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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?

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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