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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.

References:

[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.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2014 4:58 PM

    In your entry you said, “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.” I am going to have to disagree with you. I think it was aimed at BOTH Christians and Muslims. I believe they are doing this to show all people of all religions that they are in control. ISIS or IS or ISIL (whatever they feel like calling themselves this week) is using Islam as an excuse for destruction. They don’t need a reason to do it, they just want to show the world that they can. They have destroyed both Christian and Islamic heritage in their quest to destroy everything in the region. Trying to attribute religious logic to it is a fallacy. It is about power. They take sledgehammers to Assyrian artifacts from the Monastery in Mosul, they blow up Islamic holy sites. They crucify people in the middle of the city and slaughter men, women and children. They just want to watch everything burn.

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