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The Great Damascus Antiquities Bust?

December 8, 2018

News spread across the internet today of a major new discovery with regards to antiquities trafficking in Syria. Reports, originating with leaders and media of the Syrian opposition, alleged that a raid had discovered two metric tons of antiquities in a house in Damascus:

In short, this is the story: Major General Jamil Hassan, the head of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate, acting on the orders of Major General Maher al-Assad, brother of Bashar al-Assad and commander of the Republican Guard, sent a force to raid a house in the Mezzeh 86 neighborhood of Damascus belonging to Brigadier General Suhail al-Hassan, the commander of the Syrian Army’s elite Tiger Force unit. There, according to Hassan, they found a stash of looted antiquities weighing two metric tons.

There is no indication as of yet of what was found in this raid. According to Brigadier General Ahmed Rahal, a former Deputy Defense Minister who defected to the opposition in 2012 but remains a well-connected source of news about Syria, al-Hassan denied all charges:

Suhail al-Hassan maintains that he knew nothing of the antiquities in the house, that he had not entered the house in the past four years, and accuses Maher al-Assad, Jamil Hassan, and Major General Rafiq Shahadah, the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, of conspiring against him.

It is unclear where Elkhaldy and Rahal are getting their information, although they appear to have sources independent of one another. Therefore, it is not possible to independently verify this at this time. However, the story remains interesting for what it can reveal about the inner workings of the Syrian regime and the role played by archaeological artifacts in the war in Syria.

The Rise of Militias

Tiger Force fighters in Deir ez-Zor, September 2017.

The Syrian Arab Army suffered massive losses in 2012 and 2013 from battle and desertion as rebels took control of most of Syria. Bashar al-Assad rebuilt his military forces, at the price that his grip on power now depends on a patchwork of military units, paramilitary organizations, political party militias, local defense militias organized along ethnic lines, foreign volunteers, and private military companies.

Militias in turn became a tool of advancement for many men who seized the opportunity to raise their wealth and social status through warlordism. One of these men was Suhail al-Hassan, a colonel in Air Force Intelligence who displayed a notable combination of loyalty, brutality, and military competence during the early stages of the uprising from 2011-2013. In late 2013, he was given the task of forming a special unit known as “Tiger Force,” designed to act as a spearhead for offensives to retake rebel-held areas.

Tiger Force was not formed in the way of most elite military units, that is, through selecting the best men from a variety of regular army units. Rather, Tiger Force is an amalgamation of Alawite militias, most of them led by a local leader and consisting of men from his village. The entire venture was allegedly funded not from the military budget but privately by Bashar al-Assad’s billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, the owner of Syria’s largest cell phone company Syriatel and one of the wealthiest men in Syria. Tiger Force also operated outside of the regular military command structure, reporting not to the Syrian Arab Army but to Jamil Hassan’s Air Force Intelligence Directorate. (Hafez al-Assad was the former commander of the Syrian Air Force, and as a result relied on Air Force Intelligence for a wide variety of internal security functions and covert operations).

Suhail al-Hassan (center) and Jamil Hassan (left) along with a Russian special forces bodyguard, October 2017. (source)

Tiger Force turned out to be a highly effective military force, helping to turn the tide of the war in favor of Assad in 2014 and 2015 through heavy fighting in Aleppa, Hama, and Kuweires Airport. Battlefield successes raised Suhail al-Hassan’s profile considerably, earning him a promotion to Brigadier General as well as considerable media coverage in Syria and Russia. He even appears to have received a personal protection detail of Russian special forces soldiers after several assassination attempts.

Like any good warlord, Suhail al-Hassan has also worked to cultivate his own personal mythology. His men call him al-Nimr, “the Tiger.” He entertained western journalists with tales of broadcasting his own original war poetry to the enemy over the radio prior to an attack and claimed to have never lost a battle. Der Spiegel dubbed him “The Devil’s General,” while Robert Fisk called him “one of the most-frightening men I have ever met.”

Outside of shows put on for credulous journalists, al-Hassan and the Tiger Force are said to profit from black market trafficking in oil and weapons, including with ISIS. Tiger Force and a similar privately funded military unit called the Desert Hawks, whose founder Muhammad Jaber made his fortune carrying out illegal trade in violation of UN sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, are widely reported to be enriching themselves by plundering private property in newly captured areas. The power of men like Jaber and al-Hassan likely depends on their ability to deliver the goods to their men, who otherwise will find another warlord to attach themselves to.


The militias of Assad’s Syria are but a reflection of how the state was run before the war began: with numerous redundant military and intelligence units operating at once in order to spy on each other and prevent any one person from becoming powerful enough to become a threat to Bashar al-Assad.

Unsurprisingly, the rise of up-and-coming warlords from outside the inner circle of the regime, leading privately funded armies which double as organized criminal networks while being guarded by Russian special forces has been perceived by the regime’s old guard as a threat to their power. Apparently baseless speculation in Western media that Russia is considering replacing Bashar al-Assad with Suhail al-Hassan likely has not helped the perception that al-Hassan has become too big for his own good.

Ali Shelly. (source)

In 2015, someone in Rafiq Shehahda’s Military Intelligence Directorate (an old rival to Air Force Intelligence) leaked an internal document detailing various crimes committed by Tiger Force, alleging that one of al-Hassan’s lieutenants named Ali Shelly was selling weapons and oil to rebels. In one instance, soldiers caught Shelly’s men smuggling weapons in trucks hidden under bags of wheat, resulting in a shootout between the Syrian Arab Army and Tiger Force. A few days later, men from the Military Intelligence Directorate were rounding up draft dodgers in an area controlled by Shelly’s men when they were ambushed and killed. In 2016 Shelly was eventually arrested, only to be released a few days later when Air Force Intelligence intervened on his behalf.

In the past year, the old guard of the Assad regime has taken steps to bring some of the militias in to line. In July 2017 Muhammad Jaber left Syria for Russia as the Assad regime disbanded the Desert Hawks and redistributed their men into other militias and regular army formations.

Tiger Force held on for a bit longer, protected by Suhail al-Hassan’s close links with Air Force Intelligence and with the Russian military. However, in August 2018 a facebook group linked to Syria’s Republican Guard (commanded by Bashar’s brother Maher al-Assad) published audio in which Suhail threatened to attack regime elements who tried to arrest Tiger Force members. The following month, the government canceled the contracts of 6,500 Tiger Force members, dramatically shrinking his force.

Which brings us back to the raid and the allegations against Suhail al-Hassan. He allegedly has accused three men of being behind the raid. Two of them, Maher al-Assad, the brother of the president and the commander of both the Republican Guard and the Syrian Arab Army’s 4th Armored Division, and Rafiq Shahadah of the Military Intelligence Directorate, have viewed Air Force Intelligence and Tiger Force as dangerous rivals for a while now. Jamil Hassan, however, was Suhail’s sponsor, without whose permission the others could not move against him.

Ali Shelly and Suhail al-Hassan. (source)

Due to his popularity, in order to take him down, his rivals must first take down his reputation. Allegations of criminal activity are a good way to do that. Allegations that he is profiting from the destruction of the ancient past while Bashar al-Assad has presented himself as fighting to preserve civilization against the forces of barbarism are even better. The fact that many members of the regime are likely profiting from the same sorts of enterprises is irrelevant – those who survive will cover it up while those for whom the knives are out will have their misdeeds exposed.

It is of course entirely likely that senior members of the Assad regime are trafficking in antiquities as well as weapons and oil. Many sites in regime-held territory, most famously the site of Apamea, have been looted. A great deal of antiquities trafficking takes place through Lebanon, which almost entirely borders territory held by Assad loyalists for most of the war.

But as the war winds down, the militias aren’t going anywhere, and conflict between the old guard and the new guard seems likely to continue. As one Syrian noted in 2013:

“After this crisis, there will be a 1,000 more crises — the militia leaders. Two years ago they went from nobody to somebody with guns and power. How can we tell these shabiha to go back to being a nobody again?”

The trafficking in antiquities and other looted property may well be one part of these power struggles. Financially, the impact of antiquities will be small, but as a propaganda weapon it may have an effect many times greater.

Article © Christopher Jones 2018.


Selective Memory

August 17, 2017

Last Friday Michael Press published a blog post partly in response to issues raised in my recent post on the erosion of national monopolies on cultural heritage and the concept of universal or global heritage. He focused on the site of Joseph’s Tomb in the West Bank city of Nablus. Once a multi-religious shrine revered for hundreds of years by Jews, Muslims, Christians and Samaritans alike, after 1967 the site has remained revered by Jews while the Palestinians have come to see it as a symbol of Israeli colonialism. The site has been the target of repeated acts of vandalism, with some Palestinians insisting it was never a Muslim holy site but merely the shrine of a local sheikh named Yusuf. Press poses the question: how can a universal model of cultural heritage exist when two groups can develop polar opposite interpretations of the exact same site?

A lot can happen in one week. While Press mentioned Confederate monuments as another example of polarized interpretations, white nationalists and various groups of the self-proclaimed “alt right” were planning a rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. A weekend of violence left three people dead. Reverberations included a new round of removals of Confederate monuments. In Durham, North Carolina a group of protesters took matters into their own hands and pulled down a 1924 memorial to Confederate veterans with ropes.

But my purpose in this post is not to give yet another tour of how different people attach different meanings to the same object, or review the context in which many Civil War memorials were set up during the nadir of American race relations. Instead I want to highlight how historical memory, in addition to being multipolar, is also selective.

Memory is always a phenomenon of the present, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past. Memory, being a phenomenon of emotion and magic, accommodates only those facts that suit it. It thrives on vague, telescoping reminiscences, on hazy general impressions or specific symbolic details. It is vulnerable to transferences, screen memories, censorings, and projections of all kinds. History, being an intellectual, nonreligious activity, calls for analysis and critical discourse. Memory situates remembrance in a sacred context. History ferrets it out; it turns whatever it touches into prose. Memory wells up from groups that it welds together, which is to say, as Maurice Halbwachs observed, that there are as many memories as there are groups, that memory is by nature multiple yet specific; collective and plural yet individual…Memory is rooted in the concrete, in space, gesture, image, and object. History dwells exclusively on temporal continuities, on changes in things and in the relations among things…At the heart of history is a criticism destructive of spontaneous memory. Memory is always suspect in the eyes of history, whose true mission is to demolish it, to repress it.[1]

Thus wrote Pierre Nora in his opening chapter to the three-volume examination of France’s Lieux de mémoire. Memory, in short, is selective. It latches on to part of the past with all the predilections and vicissitudes of the human mind. By process of natural selection it quickly “accommodates only those facts that suit it.”

Read more…

Towards a Post-Westphalian Archaeology

July 4, 2017

The modern history of archaeological research can be roughly divided into three periods. During the first period, running from Napoleon’s 1798 expedition to Egypt to the end of World War 2, archaeology was often part of  imperial enterprises. Archaeology was primarily (but not exclusively) conducted by Europeans and Americans who traveled to exotic lands in search of the remains of past civilizations. Disparities in wealth and power meant that a steady stream of artifacts flowed from poor regions to wealthy imperial capitals in London, Paris, Berlin and Istanbul. National museums conferred prestige by showcasing the breadth of their respective empires’ territory and influence.

Conceptually archaeology in the Near East was a search for ‘firsts’ – of agriculture, cities, the wheel, writing, laws, literature – that held the keys to understanding the genesis of civilization. Civilization then passed to the Greco-Roman world, and from there to the West. Westerners went east in search of their own origins, carrying with them a teleology which they subconsciously imposed on the shape of the field.[1]

The second period began in southern Europe in the nineteenth century, but spread in earnest only after World War 2 and ran until at least the early 2000s. In many places it continues to this day. As decolonization created new nation-states organized into a new international system by the United Nations, those states sought to take control of their own archaeology. Thanks to previous associations of archaeology with colonial control, establishing control of archaeological sites located within their territory became an important part of asserting their independence.[2]

The new period was a product of the new international system, in which the entire world and its population was divided into self-governing states which controlled defined geographic boundaries. Since the state’s realm of control is circumscribed by defined geographic boundaries, states could lay claim to all archaeological remains located within their borders, regardless of whether they had any direct or ongoing cultural link with the state’s present inhabitants. If it was found within the territory of the state, it was part of the heritage of that geographic locale, and was therefore part of the state.

States declared all artifacts found within their borders to be part of their national heritage. Artifacts found within their territory were declared state property and their export was banned. Archaeology was regulated by government ministries. Extensive diplomatic efforts sought the return of artifacts which had been removed from within the country’s modern borders during the previous period. National museums showcased all artifacts found within the state’s territory. Efforts were made to train native-born archaeologists to take over research in their home countries.

This had numerous positive results: it slowed the steady drain of artifacts from the developing to the developed world, promoted interest in the archaeology worldwide, and began to free the discipline from its colonialist past. Ideologically the recovery of the ancient past served as a form of resistance to cultural domination by the West, showing that these states had a civilized past which either pre-dated Western civilization or developed independently of it.

Yet the weakness of the second period was bound up in the weakness of the international system which created it. In the modern institution of the state belonging is marked by citizenship, which overrides social ties of family, language, ethnicity and religion. Both citizenship and geographic boundaries are on some level arbitrary: citizenship is granted by the state either at birth or by legal process, and borders are lines drawn on a map. All states are to some degree heterogeneous, containing many types of people lumped together into a common identity by the accident of borders.

Implied consent – the unavoidable difficulty that most people who are born into a state never participated in framing their constitution and therefore have never had a real say in forming the type of government they live under, and are therefore presumed to have consented to being governed by sole virtue of being born in a certain time and place – is an ever-present weakness in the system.

I will argue that we are now seeing the emergence of a third period of archaeology, which is being created by the erosion of the nation-state in the twenty-first century.

The state has weaknesses: Implied consent, heterogeneity and artificial borders all pose problems for maintaining the system. Some states have attempted to manage this through greater integration with other states. In some cases this has exacerbated the problem, driving people who no longer feel that they share a common life to fall back onto more primary loyalties even as global communications makes it easier than ever before for them to connect with like-minded people. As a result, ethnic nationalism is no longer necessarily linked to geographic boundaries but is defined solely by membership in the tribe.

Tribes have certain advantages over the state. Tribes select their own members and do not need to control a defined territory in order to exist, which means they do not face the problem of heterogeneous populations forced to share the same geographic space. Tribes are constantly changing as their members change, removing the problem of implied consent. They are prone to splitting, which conversely makes them adaptable.

As a result, twenty-first century national archaeology now seeks to supersede the apparatus of the state and use archaeology to promote the interests of the tribe.

Resurgent Russian Nationalism

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Vladimir Putin argued that Crimea was vital to Russian identity because “It was in Crimea, in the ancient city of Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptised before bringing Christianity to Rus.” This was important because “Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force that helped involve various tribes and tribal unions of the vast Eastern Slavic world in the creation of a Russian nation and Russian state. It was thanks to this spiritual unity that our forefathers for the first time and forevermore saw themselves as a united nation.”

Of course, the archaeological site of Chersonesus lay outside the boundaries of the Russian state. But this did not matter, because in Putin’s view the essential qualities of Russian-ness are not citizenship in the Russian Federation but ties of culture, language and religion. In a 2015 interview with Charlie Rose, Putin lamented that after the break-up of the USSR “25 million of Russian people suddenly turned out to be outside the borders of the Russian Federation,” and in other statements has promised to use Russian power to protect the interests of ethnic Russians who are citizens of other states.

Putin’s critic and supporter from the right, Aleksandr Dugin, has articulated a post-Westphalian nationalist ideology in even starker terms:

I want to stress that, since the beginning of the fifteenth century, the state and the empire were seen as opposite extremes in Europe. Bodin, Machiavelli and Hobbes developed their theories of the ‘state’ in opposition to the ontology of the empire; the concept of the state is a product of the repudiation of the concept of an empire. The state is an artificial pragmatic construction, desacralised and devoid of telos, purpose and substance. On the contrary, the empire is something alive, sacred, and replete with purpose and essence: something that has a higher destiny. In an empire, the administrative apparatus is not separate from the religious mission, or from the people’s spirit. The empire is a universal embodiment of this mission, illuminating the elastic energy of people and culture.[3]

States are bound by geographic boundaries, empires expand. States treat all their citizens equally before the law, empires are free to privilege certain groups of people over others. But states are ultimately practical constructs, while empires are deeply ideological, and therefore can provide meaning to certain types of people in ways that states cannot. By extension, an empire can claim all archaeological sites which connect to its core identity regardless of geographic location.

Assyrian Nationalism

Not all forms of the new nationalism seek to rule over others. The Assyrian minority in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran along with the Assyrian diaspora abroad strongly identify with the cultures of pre-Islamic Mesopotamia (or Beth Nahrain as it is known in modern Aramaic), especially the Assyrian Empire.

As Assyrian activist Mardean Isaac has put it:

If Christianity is all that is at stake, we can worship freely in the west. An Iraqi Christian can easily become a Kurdish Christian or a French Christian. Our living history and all that it comprises it is irreplaceable: our link to the past and the future of our people is our land and our language.

Of course, claiming that Nineveh and Nimrud are the special heritage of one ethnic minority directly undercuts the idea that Iraq’s ancient past is the heritage of all Iraqis. And yet at least half of Iraq’s Assyrian population has been forced to flee the country since 2003. At panel held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past September on protecting the cultural heritage of religious minorities in the Middle East, an Assyrian audience member directly questioned whether persons who aided and abetted genocide against an ethnic minority should be able to claim rights to that minority’s cultural heritage once that minority had been removed, simply because that heritage is located within the territory of a state of which they are a citizen.

While Assyrian nationalists have often called for the establishment of an Assyrian state, more realistic current goals seek the establishment of an autonomous region within Iraq in the region of Nineveh Plains similar to the status enjoyed by Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kurdish Nationalism

Oh, enemy! The Kurdish people live on,
They have not been crushed by the weapons of any time
Let no one say Kurds are dead, they are living
They live and never shall we lower our flag

We are the descendants of the Medes and Cyaxares
Kurdistan is our religion, our credo,
Let no one say Kurds are dead, they are living
They live and never shall we lower our flag

Thus read the first and fourth verses of Ey Reqîb, the Kurdish national anthem. Like the Assyrians, the Kurds were divided between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Kurdish identity therefore was never established in a state and was instead maintained by emphasizing its continued existence despite being divided up into other states. Kurdish identity, it is alleged, stretches back to Cyaxares, the founder of the Median Empire and conqueror of Nineveh, thereby seeking to legitimize Kurdish national claims in the present by linking them to the distant past.

Kurdish nationalists have never established a state and so have yet to successfully resolve the contradiction between nationalism and statehood. In semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, non-Kurdish minorities frequently complain of discrimination and attempts to assimilate their identities. Similar concerns have been raised concerning the Kurdish regions of Syria.

What is the response?

The various nationalisms profiled here are vastly different in their aims, resources, coherence, number of adherents, and the degree of moral revulsion they inspire. What they have in common is an emphasis on a particular ancient culture being the special inheritance of an in-group based on primary loyalties rather than citizenship in a nation-state.

One could give many more examples: ancient Israel and revisionist Zionism, Palestinian nationalism (really a stunted version of the second phase), or the way jihadist groups appropriate early Islamic history in the service of claims to re-establish the caliphate. One could further explore the roles played by the ancient past in Hindu nationalism in India or medieval and classical history in the European far right. We can likely expect many more such movements to arise.

Just as the second phase in archaeology was a byproduct of the United Nations-led international system, the third phase is a byproduct of the new nationalisms of the twenty-first century which are bursting through the weak points in the post-1945 international system.

Pre-modern societies provide a powerful model for these new nationalisms, not only because age lends legitimacy but because these societies pre-date the Westphalian state system and therefore lack many of its perceived weaknesses. Furthermore ancient historians have often failed in the past to critically interrogate concepts of ethnicity and identity in the ancient world, especially in the more popular publications, leading to the assumption that these issues were simpler in the past and making it easier to appropriate them for the present.

Possible Responses

Two possible responses to this problem readily present themselves:

The first is internationalism. This is the route taken by the Society for Classical Studies last November, apparently inspired by Donna Zuckerberg’s article “How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor,” which reads in part:

Greek and Roman culture was shared and shaped for their own purposes by people living from India to Britain and from Germany to Ethiopia. Its medieval and modern influence is wider still. Classical Studies today belongs to all of humanity.

For this reason, the Society strongly supports efforts to include all groups among those who study and teach the ancient world, and to encourage understanding of antiquity by all. It vigorously and unequivocally opposes any attempt to distort the diverse realities of the Greek and Roman world by enlisting the Classics in the service of ideologies of exclusion, whether based on race, color, national origin, gender, or any other criterion.

The corollary of this statement is that the second period of archaeology is effectively dead. If the classics belong to all of humanity then they are not the special heritage of any one nation. And if the classics are not the special heritage of certain nations, this calls into question whether national governments have exclusive rights to the cultural heritage contained within their borders. The second period may persist for a while as a legal regime, but its ideology is cut off at the knees.

But internationalism runs the risk of returning to the first period, only with ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘common heritage’ becoming code words for imposing western values and ideas of heritage management on the rest of the world.

The second is localism. Heritage is owned on the sub-national level. Instead of emphasizing the universal value of ancient heritage to the world, localists emphasize the relationships between ancient sites and the communities living in their immediate geographic area. They push for local control over the management of heritage and for hearing their voices in the study of the site.

Aside from the obvious ethical complications (can the locals decide to destroy their heritage? How should they treat the heritage of previous population groups they feel no connection to?) the risk of the local approach is that it can enable the same sorts of particularist nationalism that threaten to destroy the second period system.

Either way, the second period is dead. If the sovereignty enjoyed by the state is undermined, so does its monopoly over the archaeological heritage found within its borders. It is either ceded to international bodies, usurped by ethno-nationalist movements or turned over to local control.

The future of heritage management is going to be complex and likely inconsistent. There have never been simple answers, but the questions are about to get much more complicated.

However, the displacement of the nation-state as the sole actor in heritage preservation provides an opportunity: Not to shift the entire responsibility for heritage protection to another actor, but to introduce balance to the equation. Global, national or local interests will no longer be able to automatically override the other two. Future heritage conservation efforts will likely have to balance the interests of all three.

See Also:

The Future of War in the Middle East and the Future of Archaeology
Archaeology in the Age of Special War
Book Review: “Brave New War” by John Robb


[1] See Zainab Bahrani, “Conjuring Mesopotamia: Imaginative Geography and a World Past,” 159-174 in Archaeology Under Fire: Nationalism, Politics and Heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East (London: Routledge, 1998).

[2] See for example Magnus T. Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation-Building in Modern Iraq (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 95, 179-185.

[3] Aleksandr Dugin, Putin vs. Putin: Vladimir Putin Viewed from the Right (London: Arktos Media, 2014), 63.

Article © Christopher Jones 2017.

A Bookend to the Destruction of Mosul: The Great Mosque of Nur ad-Din destroyed by ISIS

June 23, 2017

On July 24, 2014 ISIS carried out its first widely publicized destruction of a cultural heritage site in Mosul by blowing up the Shrine of the Prophet Jonah. It was early in ISIS’ campaign of cultural destruction, and the group’s propaganda arm had not yet mastered the slickly produced videos it would later use. Amateur cellphone videos of the demolition quickly spread through social media and news outlets. The Shrine of the Prophet Jonah was far from the first piece of cultural heritage that ISIS destroyed, but it was the first to receive widespread publicity in western media.

Almost three years later, ISIS has lost control over most of Mosul as Iraqi forces steadily advanced through the city despite heavy casualties. The civilian death toll has been even higher. For the past two months, fighting has been confined to the Old City where a few hundred ISIS holdouts are making a last stand in the narrow streets and alleyways, holding the civilian population hostage as a shield from airstrikes.

The minaret of the Great Mosque of Nur ad-Din in Mosul as it appeared in 2013. Photo by Faisal Jeber. (source)

A major focal point of ISIS’ defense has been the Grand Mosque of Nur ad-Din (also known as the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri). It was here that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave his infamous speech declaring the re-establishment of the caliphate in July 2014, making the mosque invested with heavy symbolism for the group and its ambitions.

Iraqi forces first advanced near the mosque in March, advancing into the Old City before being driven out by ISIS counterattacks. Iraqi special police forces launched another offensive in June, advancing to within 50 meters of the mosque by June 21. As the Iraqis closed in, ISIS blew up the mosque. Iraqi forces now occupy the rubble.

A Long History

The Great Mosque stood over Mosul for 845 years. Perhaps foreshadowing its modern history, the Great Mosque was born of war and conquest. Its construction was commissioned by Nur ad-Din, emir of Aleppo and second son to Imad ad-Din Zengi. His father had extinguished the Crusader kingdom of Edessa in 1144, and after his assassination in 1146 the son continued his legacy by attacking Crusader-held Antioch. When the Armenians of Edessa revolted and attempted to rejoin the Crusaders Nur ad-Din massacred the entire Christian population of the city. Strongly opposed to the Crusader presence in the Holy Land, Nur ad-Din sought to unify all Muslim rulers in the Levant against the Crusader states.

In this he was partly successful, ruling over much of the Levant and wielding considerable influence in Egypt. In 1170, his younger brother the emir of Mosul Qutb ad-Din died. He was succeeded by his son Saif ad-Din Ghazi II, but the real power behind the throne was wielded by Qutb’s Christian vizier Fakr ad-Din Abd al-Masih (whose name meant “Pride of the religion, servant of the Messiah”).

Nur ad-Din responded by besieging Mosul. Fakr ad-Din surrendered the city on the condition that Saif be allowed to keep his throne. Fakr ad-Din was permitted to go into exile in Aleppo on the condition that he convert to Islam and change the latter half of his name to Abdallah (“servant of Allah”). Nur ad-Din then set about repressing Christianity in Mosul, where Christians formed a large minority. Whereas earlier rulers had been tolerant Christianity, Nur ad-Din prohibited the construction of new churches and required Christians and Jews to wear distinctive clothing (a belt for Christians, and a red piece of cloth on the shoulder for Jews) and imposed increased jizya tax on non-Muslims.[1]

Nur ad-Din spent only 24 days in Mosul, but in the time he was there he also made plans for building a new mosque. Responsibility for its construction was committed to a Sufi sheikh named Omar al-Malla, to whom Nur ad-Din was said to have entrusted the job because he was a pious man who would not oppress anyone while building the mosque, even though as a result its construction may be less efficient. Nur ad-Din also granted shops and farms to provide the religious center with revenue.[2]

The Mosque of Nur ad-Din prior to its 1942 demolition and reconstruction. (source)

The mosque was completed by 1172 or 1173, shortly before Nur ad-Din’s death in 1174. Some scholars interpret the structure as heralding the end of religious tolerance and the beginning of a new era of Muslim dominance in Mosul.[3] Regardless, Nur ad-Din’s lifelong project had been successful: his conquests paved the way for his nephew Saladin to defeat the combined Crusader armies at Hattin and recapture Jerusalem in 1187.

Its most famous feature was its minaret, towering 60.5 meters (198 feet) over Mosul. Before its destruction it was the tallest minaret in Iraq.[4] Soon after it was built the minaret started to lean to one side, most likely due to the effect of heat from the sun causing mud bricks to expand and contract. It began to lean further to one side after the Iran-Iraq war when Iranian bombs ruptures sewage lines and softened the ground around the tower. By the early 2000s a muezzin no longer dared to climb to the top of the tower to sound the call to prayer.

The leaning minaret gained the nickname al-hadba, “the hunchback,” and legends grew that it gained its bend from bowing to Muhammad, or that the prophet had stepped on it while ascending into heaven.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declares ISIS’ caliphate established from the mihrab of the Great Mosque of Nur ad-Din, July 4, 2014.

The rest of the mosque was demolished in 1942 and rebuilt in a more modern style. Only the hunchbacked minaret and the mihrab (which was itself reused from an earlier mosque in 1170) survived from the mosque of Nur ad-Din. It was this same mihrab which served as the background for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s first public appearance in which he declared that ISIS had re-established the caliphate.

Who Was Responsible?

Oddly, while ISIS has generally had no qualms about publicizing their destruction of antiquities, the group’s Amaq news agency claimed that an American aircraft had destroyed the mosque by dropping a bomb on it. American military spokesmen quickly denied the claim. The Iraqi military quickly released video footage taken from a military drone which shows the moment the mosque was detonated:

The video clearly shows squibbing all along the minaret, indicating that explosive charges were placed inside the structure. The entire mosque and minaret detonate nearly simultaneously, indicating a controlled demolition from the inside timed using detonator cord rather than a collapse from the shockwave of a bomb blast.

All claims that the mosque was destroyed by an airstrike are false and seem to be an attempt to stir public opinion against the United States and the Iraqi government.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the destruction of the mosque by ISIS “a formal declaration of their defeat.” In many ways its destruction serves as a symbolic bookend to ISIS’ three year control of Mosul. An occupation which began with declaring a caliphate ends with the destruction of the site where that caliphate was declared. An occupation which began with destroying one of Mosul’s most visible and famous landmarks ends with destroying the last famous landmark still standing.

Update: ASOR and National Geographic have released satellite photographs of the Great Mosque of Nur ad-Din taken before and after the destruction. The green dome of the mosque and a few sections of the building are still standing, but the rest is rubble.


[1] Yasser Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul 1170-1172,” Annales Islamogiques 36 (2002): 339-341.

[2] Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul,” 339, 342-43.

[3] Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul,” 348-352.

[4] Tabbaa, “The Mosque of Nur al-Din in Mosul,” 351; “Al-Hadba Minaret,” World Monuments Fund (, accessed June 23, 2017); “Manara Jami’ al-Nuri al-Kabir,” ArcheNet (, accessed June 23, 2017); “Jami’ al-Nuri al-Kabir,” ArcheNet (, accessed June 23, 2017); “Architecture c. 900 – c. 1250,” The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Article © Christopher Jones 2017.

Nimrud Damage Assessment

November 23, 2016

Following the recapture of the ancient site of Nimrud by the Iraqi Army’s 9th Armored Division on November 13, a steady trickle of news photographers have arrived at the site. As with Palmyra last spring they have come intent on showing the world the state of the ancient ruins demolished by ISIS. Unlike Palmyra, they have also interviewed locals about their relationships with the sites and filed stories focused on the lives of the people in the nearby towns who were persecuted by ISIS.

Although not comprehensive, their photographs and videos allow us to get an idea of the scale of the damage to the site.

Nimrud Citadel

Nimrud’s citadel has been visited by Max Delaney and Safin Hamed from the AFP, Ari Jalal of Reuters, a film crew from the BBC, and photographers from the Iraq Press Agency. Their cameras all tended to be drawn to the same scenes, suggesting these are the most obvious points of damage to the site.

The Throne Room Gate, Northwest Palace

The gateway to the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II’s Northwest Palace was reconstructed by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities in 1956. The project involved reconstructing a section of the walls and several arches. Original sculptures, including two large and four small lamassu and a number of reliefs, were installed at the arches and along the walls of the structure.[1]

Throne room gates shortly after their reconstruction. From New Light on Nimrud, p. 50.

Throne room gates shortly after their reconstruction as seen from the outside looking south. From New Light on Nimrud, p. 50.

Plan of the reconstructed throne room. From New Light on Nimrud, p. 50.

Plan of the reconstructed throne room. From New Light on Nimrud, p. 50.

Videos posted online by ISIS in April 2015 showed its fighters attacking the reliefs inside this gate with sledgehammers, power tools and earthmoving equipment and piling the pieces of reliefs in a large pile outside the entrance to the palace. This attack took place on or around February 26, 2015 as indicated by many of its perpetrators also appearing in the infamous video of the destruction of the Mosul Museum while wearing the same clothing. Satellite photographs taken for ASOR on March 7, 2015 showed that ISIS destroyed the low wall between the two reconstructed arches in order to provide access for the bulldozer and also showed the pile of relief fragments.

On or around April 2, ISIS returned and blew up the Northwest Palace with several large barrels of ammonium nitrate wired together with detonator cord. The damage was also visible in ASOR’s satellite imagery from April 17, showing heavy damage to most of the structure. The eastern gateway was destroyed, but the western gateway still stood.

Nineteen months later, the large pile of relief fragments remains in place, as does the western gateway, albeit denuded of most of its reliefs and all of its lamassu.

Above: View of the western gateway with the large pile of relief fragments in the foreground.

Read more…

The Mafia, Looted Antiquities, and the KGB

October 19, 2016

This week the Italian newspaper La Stampa published a bombshell article in which journalist Domenico Quirico posed as a “rich Torino collector” in order to investigate the trade in looted artifacts smuggled from Libya. Quirico met a man in a butcher shop near Naples who he believed to be connected to the mafia and was shown a bust of a Severan emperor for sale for €60,000 and shown pictures of a much larger statue head being sold for between €1 million and €800,000. Artifacts were said to come from Leptis Magna, Sabratha, and Cyrene and been smuggled through the Italian port of Gioia Tauro. With American art markets under increased scrutiny, they generally go to buyers in Russia, China, Japan and the United Arab Emirates.

More surprising was the claim that this smuggling was part of a triangle of illicit trade, in which artifacts are smuggled from Libya to Italy while the mafia in return buys weapons from black market arms dealers in Moldova and Ukraine and delivers them to ISIS in Libya.

Parts of this story are implausible. ISIS has never controlled any of the archaeological sites mentioned by Quirico’s source (they control only the town of Sirte and made a brief appearance in Sabratha), and most of the sites have been under guard since 2011. The link to ISIS seems unlikely. But could other rebel groups be trading in an artifacts-for-weapons scheme? Possibly, but other aspects of the story give reason to be skeptical.

Quirico goes even further than his contact, claiming that this trade is actually under the control of the Russian intelligence services, who have maintained links with both Chechen and Uzbek Islamists and former Iraqi Baathists now serving in the ranks of ISIS. He further alleges that during the Cold War the KGB traded weapons to the Palestinian Liberation Organization in return for looted artifacts, which were then kept in a secret museum in Moscow before they were gradually given away as gifts to various important figures.

His source for this is “security consultant” Mario Scaramella, a figure who has gained some notoriety as a purveyor of wild accusations regarding the Russian intelligence services. Repeatedly rejected for employment by the Italian intelligence service, Scaramella turned to chasing excitement by hanging around the edges of dangerous games being played by the world’s spy agencies.

The Russian Connection

From left to right: Vassily Mitrokhin, Paolo Guzzanti, Mario Scaramella, Oleg Gordievsky, Alexander Litvinenko. (all pictures from Wikimedia Commons).

From left to right: Vassily Mitrokhin, Paolo Guzzanti, Mario Scaramella, Oleg Gordievsky, Alexander Litvinenko. (all pictures from Wikimedia Commons).

Our story begins in Moscow in 1972, when the Soviet KGB began the process of relocating its headquarters from the overcrowded Lubyanka in the center of the city to a new building in the suburbs. The job of moving the massive files of the organization’s foreign intelligence directorate fell to one disgruntled archivist named Vassily Mitrokhin, who had been demoted to a career dead end in the archives a decade and a half earlier and there had grown increasingly disillusioned with the Soviet system. For twelve years until his retirement in 1984 he plotted his revenge on the system by making handwritten copies of the files, smuggling them out in his clothes and stashing them in his dacha in the countryside. There they remained until March 1992, when he boarded a train for Latvia, walked into the British Embassy and turned the entire stash over to Her Majesty’s Secret Service.[1]

The existence of the archive became public knowledge following the publication of the 1999 book The Sword and the Shield, leading many former Soviet turncoats in the West to begin sweating profusely. Among many other things, the book revealed that a major source for Soviet espionage in Italy in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a university professor code-named UCHITEL who was responsible for passing along information about the Tornado fighter jet as well as other military and aerospace projects.[2]

The identity of UCHITEL has never been determined, but in 2002 Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi launched a commission headed by senator Paolo Guzzanti which spent four years attempting to prove that Berlusconi’s predecessor and political rival Romano Prodi was UCHITEL. Prodi had been both a university professor and Minister of Industry during the years UCHITEL was most active. In 1978 Prodi claimed to have learned through a Ouija board where a leftist terrorist organization was holding former prime minister Aldo Moro hostage,  a story he is widely believed to have invented in order to protect a source associated with left-wing militants. But other than these entirely circumstantial items the commission failed to find anything linking Prodi to the KGB.

So Guzzanti turned to Mario Scaramella, then a relatively unknown environmental lawyer, to dig up additional dirt on Prodi. Scaramella first pestered Oleg Gordievsky, another former KGB agent who had spied for Britain during the Cold War, for years seeking information tying Prodi to the KGB, information which Gordievsky insisted did not exist.

Read more…

House Homeland Security Committee Releases Report on ISIS Financing

October 14, 2016

This week, the United States House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Michael McCall (R-TX) released a report titled Cash to Chaos: Dismantling ISIS’ Financial Infrastructure. The report attempts to give an account of ISIS’ funding structures based on briefings, meetings with federal officials, press reports, and open source document analysis.

Much of the report focuses on ISIS’ major sources of funding from oil, black market commodities, nationalized industry, extortion rackets and kidnapping for ransom. However, the report also discusses the role of antiquities trafficking in ISIS’ funding and makes several recommendations in that regard.

While everyone can agree that countering ISIS’ financing is a key part of defeating the organization, effectively doing so requires accurate information in order to properly allocate resources. Unfortunately, with regards to its treatment of antiquities trafficking this report fails spectacularly in accurately assessing the problem.

For its information about antiquities trafficking, the report relies almost exclusively on reports from major media outlets such as the New York Times, Guardian, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Unfortunately major media outlets have frequently been the purveyors of inaccurate information on this topic, and this has negatively impacted the report.

The report correctly identifies Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan as major transshipment points for antiquities smuggling. However, experts on the Syrian antiquities trade generally believe that much looted material either moves east rather than through closely monitored auction houses in London and New York, or that it is kept within the region in hopes of selling it in a few years when suspicions die down.

When it comes to estimating the value of antiquities looting to ISIS the report relies on outdated information, misrepresented statistics, and discredited figures. For example, the report states that:

Before the rise of ISIS, Syria’s antiquities and cultural heritage industry generated more than $6.5 billion annually and accounted for 12 percent of the country’s gross domestic product; thus, even if ISIS captured only a fraction of the market, it could have seen a windfall well into the tens of millions. [p.9]

The $6.5 billion figure comes from remarks made by State Department Assistant Secretary Anne Richard in 2013. It refers not to sales of antiquities but to the entire tourist industry of Syria, and was mentioned by Richard in the context of highlighting the importance of cultural heritage to postwar reconstruction. Since ISIS’ caliphate is a rather unattractive destination for foreign tourists, one can surmise that the fraction of this market captured by ISIS is zero.

Furthermore, the report goes on to say:

In one region in Syria, ISIS reportedly generated $36 million in revenue, partly attributed to its peddling of black-market antiquities. At one point, U.S. officials judged that ISIS was probably reaping over $100 million a year from such illicit trading. [p.9]

The often-repeated $36 million figure comes from Martin Chulov’s reporting in The Guardian. The figure has been widely questioned on this site and elsewhere. Chulov took his figure from captured documents shown to him by an Iraqi intelligence officer. It appears to show income from looting or ghanima, which in ISIS’ terminology means the expropriation of money and property from local populations. Looting of archaeological sites is classified as the extraction of al-rikaz or a “natural resources from the earth” akin to oil, gas, minerals and precious metals. Profits from digging are taxed at a 2o% to 50% rate, unlike ghanima which is expropriated wholesale.

The $100 million figure comes from a February 2015 report in the Wall Street Journal, citing “unnamed U.S. officials.” This is contradicted by figures provided by the US State Department, who estimated in September 2015 that ISIS “has probably earned several million dollars from antiquities sales since mid-2014.”

My own research based on available open source data concurs with this figure, estimating that ISIS has made a few million dollars from antiquities and that taxing looters accounts for less than one percent of the organization’s budget.

Unfortunately, the congressional staffers who wrote this report seem to have simply searched for reports published in major media outlets without critically examining them. Much of the media coverage of archaeological looting in Iraq and Syria has been drive by sensationalism. With reports like this there is a very serious danger that sensationalized articles and bogus figures could drive policy recommendations with regards to prosecuting the war against ISIS.

As it is, the report only makes modest recommendations with regards to policy. It argues that:

Domestic and international law enforcement agencies have not put high-enough priority on tracking black market sales of cultural artifacts and antiquities, which have become a significant source of terrorist revenue. [p. 4]

In response, the report recommends:

The Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security should, in coordination with INTERPOL and other relevant international organizations, as well as auction houses, spearhead a new initiative to crack down on illegal trade and trafficking in cultural property and antiquities in the United States and abroad. As part of this effort, various stakeholders should strengthen regulations that restrict the movement of artifacts smuggled out of warzones and take aggressive action to recover and return items to their respective countries of origin. The Committee is supportive of the approach taken in H.R. 2285 (Rep. William Keating [D-MA]), the “Prevent Trafficking in Cultural Property Act,” and urges the Senate to act on this bipartisan House-passed measure as soon as possible.

All of this is fairly common sense material, some of it partially accomplished earlier this year when Barack Obama signed a bill banning the importation or sale of archaeological material from Syria. The Prevent Trafficking in Cultural Property Act is mostly concerned with providing proper training to Customs and Border Protection in cultural property issues.

These are both worthwhile and commonsense efforts. The potential danger lies in if the publicity given to antiquities looting eventually causes a disproportionate amount of resources to be dedicated to stamping out this source of funding, which could better be used against larger sources of revenue. Nearly everyone can agree that the only long-term solution to the threat posed by ISIS is for the group to be defeated as rapidly as possible. We should then all hope for resources to be spent in the most optimal way to bring about this goal.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.