture of Mecca.

Even so, some items such as the Raqqa lions were neither idols nor depictions of human beings. Politically, the destruction of ancient artifacts is an attempt to erase the history and culture of the Assyrian and Syriac peoples of northern Iraq and eastern Syria. In Syria, ISIS has instituted jizya, a special tax imposed on Christians and Jews during the early Islamic period.

More generally, by erasing all physical evidence of pre-Islamic cultures ISIS hopes to create a present-day reality free from potential challenges to their political ideology.

The fall of Mosul to ISIS has brought many more cultural heritage sites under direct and immediate threat. Some members of ISIS were already celebrating publicly yesterday on Twitter:

Earlier today Al Alan TV reporter Jenan Moussa published a pamphlet distributed by ISIS in Mosul declaring new regulations for the inhabitants of the city. In addition to bans on alcohol, drugs, smoking, and women going outside, the pamphlet announced that all shrines, graveyards and monuments will be destroyed.

Mosul is bisected by the Tigris River. Currently, Kurdish troops have advanced to the outskirts of Mosul from the eastern side but do not seem to have occupied the eastern half of the city. Refugees have been fleeing to Nineveh Plains, with conflicting reports of whether ISIS forces have reached the majority Assyrian city of Bakhdida (also called Qaraqosh) and its accompanying ancient Assyrian site of Balawat.

Archaeological Sites in Mosul

The most important site in Mosul are the ruins of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, unparalleled in the world. The palaces still contain numerous reliefs which have never been removed. The site has been poorly guarded for the past 25 years and frequently looted, as detailed by John Malcolm Russell in 2003. Since then, the situation has not improved. Many reliefs still on the site are apparently in poor condition and urban growth has overtaken much of the site.

Regardless, the reliefs and lamassu still present at the site should be judged to be at a very high risk of destruction.

Cultural Institutions in Mosul

The Mosul Museum in the west side of the city was heavily looted in 2003. I have been unable to find any news as to its current status under ISIS.

Mosul University’s College of Archaeology has in recent years been working to expand its Assyriology program and is constructing a new Institute for Cuneiform Studies. Several hundred students at Mosul University were reportedly being held hostage, but they were rescued by Kurdish troops.

Archaeologists working in the city seem to have gotten out safely:


There are a number of ancient mosques in Mosul. Most are Sunni and are therefore at a lower risk. However there are two Islamic sites which could be classified as shrines according to ISIS’s decree: the Mosque of Nebi Yunus (Mosque of the Prophet Jonah) and the Mosque of the Prophet Jarjis.

ISIS has already destroyed the Shrine of Uwais al-Qarni and Ammar Ibn Yasir in Ar-Raqqa. Both men were seventh century followers of Ali, the founder of Shia Islam and therefore heretics according to ISIS’s ideology.

The Mosque of the Prophet Jonah sits atop Tell Nebi Yunus in the ruins of Nineveh. is believed to be the burial place of the Biblical prophet Jonah. It is a joint shrine revered both by Muslims and by the Assyrian Church of the East, and was a Christian church before the Islamic period.

The Mosque of the Prophet Jarjis is believed to be the burial place of Jarjis, a legendary prophet and miracle worker from the first century AD who lived in Mosul. The shrine was renovated by Tamerlane in 1393. Its original date of construction is unknown.

Churches and Monasteries

Mosul is home to a number of ancient Christian churches, which I have refrained from identifying here in case the wrong people read this post. Sadly, attacks on churches have already begun in Mosul with several reports and photographs which purport to show churches on fire or being vandalized:

There are also reports that an Armenian church was bombed.

The area around Nineveh is home to a number of very ancient monasteries dating back to the fourth century AD. Many of them have been flooded with Christian refugees. There are reports that ISIS gunmen entered the fourth century Mar Benham monastery, but no details are available.

UPDATE 6/22: It appears that the car bomb outside St. Etchmiadzin’s Armenian Church may have been targeting an adjacent army base.

Rivers From Eden is dead. Long live Gates of Nineveh.

May 30, 2014

Hello world!

It’s been a while and things are going to change quite a bit here. I started the blog Rivers from Eden three years ago to keep my writing skills sharp and keep me reading about the ancient Near East while I was applying to grad school. In the past three years, Rivers from Eden received over 90,000 page views.

But life went on. I moved to Israel. I moved to Illinois. I earned a master’s degree. I got accepted into a Ph.D program. I went without posting for months or years at a time. Page views stagnated and declined. New posts received hardly any attention at all.

It’s time for a change.

As of yesterday, Rivers from Eden is no more. It’s gone. My search engine optimization will suffer, but that’s alright.  This blog is now titled Gates of Nineveh, which should make it clear that we’re talking about Mesopotamia here, and especially Assyria.

The best posts from Rivers from Eden have been moved to this blog. The not-so-good posts have been taken down and may re-appear after extensive re-writes. The links page has been rewritten to link to other scholarly blogs focused on the ancient world and organize links in ways that people actually use them.

Gates of Nineveh is going to move in a new direction. The internet has many excellent biblioblogs. It also has many excellent archaeology blogs. What it lacks are many regular blogs dedicated to Assyriology. This is probably because most of us in that field are nerdy beyond belief. But, I have long suspected that more people would find Mesopotamia interesting if it were presented in a manner that more than a hundred people on this planet could understand.

So, without further ado, here are some things you will see on Gates of Nineveh:

  • A renewed focus on Mesopotamia, and especially neo-Assyrian studies.
  • Shorter posts, and more of them.
  • Shorter posts discussing a single artifact or text.
  • Quality long form articles, as before.
  • Posts discussing news and new finds in the field.
  • Posts discussing current scholarship.
  • Posts seeking to span the gap between Assyriology and Biblical Studies.
  • Book reviews.
  • Interactions with archaeobloggers and bibliobloggers.
  • Posts about my own research (when I have something to write about).

Things you will not find on Gates of Nineveh:

  • Posts more than once a day (probably not more than 2-3 times a week). Don’t worry subscribers, I’m not about to flood your inbox.
  • Posts that read like an upper level undergrad term paper (I plead guilty to past offenses in this regard).
  • Simply reposting news from the Agade mailing list (Subscribe to it here! It’s great).
  • Theology.
  • Commentary on modern politics or social issues.
  • General commentary about the state of higher education in the United States.
  • Posts consisting entirely of funny pictures (that’s what Twitter is for).
  • Posts advertising stuff, books, digs, etc (unless it’s my own book, dig, etc – I don’t have any at present).
  • Mudslinging with others in the field. I’m not important enough to do that.

There’s nothing wrong with blogs that do these things, it’s just not what this blog is about. And I’m still going to write about Late Antiquity, because I like it. I’ll never make a career out of it, but I enjoy reading and writing about it. Plus, it’s fun to trace the legacy of the ancient Near East through time.

My hope, as always, is that some people will read this blog, enjoy it and maybe learn a thing or two. Rebuilding the readership Rivers from Eden had at its peak will take time, but that’s OK. There’s a new beginning afoot, that required making a clean break with the old.


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