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ISIS destroying graves in Fallujah, Syria

August 14, 2015

This summer has been relatively quiet with regards to antiquities and cultural heritage sites being destroyed by ISIS. The news has turned decidedly towards smuggling, including major stores about ISIS destroying Palmyrene funerary sculptures seized from smugglers, a stash of looted antiquities recovered by U.S. special operations forces from the home of ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf, and evidence that ISIS is accumulating academic books about archaeology in order to learn where to dig and what to loot.

On the military front the fight has been stalemated for months, with little progress made by either side in Iraqi Kurdistan or along the Euphrates in Iraq. In June the Kurds in Syria scored a decisive victory by capturing Tall Abyad and linking the Kurdish enclave of Kobane with the main Kurdish territory in the west. The fall of Tall Abyad cut a major smuggling route for recruits entering Syria and looted antiquities and oil leaving for foreign markets.

Over the past few days a few photos have been posted by ISIS using the Justpaste website which the group often uses to distribute official propaganda. The photos show ISIS destroying various graves and small shrines.

First Group – Fallujah

Fallujah 1There are several buildings seen being destroyed. The first is a small drab structure which is not seen for the remainder of the document but can be presumed to have been destroyed along with the others.

The destruction of all the sites seems to proceed in the usual manner utilizing liquid explosives in plastic jugs, set off using detonator cord.

None of the buildings are identified in the captions provided by ISIS, rather, each image is simply captioned “the destruction and demolition of shrines that worship apart from Allah.”

The next structure is an octagonal building with a large green dome and large windows. Two graves can be seen inside the structure. In the first shot another explosion can be seen in the background, possibly the destruction of the first square building already mentioned:

Fallujah 5The octagonal building is detonated next:

Fallujah 2Fallujah 9




Another square building with a narrow brick dome is shown, followed by twin square structures with domes:

Fallujah 10Fallujah 11




Another shot shows that all three are adjacent to one another. In addition the three structures appear in the background of the first picture, indicating that all of the structures being destroyed are in the same general area:

Fallujah 16Fallujah 1_highlight




Fallujah 15Fallujah 17




Two additional domed structures are shown with open sides, both seemingly also containing graves. One is demolished with sledgehammers and the other is exploded:

Fallujah 18 Fallujah 21 Fallujah 20 Fallujah 22 Fallujah 23 Fallujah 24












Second Group – Syria

Three pictures out of a montage from Syria show graves being smashed along with other images such as the discovery of smuggled cigarettes hidden inside a spare tire. Only the most ornate gravestones in the graveyard appear to be targeted. They are destroyed using a sledgehammer. The caption states that the men are “removing the manifestation of polytheism.”

Syria1 Syria3

Third Group – Unknown

Unknown1 Unknown2




Two pictures posted without location information. The caption simply states that they are destroying graves, with no indication whose graves they are or why they are being destroyed.

What Does it Mean?

None of these destroyed buildings are identified in the captions provided by ISIS. Their religious background is not mentioned at all, unlike many previous ISIS actions where care is taken to describe shrines as Shia, or Christian, or idols of ancient polytheists.

Lamia al-Gailani Werr has stated that most of the shrines in the above images are Sufi. However, it is not clear from their postings if ISIS knows they are Sufi or if they are simply targeted for being large and visible graves.

Regardless, this is not the type of thing that receives media coverage in the west. While western media gives a lot of coverage to the destruction of Christian and ancient sites, none has been given and none will be given to these graves. This indicates that ISIS is destroying sites even when they are extremely unlikely to garner significant media attention. A quick Google Image search reveals that in the past week these images have cropped up in very few places outside of pro-ISIS twitter accounts.

Their reasons for destroying these sites are given right in the descriptions: honoring the dead with shrines detracts from the worship of one God, it is equivalent to polytheism, and therefore it must be destroyed. By doing so, they set themselves up as heirs to the historical legacy of Muhammad, both in their own minds and in the minds of their followers.

What this means is that ISIS will not stop destroying cultural sites if the media stops reporting when they do. A media blackout of ISIS propaganda will not stop them, because there is already an effective media blackout for many of the sites ISIS has destroyed, and that has not stopped them from destroying them.

In the end the only thing that will stop the destruction of Iraq and Syria is stopping the destruction of Iraq and Syria. What we do or do not do on the internet will likely have little effect – it can only document it.

UPDATE 8/16/2015: Additional photos have been released showing graves being destroyed near Damascus and in the village of as-Salhabiyah to the west of Raqqa. There is no need to post all of the pictures but some representative examples are shown below. No explanation is given for either case other than that the actions are a removal of graves.

as-salhabiyah 2 as-salhabiyah 4 Damascus 2 Damascus 13








In both cases they appear to be targeting the most visible and ornate graves in the cemetery, but in the as-Salhabiyah images (top) they also appear to be smashing unremarkable headstones seemingly at random.

In any case, the release of additional images in the same week seems to indicate a coordinated campaign against grave markers in Iraq and Syria.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015

What We’ve Lost: Mar Behnam Monastery

May 12, 2015

Stuck in between ISIS’ destruction of the Mosul Museum in late February and its destruction of Hatra and Nimrud in early April, the destruction of the Mar Behnam monastery northeast of Nimrud went largely unnoticed. While Der Mar Behnam is certainly not as well known as Nineveh, Hatra, or Nimrud, the tiny burial place of a Syriac saint has its own very interesting history, almost as old as than those cities.


Tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah. (Source)

There are two buildings at the site. The larger is a church, and next to it sits the tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah, set into the small hill known as Tell al-Khidr. Yet sacred space is often continuous in the Near East, and excavations of the tiny tell have revealed remains dating back to the Hassuna, Ubaid and Warka periods, along with later Assyrian and Sassanid remains. There is no hard evidence that the site served as a religious sanctuary during these periods, and much more comprehensive excavation is necessary to understand the full history of the site.[1]

Our story picks up in the Sassanid period during the mid fourth century AD. According to legends first written down in the twelfth century, there was a king named Sinharib who ruled over Nineveh (presumably as a Sassanid vassal) and had a son named Behnam and a daughter named Sarah who was afflicted with leprosy.

One day Behnam was riding north of Nineveh on a hunting expedition, accompanied by forty horsemen who were his constant companions. The hunting party sighted a gazelle and gave chase, pursuing it up the side of Maqlub Mountain where the animal darted into a cave and disappeared.

Carving possibly de

Carving possibly depicting Behnam on horseback, from the church of Mar Behnam. From Quelques Vestiges Historiques du Convent de Mar Behnam le Martyr (Beirut: Syrian Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch, n.d.)

Following his quarry into the cave, Behnam instead found an elderly hermit sitting inside. The man was Mar Mattai, who lived on the mountain. He invited Behnam to sit down and the two men had a long conversation wherein Mattai introduced Behnam to Christianity, and also disclosed that through God he had been given miraculous powers of healing. Behnam promised that if Mattai could heal his sister Sarah of her leprosy, he would convert to Christianity. Mattai promised he could if Behnam and Sarah would meet him at another place at a specified time.

When Behnam and Sarah arrived at that place along with Behnam’s forty cavalrymen they found Mattai already waiting for them. The old hermit struck the ground with his staff and water flowed out. He commanded Sarah to wash in the water. When she did so, she was instantly healed. As a result, Behnam, Sarah and the forty cavalrymen were all baptized on the spot.

Their father was not at all pleased, and after repeated entreaties to his children to abandon Christianity failed he ordered that they be put to death. Behnam was warned, and he fled with Sarah and the forty cavalrymen to Qaraqosh before being overtaken. Sanharib ordered them slaughtered, but before his command could be carried out the earth opened up and swallowed Behnam’s party. The date of this event is traditionally set to December 10, 352.

Relief depicting Mart Sarah from inside the church.

Relief depicting Mart Sarah from inside the church. From Quelques Vestiges Historiques du Convent de Mar Behnam le Martyr (Beirut: Syrian Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch, n.d.)

Sanharib nevertheless mourned their loss, and his sorrow was compounded when he became afflicted with leprosy as well. His wife suggested he visit Mar Mattai, since Mattai had managed to cure Sarah. He acceded to her suggestion and was likewise cured, and as a result also converted to Christianity. He had the bodies of his son and daughter exhumed and reburied at the site of what is now Mar Behnam’s monastery, where a tomb was constructed in their honor and they were recognized as saints.[2] Later a Syriac Orthodox monastery was built nearby. The tomb, sunk into the tell, became known as “al-Gibb” or “the Pit.”

This story was not written down until the twelfth century, but its themes are found in other stories that came before, all rooted in the world of court politics in the many tiny buffer states that lay between the great empires of Rome and Persia. The religious conversion of a king was an inescapably dangerous political act, caught as they were between the pagan, and then Christian Rome and aggressively Zoroastrian Sassanids, and this dilemma found its way into the literature. For example, Mar Qardagh, another widely recognized Syriac saint, was described as the son of Zoroastrian Sassanid nobility who was killed on the orders of Shapur I for refusing to renounce Christianity. In the fifth century Armenian historian Moses of Chorene related how the first century Armenian king Sanadroug massacred the descendants of his uncle Abgar, including executing Abgar’s daughter Santoukhd for refusing to renouncing Christianity and exiling Abgar’s wife Helene to Jerusalem. Moses seems to have mixed up some of this story with Josephus’ account of the conversion of Izates and his mother Helene of Adiabene to Judaism in the first century, yet another story navigating the political issues of religious conversion in the halls of power.[3]

Mosul and its Minorities - 0001

Tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah as it appeared in the early 1920s. From Luke, Mosul and its Minorities.

Yet in Mar Behnam’s case the first written versions of the story coincide with the renovation of the tomb and monastery in 1164 to give far more prominence to the Behnam story, which has led some scholars to argue that the monastery came first, and the legend was developed to explain the founding of three Syriac Orthodox monasteries (Mar Behnam, Mar Mattai and Mar Abraham) in a region where the Assyrian Church of the East had been traditionally dominant. A story that dated from before the Islamic conquest was necessary in order to comply with frequent Muslim prohibitions on constructing new churches.[4]

The monastery seen in the early 1920s. The tomb is in the foreground.

The monastery seen in the early 1920s. The tomb is in the foreground. From Luke, Mosul and its Minorities.

At some point the grave and monastery also became associated with the mysterious Qur’anic figure of al-Khidr, the “maker of things green” who was often associated with fertility. Yezidis also revered the site for its connection to Khidr, and the town next to the monastery came to be known as Khidr Elias. Two explanations have been advanced for this: The first is that the monks deliberately cultivated the association with Khidr as a cover story to protect the monastery and tomb from Muslims, and the second is that the association with Khidr represented a form of religious syncretism.

Plan of the tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah

Side plan of the tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah. From Quelques Vestiges Historiques du Convent de Mar Behnam le Martyr.

Regardless, the monastery became known as a site to seek miraculous healing. Whether this reputation was the result of the story of Behnam and Sarah, or the origin of that story, can only be determined by excavating the site. Between 1248 and 1261 many more sculptures were added, and the monastery prospered. Many inscriptions were added to the walls in Syriac, Armenian and Arabic dedicating sculptures and doorways.[5]

In 1258 the Mongols under Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad and ended the Abbasid caliphate, but the monastery was unaffected because the vassal ruler of Mosul quickly submitted to Hulagu. In 1295, however, Hulagu’s grandson Baidu Khan marched on Mosul and then attacked Erbil. Mongol raiding parties traveled throughout the Nineveh plains. One party plundered the monastery of Mar Mattai. Another party visited Mar Behnam. According to a Syriac inscription on the walls which described the raid:

One of them came to the Monastery of the Pit, opened its gate and entered. He put his hands on the sacred vessels, the veils and the rest. Nothing remained on the altar except for the Gospel and the reliquary of the Saint—God obscured their eyes![6]


The grave of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah. The Uighur inscription is just above the arch. From Quelques Vestiges Historiques du Convent de Mar Behnam le Martyr.

Rabban Jacob, the chief of the monastery, went to Baidu Khan to complain about the looting. Surprisingly, Baidu agreed to return all the looted goods, and in return the monastery added an inscription in Uighur above Mar Behnam’s tomb which read “May the happiness and praise of Khidr Elias befall and settle on the Il-khan and the nobles and the noblewomen!”[7]

From 1415 to 1508 the monastery became the seat of the Maphrian of the Syriac Orthodox Church, second in importance only to the Patriarch of Antioch. From 1576 to 1782 the monastery was the seat of the Bishopric of Der Mar Behnam and Bakhdida. In 1782, the seat of the bishopric was moved to Der al-Za’afaran monastery near modern Mardin, Turkey. The monastery of Mar Behnam experienced a period of decline. For a while in the 1790s the site was abandoned and cared for only by the Yezidis who also worshiped there.[8]

In 1839 the Syriac Catholic Church officially took control of the tomb and the monastery from the Syriac Orthodox. According to English clergyman George Percy Badger, who visited the monastery twice in 1844 and 1850:

When we first visited it in 1844, it was only tenanted by a few Kurds, and the whole building was rapidly falling into decay. Since then, however, it has been repaired, and the service is now daily performed in the church by a resident priest.[9]

A few caretakers looked after the site for the next several decades. It was not until 1900 that monastic life was re-established.[10]

Syriac Catholic monks at Mar Behnam in the early 1920s.

Syriac Catholic monks at Mar Behnam in the early 1920s. From Luke, Mosul and its Minorities.

In July 2014 ISIS fighters reached the monastery, where they ordered all of the monks to leave without saving any of the monastery’s relics. The monks walked several miles on foot before making contact with Kurdish troops.

On March 19, 2015 ISIS fighters rigged the tomb of Mar Behnam and Mart Sarah with explosives and blew it up, completely leveling the structure. The church does not seem to have been targeted. The destruction fits the pattern of destroying shrines such as the Tomb of Jonah where graves are specially revered.








This explosion destroyed the saints’ graves, the associated relief sculpture of Mar Behnam, and one of the Middle East’s few inscriptions in Uighur. Its destruction represents a continued attempt to wipe out the heritage and history of both Iraq’s Christian and Yezidi populations.



[1] J.M. Fiey, Mar Behnam [Touristic and Archaeological Series 2] (Baghdad: Iraqi Ministry of Information, 1970), 4; Suha Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam: The Monastery of St. Behnam” in The Christian Heritage of Iraq (Piscataway, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2009), 85.

[2] A full list of the medieval manuscripts which preserve this story can be found in Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 81-84; see also the accounts in Harry C. Luke, Mosul and its Minorities (London: Martin Hopkinson & Co., 1925), 118-119; Horatio Southgate, Narrative of a Visit to the Syrian Jacobite Church of Mesopotamia (New York: D. Appleton, 1844), 215-217.

[3] Joel Thomas Walker, The Legend of Mar Qardagh: Narrative and Christian Heroism in Late Antique Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 115, 122-123, 231-232; Moses of Chorene, The History of Armenia 2.27-29 in Syriac Documents Attributed to the First Three Centuries, appendix to Vol. 20 of the Ante-Nicene Christian Library: translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, trans. by B.P. Pratten (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1881), 150-163; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.2.1-5.

[4] Bas Snelders, “Art et Hagiographie: La Construction d’une Communauté à Mar-Behnam,” in L’hagiographie Syriaque (Paris: Geuthner, 2012), 273-274.

[5] Ethel Sara Wolper, “Khidr and the politics of translation in Mosul: Mar Behnam, St. George and the Khidr Ilyas,” in Sacred Precincts: The Religious Architecture of Non-muslim Communities Across the Islamic World (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2014), 381-392; Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 86; Fiey, Mar Behnam, 4-5.

While Wolper and Snelders are skeptical that the Behnam story has any historical basis, Rassam on the other hand believes there was an actual martyr’s tomb on the site dating from the mid fourth century which became a popular local place to seek healing, and which grew in importance only after Syriac Orthodox Christians were expelled from Tikrit and fled to northern Iraq. Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 88.

[6] Translated in Amir Harrak and Niu Ruji, “The Uighur Inscription at the Mausoleum of Mar Behnam, Iraq,” Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 4 (2004): 68-69.

[7] Amir Harrak and Niu Ruji, “The Uighur Inscription at the Mausoleum of Mar Behnam, Iraq,” Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 4 (2004): 66-69; Fiey, J.M. Mosul Chrétienne (Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1959), 50.

[8] Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 88-89; Fiey, Mar Behnam, 6.

[9] George Percy Badger, The Nestorians and their Rituals (London: Joseph Masters, 1852), 95.

[10] Rassam, “Der Mar Behnam,” 89.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015.

What is ISIS’ Media Strategy?

April 22, 2015

In the past few weeks ISIS has released several new videos of attacks on ancient sites. First came Hatra, then the Northwest Palace at Nimrud. This has raised several issues about ISIS’ media strategy which need to be addressed.

ISIS has been destroying cultural sites since last summer and publicizing their actions online. Some attacks, such as the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah, receive significant media coverage. Many others received much less media coverage. Most of the sites destroyed were Shia mosques, shrines and Yezidi holy sites. Very few ancient sites were targeted at this time. The two main exceptions were the destruction of two Iron Age lion sculptures on display in a public park in Raqqa, Syria and the destruction of Assyrian statues seized from looters at Tell Ajaja. The former were in a prominent public exhibition and the latter has all the markings of the artifacts being pawns in a power struggle between different groups in the area under ISIS control.

On February 26, 2015 this changed. ISIS released a video showing its fighters rampaging through the Mosul Museum. The story dominated the news cycle for over a week in nearly every major news outlet.

Interest in this story led to greater coverage of ISIS’ destruction of ancient sites, and unconfirmed reports proliferated. During a segment on Al Jazeera on February 27 an Iraqi government official reported that ISIS fighters in Mosul had “told the people they will go next to Nimrud.” On March 5, unnamed officials from Iraq’s ministry of tourism reported that ISIS had in fact bulldozed Nimrud. The next day, unnamed officials from the same ministry relayed reports from Mosul that ISIS had blown up parts of Hatra. On March 8, Kurdish Democratic Party official Saeed Mamuzini reported that ISIS began to destroy Khorsabad.

Yet there was no confirmation of any of this. ISIS has had no problem publicizing their destruction of cultural sites, yet there were no propaganda videos. Most of the reports came from the Iraqi ministry of tourism, usually via Facebook posts. There were no photos and no confirmation, even from satellite photos.

After a week the reports faded from the news cycle. ISIS defaced St. George’s monastery in Mosul on March 12 and destroyed the monastery at Mar Behnam on March 19 without much media attention.

On April 4, ISIS released a video showing its fighters defacing and destroying sculptures built into the walls of the Great Iwan at Hatra. While devastating to Hatrene art, the video also showed far less damage than had been implied by previous Iraqi government reports, leading to questions about whether the reports had been accurate at all or if ISIS had made the video at a later time. The video was undated and provided no clues as to when it was filmed.

On April 11, ISIS released another video showing relief sculptures at Nimrud being destroyed with a bulldozer, followed by the entire Northwest Palace being blown up with several thousand pounds of explosives.

Sources who cannot be named at present confirm that the destruction took place on April 2. The mushroom cloud caused by the massive explosion would have been visible over a wide area, so I see little reason to doubt the reports.

It is hard to come to any conclusion except that the original reports from March 5 were mistaken and that ISIS only destroyed the site after massive media coverage a month before. Which in turn raises the question: did the prospect of additional media coverage drive ISIS to destroy the site?

(Update: Since this article was written, satellite photos taken in early March have been released by ASOR’s Syrian Heritage Initiative which show a pile of debris at Nimrud which appears to be the same pile of destroyed lamassu and relief sculptures seen in the Nimrud destruction video, however the structure is still intact. Therefore it seems that the site may have been damaged by bulldozers and sledgehammers in early March consistent with Iraqi government reports, with the explosions set off on April 2).

At this point several things should be considered:

  • The vast majority of sites destroyed by ISIS have been Islamic sites.
  • Before the destruction of the Mosul Museum, very few ancient artifacts were targeted.
  • Since February, there have been 3 major confirmed cases of ancient sites being targeted.
  • Before February, ISIS seemed to prioritize attacking shrines of other Islamic sects. Once most of those were destroyed they were free to turn to other targets.

Why the shift towards ancient sites? The first video, from the Mosul Museum, featured an ISIS spokesman giving their official justification:

The Prophet Muhammad shattered the idols with his own honorable hands, when he conquered Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues. This is what his companions did later on, when they conquered lands. Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey, and we do not care [what people think], even if this costs billions of dollars.

Initially, therefore, it seems ISIS’ motive was to elevate their status amongst Muslims and other Jihadist groups by drawing a link from themselves to Muhammad. The fact that hardly any of the statues in the Mosul Museum were cultic images did not matter. Muhammad destroyed idols, so ISIS needed to find some idols to destroy in order to legitimize their claim to a caliphate as successors to Muhammad.

Dabiq, ISIS’ online English-language magazine, had this to say a month later:

Last month, the soldiers of the Khilāfah, with sledgehammers in hand, revived the Sunnah of their father Ibrāhīm (‘alayhis-salām) when they laid waste to the shirkī legacy of a nation that had long passed from the face of the Earth. They entered the ruins of the ancient Assyrians in Wilāyat Nīnawā and demolished their statues, sculptures, and engravings of idols and kings. This caused an outcry from the enemies of the Islamic State, who were furious at losing a “treasured heritage.” The mujāhidīn, however, were not the least bit concerned about the feelings and sentiments of the kuffār, just as Ibrāhīm was not concerned about the feelings and sentiments of his people when he destroyed their idols.

With the kuffār up in arms over the large-scale destruction at the hands of the Islamic State, the actions of the mujāhidīn had not only emulated Ibrāhīm’s (‘alayhis-salām) destruction of the idols of his people and Prophet Muhammad’s (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) destruction of the idols present around the Ka’bah when he conquered Makkah, but had also served to enrage the kuffār, a deed that in itself is beloved to Allah.

(Ibrahim = Abraham, who destroyed idols in the Islamic tradition. shirkī = idolatry. Wilāyat = province. kuffār = infidels (non-Muslims).

The above issue (No. 8) of Dabiq was released on March 30 – after the extensive media coverage of ISIS’ destruction of the Mosul Museum, which was at its peak roughly from February 27 to the middle of March. Therefore it seems to be taking into account the media outcry as part of ISIS’ evolving justification for their actions – a media outcry which may or may not have been anticipated by ISIS in February.

Dabiq went on to give two more reasons for destroying ancient sites: That they were used to support Arab nationalism (which ISIS sees as a crime preventing the unification of Islam into a single state) and that restoring the remnants of ancient polytheistic societies and putting them on display detracts from their true intended purpose, which is to provide witness to how Allah destroyed previous polytheistic civilizations and thereby warn modern-day Muslims against the dangers of idolatry.

The more basic function of destruction as a display of ISIS’ power is fully evident in the most recent video from April 11 showing the destruction of Nimrud, in which a spokesman says:

Whenever we take control of a piece of land, we remove the symbols of polytheism, and spread monotheism in it. By Allah, we shall remove the symbols of polytheism, until we have destroyed the tombs of the Rafidites in their own land, until we have shattered the crosses, and until we have destroyed the Black House in the heart of the land of heresy, America.

By showcasing their power to destroy Nimrud, ISIS seeks to argue that both Iran (the ‘Rafidites’ – a pejorative term for Shia Muslims) and the United States will soon be destroyed by the Islamic State in the same way as these ancient civilizations were destroyed, as an act of divine judgement.

It should be noted that all of the videos released by ISIS are in Arabic. ISIS has plenty of people who speak English and have made English language videos targeted to Western audiences, such as the beheading of western hostages. The intended audience for Arabic-language videos is the Arabic-speaking world.

Dabiq is in English and targeted at Muslims abroad who ISIS wants to recruit. But even there the reaction in the West to the destruction of the Mosul Museum is cast as a response which legitimizes ISIS’ caliphate.

ISIS’ grand strategy requires that it continuously pull Muslims into itself in order to continue to expand. They are not particularly concerned with what the West thinks. After all, Westerners are kuffar who exist only to be destroyed, and they know the West is already against them.

On the other hand, ISIS needs a constant stream of volunteers from outside its territory in order to survive. Millions of people have already fled ISIS-controlled lands. People do not build productive lives there. Its economy is based almost entirely on oil smuggling, slavery, and redistributing looted property to supporters of ISIS. Maintaining such an economy requires constant territorial expansion, and since people are fleeing the caliphate as refugees in all directions expanding the ranks of its army for further military offensives depends on a steady supply of foreign fighters.

We must be careful not to assume that we are the intended audience of every ISIS video. If we do so we run the risk of misunderstanding their intent.

A recurring concern expressed by many people over the past month is if media coverage and resulting outrage over the destruction of antiquities is encouraging ISIS to destroy more sites. Such a possibility must be carefully considered. I believe the answer to be complex.

ISIS has its own media outlets, however this media must reach an audience. ISIS videos are regularly removed from YouTube as soon as they appear and its members are regularly banned from Twitter. But the original posts quickly propagate throughout the internet. ISIS does not only rely on western and Arab media to spread their videos after they publish them, they depend on the vast decentralized networks of Web 2.0 to ensure content is never deleted permanently from the internet.

Given that ISIS’ intended audience are their own potential sympathizers abroad in Europe and the Middle East, even if a media blackout could be put in place such a code of silence would do nothing to contain its spread across the internet. The target audience for ISIS propaganda are disaffected conspiracy-minded young people who likely do not trust anything they read in mainstream news media anyways and get their news from alternative sources. If mainstream media outlets were to observe a code of silence about each new ISIS video it would do nothing to contain its spread across the internet. The decentralized nature of the internet means no one can censor anything for long. The media do not show full versions of graphic executions, but they can still be found.

Therefore, while western media outlets play an important role for ISIS by informing the world of ISIS’ actions, they also reach an audience which ISIS may consider secondary. The extensive coverage given to the destruction of ancient antiquities has certainly raised public anger at ISIS, but that is beside the point for ISIS, who are not exactly trying to become loved.

But could western media coverage have planted the idea to destroy more ancient sites, even if their propaganda efforts are targeted at others? This is an even more difficult question to answer, since ISIS could just as easily have accessed Google or Wikipedia if they wanted to learn about archaeological sites in their area. Yet ISIS is certainly aware of how their actions were discussed in the media, as evidenced by the recent Dabiq issue, and they use that reaction to further their own propaganda goals as described above.

The most likely conclusion could be that the ‘success’ of their Mosul Museum video led them to attempt to replicate that success by destroying more ancient sites which had previously been left alone. There is no evidence that the early false reports from Nimrud or elsewhere inspired ISIS to destroy those sites, in fact, if the early Al Jazeera report is to be believed they had already threatened Nimrud before rumors of its destruction spread.

Our best weapon against the erasure of history remains documentation and publishing. Distribution is key. If it is not all in one place it cannot be wiped out. The internet, therefore, is not only one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of ISIS, but also one of the most powerful tools against ISIS.

Assessing the Damage at Hatra

April 7, 2015
tags: ,

Last month reports swept through the global media that ISIS had used bulldozers to level the ancient city of Hatra. ISIS has already destroyed a number of irreplaceable sculptures from Hatra in the Mosul Museum, lending immediate credibility to reports from Iraqi antiquities officials that ISIS fighters had destroyed Hatra itself as well.

However, no videos or other confirmation surfaced for a month afterwards and there was no way to assess the extent of the damage. The story gradually faded from the media. Given the massive size of Hatra, and its location in the middle of the desert, in a region of no strategic significance, over fifty kilometers from inhabited areas, some grew skeptical that ISIS had mounted a major operation to demolish Hatra.

On Saturday video surfaced on YouTube and other websites which showed ISIS fighters destroying sculptures at Hatra. The voice-overs from several ISIS fighters contained the standard spiel about shirk, idolatry, and Muhammad destroying the idols of the Kaaba. The video was quickly removed, but I took some screenshots that will suffice illustrate the items which have been destroyed while leaving out the majority propaganda elements.

The good news is that the damage to Hatra is not as extensive was was first feared. The bad news is that more irreplaceable and unique Hatrene art has been damaged, threatening to further erase an already under-studied field.

At the beginning of the video there is an aerial shot of the ruins of Hatra which seems to have been shot from a blimp or drone. A graphic then highlights the Great Iwans and the Temple of the Triad with a label which reads “idols and statues.”

036All of the artifacts shown being destroyed in the video are from the Great Iwans. None are seen from the Temple of the Triad.

Plan of the Great Iwan at Hatra. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: City of the Sun God, p. 332-333.

Plan of the Great Iwans at Hatra. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: City of the Sun God, p. 332-333.


Hatra was notable for its large number of life-sized or larger sculptures, especially in its major temples. The largest temple is a collection of massive arched rooms known as the Great Iwans, built in a Parthian style (other temples at the site are built in Hellenistic style, again showing Hatra’s importance as a fusion of East with West).

Two statues situated in an alcove closer to the ground are shown being attacked. First they chip away the reconstructed base of the statues with pickaxes, then smash the statues themselves with a large boulder.

318 404 611 619It is important to note that these statues are not reconstructions, but originals uncovered during excavations at Hatra and partially reconstructed at their bases. Here are the original publication photos from Safar and Mustafa’s Hatra: City of the Sun God.

Statues of worshipers from Hatra. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: City of the Sun God, p. 90-91.

Statues of worshipers from Hatra. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: City of the Sun God, p. 90-91.

Sculptures of Heads

The Great Iwans had a number of human heads fixed on the exterior or built into the stonework. These are likewise not replicas but originals uncovered during excavations and restored to their original positions with the aid of steel bars. They break apart easily when hit by a sledgehammer because they break around the metal bar.

#1 – A heavily eroded head at the entrance to the South Iwan (Iwan No. 12) [3]

106 148 534 538 559 659_2 703#2 – Head above a relief of a snake. Outside the South Iwan (Iwan No. 12) [4]

435 455146_2#3 – Head situated between Iwan No. 4 and Iwan No. 12 [5]

511147 148#4 – Gorgon head situated by the entrance to Iwan No. 4 [6]

This is a rather famous piece, thanks to the Aramaic inscription next to it which identifies it as grgn, or a Gorgon. Yet while Medusa the Gorgon from Greek mythology was female, this face has snake hair but also has leaves for a beard which indicates it is a male.[7]

146It is unclear how much damage the relief sustained, as it was only shown in the video briefly being hit with a sledgehammer. It does appear to have suffered a broken nose and some damage around the eyes.


Photo © Hubert Debbasch


Gorgon head from Iwan No. 4. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: City of the Sun God, p. 119.

#5 – Three heads in the back left corner of the South Iwan (Iwan No. 12). [8]

These three heads are too high off the ground for any ISIS fighters to reach, but one fighter is shown shooting them with an AK-47 type rifle. The damage to the reliefs is unclear, but 7.62mm bullets likely do less damage to stone than sledgehammers and the shooting was done primarily for show.

649These heads were above ground and visible in ancient times. They survived for thousands of years in the open air. British explorer Gertrude Bell photographed them in April 1911 before major excavations took place at Hatra.


Three heads on the interior of the South Iwan. Photo by Gertrude Bell, April 1911. (source)


Modern view of the three heads in the South Iwan. Photo © Hubert Debbasch.

The Eagles

The South Iwan (Iwan No. 12) was lined with statues of eagles. Fragments of the eagles were found during excavations, restored, and placed back on the walls during reconstruction of the site during the 1960’s and 1980’s. A similar eagle from Hatra was destroyed in the Mosul Museum.[9]

Some of the eagles were attacked with pickaxes, while others were shot at with a PKM machine gun, breaking off their wings and heads.

151_2 152 153 228 239These eagles do not appear in Gertrude Bell’s 1911 photographs of the South Iwan, nor were most of them published in Safar and Mustafa.

View of the South Iwan (Iwan No. 12) showing reconstructed eagles lining the sides. Photo © Hubert Debbasch.

View of the South Iwan (Iwan No. 12) showing reconstructed eagles lining the sides. Photo © Hubert Debbasch.


Based on this video it appears that the damage to Hatra was much less than originally feared. No major structural damage is depicted and the destroyed sculptures seem to be clustered around Iwans no. 12 and 4.

This would be a good time to note that these videos are highly produced and edited for propaganda purposes. It is entirely possible that other artifacts were destroyed which were not shown in the video. Their destruction may have been omitted for any number of reasons. The shots may have been blurry or from a bad angle. The footage may not have fit the pacing of the final production, which aims to show artifacts being smashed in seconds. If it took minutes to destroy a piece that could be a reason for editing it out.

It should also be noted that firing automatic firearms while standing inside a space enclosed on three sides by heavy stone walls is an incredibly stupid thing to do. Deadly ricochets would also not make for good propaganda filming. An ISIS fighter smashing his foot with a sledgehammer would also be cut out. We have no way of knowing what didn’t make it into the footage, only that the presentation is by its very nature selective.

Back in 2006, Al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi released a propaganda video of himself striding around the desert and firing a capture American M249 machine gun. The next month American troops raided a safe house and captured a laptop with the original unedited footage on its hard drive. American officers gave a press conference where they mocked Zarqawi while presenting the original video, which showed him struggling to aim the heavy weapon and unable to figure out how to clear a routine jam until others are forced to step into the frame to assist him. Their purpose in doing so was to undermine Zarqawi’s propaganda and the cult of personality and fear he built up around himself, and it worked. A similar find, if it exists, could counteract some of the propaganda value of ISIS’ videos of antiquities destruction.

Finally, there is a legitimate concern raised with increasing frequency about whether any publicity at all only helps ISIS achieve their propaganda goals. However, ISIS’ goals are not only to produce internet propaganda for consumption in the West, although that is a part of it. Most of ISIS’ acts of destruction have targeted Shia and Sufi religious sites, as has been extensively documented on this blog. Most of this has received little media coverage outside of the Middle East, yet they do it anyways. This seems to indicate that ISIS is not only acting to create media coverage but to erase the physical evidence of ideas and history whose existence stands in opposition to their own ideology. Documenting what was lost, while being careful not to endanger what survives, is the best way at our disposal to preserve the memory of what is being lost. Once something goes on the internet, it is never gone forever.


[1] Fu’ad Safar and Ali Muhammad Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God [Arabic title al-Ḥaḍr, madīnat al-shams] (Baghdad: Wizarat al-Iʻlām, Mudīrīyat al-Athār al-ʻĀmmah, 1974), 95, pl. 54.

[2] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, 90-91, pl. 45-46.

[3] Not identified amongst published material.

[4] Michael Sommer, Hatra: Geschichte und Kultur einer Karawanenstadt im römisch-parthischen Mesopotamien (Mainz: Zabern, 2003), 71, fig. 99.

[5] Location identified by comparison to other parts of the video.

[6] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, 119.

[7] Klaas Dijkstra, “Does Gorgo Harm Us?: About the Interpretation of H106,” 171-183 in Hatra: Politics, Culture and Religion between Parthia and Rome, ed. by Lucinda Dirven (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013).

[8] Sommer, Hatra: Geschichte und Kultur einer Karawanenstadt im römisch-parthischen Mesopotamien, 71, fig. 98.

[9] The eagle from the Mosul Museum was published in Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, 143, pl. 133. Another eagle was published on p. 144, pl. 134.Article © Christopher Jones 2015.

Damage around Tikrit, Destruction in Mosul

March 17, 2015

Over the past two weeks a large number of media reports have appeared suggesting ISIS has destroyed many historical sites in Iraq as well as a number of mosques and churches in Mosul. Here I will continue to monitor the situation and confirm what I can as I am able.

al-Khidr Mosque, Mosul

Undated photo of al-Khidr Mosque. (source)

Undated photo of al-Khidr Mosque. (source)

The al-Khidr Mosque was built in 1133 along the Tigris River in Mosul. Named in honor of the Islamic figure Khidr, the interior of the mosque features Islamic art and not much that ISIS would objectively find haram except that Khidr is a beloved figure in Sufi Islam, and ISIS has frequently destroyed Sufi shrines wherever they find them.

ISIS destroyed the mosque on February 26 or 27, around the same time the Mosul Museum video was released.

Recent photograph of the al-Khidr Mosque. (source)

Recent photograph of the al-Khidr Mosque. (source)

al-Khidr Mosque after its destruction. (source)

al-Khidr Mosque after its destruction. (source)

A video tour of the mosque (in Arabic) is available on YouTube from the Waqf of Mosul:

Palace of Ashnas, 9.5 km north of Samarra

AshnasGoogleThe Palace of Ashnas, a fortress which once belonged to a 9th-century AD Turkman general, appears to have been defended by ISIS during the ongoing battle of Tikrit.

Their position was attacked by fighters of the Shia militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, who released a video of their assault:

Attacks appear to be made through a pre-existing gap in the walls.

Ashnas1At another gap it is not immediately clear if the gap is recent or if the wall was breached for the assault. The soil in front of the gap appears to be freshly disturbed:

Ashnas2This gap appears at the far right of the wall in the video. Compare with the Google Earth image above and it is apparent that the Kata’ib Hezbollah forces attacked the palace from the north, which would mean the gap seen above is the gap on the far east side of the wall on the Google Earth image. Close examination of the wall in the Google earth image shows that there is an arch still standing over the gap.

The Google Earth image was taken on June 13, 2010. Either the arch collapsed sometime in the past five years, or it was destroyed during the recent battle. The freshly disturbed dirt and mudbrick in the above image would indicate the latter is more likely.

At 9:32 of the video an RPG round or something similar impacts on part of the wall:

Ashnas3 Ashnas4Overall with the exception of the arch it seems the palace of Ashnas got off lightly. No airstrikes were used during the assault, and heavy mud-brick walls are some of the most bullet-resistant material in existence. Towards the end of the video several heavy howitzers, 120mm mortars, an M1 Abrams tank, a jeep-mounted multiple-launch rocket system and some sort of truck-launched heavy rocket are shown in use but they do not seem to be used to fire on the fort itself.

Saddam Hussein’s Tomb, al-Awja


Interior of Saddam Hussein’s tomb. (source)

After his execution in 2006, Saddam was buried in his hometown of al-Awja just south of Tikrit, where his tomb became something of a shrine dedicated to Baathist nostalgia.

During the course of the ongoing battle of Tikrit, an Iraqi soldier uploaded this video to YouTube showing Saddam Hussein’s tomb in ruins.

It was reported last August that ISIS had destroyed the tomb as part of their general campaign against shrines, but others reported it had only been looted. Iraqi media reported last year that his body had been removed from the tomb and hidden elsewhere. There are also reports that ISIS fighters booby-trapped a number of buildings in al-Awja around the tomb. It is not known at this time who destroyed the tomb.

UPDATE: Footage from an Italian news program dated November 17, 2014 (see 2:25 mark) shows the tomb in a similar state of destruction, indicating it was probably destroyed some time ago.

Last December, the tomb of Saddam Hussein’s father was reported to have been destroyed by ISIS.

St. George Monastery, Mosul


St. George’s Monastery, looking north. (source)

St. George’s monastery, a 10th century AD Catholic monastery on the northwestern edge of Mosul, was rumored to have been targeted last November, although it was actually the adjacent Convent of the Sacred Heart which was destroyed.

Today, ISIS released photographs showing its fighters removing crosses from the monastery, placing an ISIS flag on the roof, breaking crosses off of graves, tearing down art, and defacing statues of Mary and St. George.

09 19 021 22 22_002 151 171 181

While none of the art in these images is ancient, and none of the pieces appear to be particularly noteworthy, this is another case of ISIS attempting to erase the cultural and religious heritage of Iraq’s Christian minorities and create a world where there is no material evidence of anything but ISIS’ own interpretation of Islam.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015.

Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part 2: The Sculptures from Hatra

March 3, 2015

Part 1 of this post, assessing the damage to the Mosul Museum’s Assyrian collection, can be found here.

On Friday I published the first half of this post, assessing the damage to the Mosul Museum’s Assyrian collection as well as to the lamassu at the Nergal Gate. This post will assess the damage to the second major group of artifacts: statues from the Roman period city of Hatra.

Hatra was a wealthy trading city located in the desert south of Mosul, one of several such cities which sprung up in the space between Parthia and the Roman Empire. Hatra, Palmyra, Petra and Dura-Europos all made their fortune as intermediaries, trading stops between east and west. All of these cities were client states of either Rome or Parthia, with Hatra choosing Parthia.

This made Hatra a target for Rome, and Trajan besieged the city during his Mesopotamian campaign in 114 AD but failed to capture it. Septimius Severus launched several assaults on the city during his invasion of Parthia in 198 which also failed. The heat, the open plain which made it difficult to approach the walls undetected, and the lack of any water or food in the area around the city kept Hatra safe from protracted sieges. Hatra was destroyed in 240, not to Rome but to the forces of the Sassanid monarch Shapur I during his campaign against the last Parthian client states that stood between himself and renewed war with the Roman Empire.

The Roman-Parthian face-off in the Near East. Roman provinces are in red and Roman client kingdoms in pink. Parthian territory is in brown and Parthian client kingdoms in orange.

The Roman-Parthian face-off in the Near East c. 200 AD. Roman provinces are in red and Roman client kingdoms in pink. Parthian territory is in brown and Parthian client kingdoms in orange.

Hatra’s unique position between east and west produced an outpouring of art unique in the Parthian empire. Influences from east and west mixed to create a very naturalistic but still unmistakably eastern artistic style. Here gorgon heads adorned temples to Near Eastern gods alongside Aramaic inscriptions. Mesopotamian deities such as Shamash and Nergal were depicted alongside Greco-Roman deities such as Hercules. Classical nudes and statues adorned in ornate Parthian robes existed side by side. One statue of Apollo the Roman sun god even featured symbols of Shamash the Near Eastern sun god on his clothing.

The damage by ISIS to the artistic legacy of Hatra has been catastrophic.

This tragedy is compounded by the fact that Hatrene sculpture has been chronically understudied. Almost all of it was excavated in the 20th century and the finds never left Iraq. The primary publication of the finds is in an Arabic-language book often inaccessible in the West. Very few scholars outside of Iraq have had the opportunity to study the statues.

Statues of the Kings of Hatra

008The beginning of the video (0:08) shows three men hitting two statues with a sledgehammer while failing to do much damage. They try to pull the statues over without success.

These statues represent kings of Hatra. The statue on the left is of an unidentified king of Hatra, dressed in a Parthian style and holding an acanthus leaf in his left hand and a piece of fruit in his right. Its museum number is MM5.

The statue on the right has been called “the finest of all the sculptures unearthed in Hatra.” An Aramaic inscription on the base of the statue reads “The Image of King Uthal, the merciful, noble-minded servant of God, blessed by God.” All other details about this king’s life, including the dates of his reign, remain obscure.[1]

Hatran statues seen at 0:08, 2:50 and 3:11 of video. Photo by Diane Siebrandt, U.S. State Department.

Hatrene statues seen at 0:08, 2:50 and 3:11 of video. Photo by Diane Siebrandt, U.S. State Department, 2008.


Statues from 0:08, 2:50 and 3:11. Left: Statue of an unidentified king of Hatra. Right: Statue of King Uthal. Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, p. 208-210.

Statues from 0:08, 2:50 and 3:11. Left: Statue of an unidentified king of Hatra. Right: Statue of King Uthal. Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, p. 208-210.

Both statues were seen in 0:08 being hit with hammers without much effect. At the 2:50 mark the statue of Uthal is shown being snapped at the base and toppled. At 2:59, the prelude to this sequence is shown as a man strikes the base. Three men attack the statue with sledgehammers after it hits the ground. Both statues are seen broken into numerous pieces on the floor.

250 311 313

At 2:53 a third statue can be seen being toppled. This is a statue of Sanatruq II, the last king of Parthia before the city was destroyed by Shapur I in 240.[2]

This statue was reconstructed from several fragments, so it shattered easily when it hit the floor.

Statue of Sanatruq II.

Statue of Sanatruq II. Photo by Diane Siebrandt, U.S. State Department, 2008.

253 254

Another sculpture is seen being unwrapped at 0:38. This is a depiction of an unidentified Hatrene king holding an eagle symbolizing the ancient near eastern sun god Shamash.

We have 27 known statues of kings of Hatra, so the destruction of four of them represents a loss of 15% of all statues of Hatrene kings in existence.[4]


Statue of an unidentified king of Hatra holding an eagle. Photo by Col. Mary Prophit, United States Army, 2010.

Statue of an unidentified king of Hatra holding an eagle. Photo by Col. Mary Prophit, United States Army, 2010.

The statue was toppled but it took a number of blows with a sledgehammer to dismember it.

320 334

Other Large Standing Sculptures

040At 0:40 the video shows two sculptures in a museum alcove. The sculpture on the right is a statue of a Hatrene nobleman dressed in the Parthian style. This is one of the earlier Hatrene sculptures found and dates to the 1st century AD. Its catalog number is MM14.[3]

The statue on the left is believed to be of a priest based on its clothing. It was missing its head when excavated.[4]

Statues seen at 0:40 and 2:43 of the video. From

Statues seen at 0:40 and 2:43 of the video. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 19, pl. 199, pp. 75, 212.

Both statues were broken into several pieces by toppling them over forwards onto the floor (2:43 of the video).


In another alcove at 3:16 a headless statue can be seen, clutching a sword in his hands and wearing long pleated trousers and a cape. An inscription identifies it as a depiction of a certain Makai ben Nashri.[5]

The statue is toppled sideways off its base and snaps in half when it hits an architectural element along the wall. When it hits the floor the legs break into several more pieces.


Statue of Makai ben Nashri seen in 3:16 of video. Left photo by Diane Siebrandt, U.S. State Department, 2008. Right photo from Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, p. 78.

316 317 319

Greco-Roman Influenced Sculpture

Greco-Roman influences in Hatra can be seen in this headless statue of Hercules, shown being toppled to the floor at 2:48: 248However, a later shot of the room at 3:59 shows the statue has shattered into hundreds of fragments and numerous steel rebars are sticking out. This is very different from even the reconstructed sculptures in the video, which sometimes have rebar inside to support the reconstruction but never shatter like the Hercules statue.

Dr. Lamia al-Gailani Werr has confirmed that this statue is a replica. The original appears to be in the Hatra wing of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad.


Near the beginning of the video at the 0:32 mark an ISIS fighter is shown unwrapping a nude female torso, believed to be a depiction of Venus/Aphrodite.[7] The camera cuts away before the statue is unwrapped and the sculpture is not seen again, however, it may be one of the broken objects in the background of the shot of the Hercules statue shown above at 3:59.


Venus statue. Photo by Dr. Suzanne Bott, 2009.

Venus statue. Photo by Dr. Suzanne Bott, 2009.

A small statue appears in the background at the 2:55 mark:

255_4This is next to the statue of Makai ben Nashri, and comparing with photos of the museum prior to its destruction can help us to get a better look:

Photo by Col. Mary Prophit, United States Army, 2010.

Photo by Col. Mary Prophit, United States Army, 2010.

While still blurry, this view allows us to match the statue with fragments on the floor at 3:18 and 3:41 of the video. The actual destruction of this statue is not shown.

318 341These fragments, especially the pattern of the dress, allow us to identify a similar statue in Safar and Mustafa’s publication as a statue of Nike, goddess of victory.[8]

Update: Dr. Lucinda Dirven states that the statue published by Safar and Mustafa is safe in storage at the Baghdad museum, but many very similar Nike statues were uncovered at Hatra and not all of them have been published.

Statue of Nike, Greek goddess of victory. Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 102 p. 125.

Statue of Nike, Greek goddess of victory. Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 102 p. 125.

Smaller Sculptures

047047_2This statue of a seated goddess holding a sphere in her left hand first appears at 0:47 of the video. This statue was broken at 2:55 by being flipped off its stand and onto the floor, breaking off its head.[9]

According to Dr. Lamia al-Gailani Werr and Dr. Lucinda Dirven this statue is a plaster copy of an original kept in Baghdad.



Original statue of the copy seen at 0:47. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 250, p. 256-257.

This still from 0:48 shows a number of Hatrene reliefs. The relief on the bottom shows the goddess Marten receiving a worshiper. The right relief depicts the goddess Maren. The upper middle relief depicts Marten again, and the relief on the far left depicts the moon god Barmaren.[10]


From left to right: Barmaren, Marten, Maren.

From left to right: Barmaren, Marten, Maren. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 88, 89, 90, p. 113-115.

Oddly, these reliefs appear undamaged at the end of the video:

403A large theater-type mask of a type found built into Hatrene architecture is shown being knocked off the wall with a sledgehammer:

335Pictures from the site of Hatra show similar faces built into the walls.

Update: Dr. Lucinda Dirven suggests the mask is a cast made from a mask like the one seen below on the right. These type of masks seem to be built into the walls of the temple of Hatra and cannot be removed.

Photo (c) Hubert Debbasch

Photo © Hubert Debbasch

A large eagle is seen being toppled over and shattered. This eagle also matches architectural elements from Hatra.

352Photos from publications show this eagle has been partially reconstructed, as confirmed by Dr. Lamia al-Gailani Werr.

Mosul Museum eagle prior to reconstruction.

Mosul Museum eagle prior to reconstruction. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 133, p. 143.

Photo (c) Hubert Debbasch

Photo © Hubert Debbasch

Three small reliefs are shown being destroyed at 3:46. All are pulverized with sledgehammers and ripped out of the wall. All are from Hatra, the middle published by Safar and Mustafa, the right unpublished and the left is too blurry to be identified in the video but other pictures from inside the museum make it clear that it is a relief of a reclining woman.



Relief sculpture of a military figure. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 92, p. 116.

MCM Qais Rashid Visit DS May08 (76)

Relief of a reclining woman. Photo by Diane Siebrandt, U.S. State Department, 2008.

MCM Qais Rashid Visit DS May08 (77)

Reliefs. Photo by Diane Siebrandt, U.S. State Department, 2008.

In the background at the 0:32 mark a statue of a lion can be seen:


This lion was published by Safar and Mustafa.[12]


Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 187, p. 198.

Its final disposition is not seen in the video but it is likely one of the blurry piles of rubble in 4:02:

403Finally, this relief of an eagle accompanied by an inscription appears in the background to the left of the statue of Hercules. Its destruction is not shown:


Update: Dr. Lucinda Dirven writes that this eagle relief was discovered during excavations at the north gate of the city and was not published until 1978.[13]

There are some pictures from before the museum was destroyed, which may be of aid:

MCM Qais Rashid Visit DS May08 (69)

Photo by Diane Siebrandt, U.S. State Department, 2008.

It is important to note that there are many more items from the Mosul Museum which were not shown in ISIS’ video. The Islamic art wing was not shown at all, and most of the Assyrian section does not appear in the video either. This does not mean that these artifacts have survived. Their destruction may have been cut from the video before release. Alternately, such items may have been smuggled out and sold on the antiquities market or may still be in the museum.

Regardless, from what we can see in this video the loss for the study the Roman and Parthian Near East is absolutely devastating.

Special thanks to Dr. Suzanne Bott for uploading many pre-destruction pictures of the Mosul Museum, Hubert Debbasch for providing photos from his travels, to Dr. Lamia al-Gailani Werr for information about replicas in the museum, and to Dr. Lucinda Dirven for more information about museum replicas and bibliographic information.

Part 1 of this post, assessing the damage to the Mosul Museum’s Assyrian collection, can be found here.


[1] Shinji Fukai, “The Artifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art,” East and West 11, No. 2/3 (June-September 1960): 142-144, pl. 2-3; Fu’ad Safar and Ali Muhammad Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God [Arabic title al-Ḥaḍr, madīnat al-shams] (Baghdad: Wizarat al-Iʻlām, Mudīrīyat al-Athār al-ʻĀmmah, 1974), 197-198, pl. 208-210.

[2] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, 23, pl. 4.

[3] Fukai, “The Artifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art,” 144 pl. 4; Henri Stierlin, Cités du Désert: Pétra, Palmyre, Hatra (Fribourg: Seuil, 1987), 198, pl. 178; Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, 212, pl. 199.

[4] Michael Sommer, Hatra: Geschichte und Kultur einer Karawanenstadt im römisch-parthischen Mesopotamien
(Mainz: Zabern, 2003), 75, pl. 106; Lucinda Dirven, “Aspects of Hatrene Religion: A Note on the Statues of Kings and Nobles from Hatra,” 209-246 in The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2008), 220-221.

[5] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 19, p. 75.

[6] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 24, p. 78.

[7] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 84, p. 110.

[8] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 102 p. 125.

[9] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 250, p. 256-257.

[10] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 88, 89, 90, p. 113-115; Lucinda Dirven, “A Goddess with Dogs from Hatra,” in Animals, Gods and Men from East to West. Papers on archaeology and history in honour of Roberta Venco Ricciardi, A. Peruzzetto, F. Dorna-Metzger, L. Dirven (eds.), [BAR 2516] (Oxford 2013), p.147–160, pl. 8.

[11] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 133, p. 143.

[12] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 187, p. 198.

[13] Wathiq Isma’il al-Salihi, “Inscriptions from Hatra,” Sumer 34, No. 1 (1978): 69; al-Salihi, “Hatra – Excavations in the Southern Gate – A Preliminary Report,” Sumer 36, No. 1 (1980): 158-189, pl. 3-4 [both in Arabic]; Aggoula, Inventaire des inscriptions hatréennes (Paris: P. Geuthner, 1991), 155,  pl. XXVI; Inscription published in: Basile Aggoula, “Remarques sur les inscriptions hatréennes (VI),” Syria 58. No. 3/4 (1981): 363-378; Aggoula, “Remarques sur les inscriptions hatréennes. XIII Ibr. IX, XIV, XX, XXI,” Syria 64. No. 3/4 (1987): 223-229; J.B. Segal, “Arabs at Hatra and the Vicinity: Marginalia on new Aramaic Texts,” Journal of Semitic Studies 31 (1986): 57-80; Klaus Beyer, Die aramäischen Inschriften aus Assur, Hatra und dem übrigen Ostmesopotamien (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998), p. 90.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015.

Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part 1: The Assyrian Artifacts

February 27, 2015

Part 2 of this post, covering the damage to the Mosul Museum’s collection of sculptures from Hatra, can be found here.

Yesterday ISIS released yet another propaganda video, this time showing what has been feared since the fall of Mosul last summer: the destruction of ancient artifacts of the Mosul Museum. By now most of the world has seen this video, which has been featured in all the world’s major news agencies. This post and those following it will attempt to identify what has been lost and assess the damage.

As in several of the group’s past videos, a spokesman for the group appears in the video to explain the rationale for the destruction. International Business Times has provided a translation:

These ruins that are behind me, they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. The so-called Assyrians and Akkadians and others looked to gods for war, agriculture and rain to whom they offered sacrifices…The Prophet Mohammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.

The video then shows a montage of ISIS fighters toppling sculptures, smashing them with sledgehammers and using jackhammers to pulverize the faces of some statues.

Most of the destroyed artifacts fall into two categories: Sculptures from the Roman period city of Hatra, situated in the desert to the south of Mosul, and Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh and surrounding sites such as Khorsabad and Balawat. This post will focus on the Assyrian artifacts and a later post will discuss the artifacts from Hatra.

The Nergal Gate

105The scene with the narrator was shot at the Nergal Gate, one of the gates on the north side of Nineveh. The entrance to the gate was flanked by two large winged human-headed bulls known as lamassu in Akkadian. The gate and its lamassu were first excavated by Sir Austen Henry Layard in 1849 but then re-buried. The left lamassu (seen above behind the ISIS narrator) was uncovered again sometime before 1892, and a local man paid an Ottoman official for the top half of it, cut it off and broken down over a fire in order to extract lime. The right lamassu remained buried until 1941 when heavy rains eroded the soil around the gate and exposed the two statues. The gate was later reconstructed around them and they have remained on display ever since.[1]

The gate was built during Sennacherib’s expansion of Nineveh sometime between 704 and 690 BC.

The video stops at 2:26 to emphasize the sign which states that “this gate is related to the god Nergal, the god of plague and the lower world.” The left lamassu, already missing its upper half, does not seem to have been targeted. The right lamassu had its face chiseled off with a jackhammer, likely causing irreparable damage.

428Here is a photo of the Nergal Gate prior to its destruction for comparison. There is no indication that the reconstructed gate itself was damaged. Here is a map of Nineveh showing the location of the gate.

Inside the gate there are two additional lamassu which were less well preserved than the lamassu on the outside of the gate. Both were heavily cracked, and the one on the left was missing his head above the nose and the one on the right was missing everything except its head.

The lamassu on the left was broken apart with sledgehammers into large chunks. The head on the right was broken apart with a jackhammer.

Interior of the Nergal Gate in 2009. (Source)

Interior of the Nergal Gate in 2009. (Source)

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The Balawat Gates

The video briefly shows segments of the bronze gates of the city of Balaway (near modern Qaraqosh). Three such gates were excavated, two by Hormuzd Rassam in 1878 which are now in the British Museum, and another by Max Mallowan in 1956 which were put on display in Mosul. Rassam’s gates were built during the reigns of Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 883-859 BC) and Shalmaneser III (859-824 BC). Mallowan’s gates were also from the reign of Ashurnasirpal II.

The bronze bands held the wood beams of the doors together and attached them to the posts. The beams were decorated with ornate scenes from Assyrian military campaigns.


Still from ISIS video at 0:55 showing Balawat Gates on display.

Around thirty panels from the Mosul gates were looted in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion before American troops were able to secure Mosul. The gaps where the looted pieces once sat can be seen in the image above.

Nothing in the video shows the gates being destroyed or damaged. As they are portable, it is possible they may be sold on the antiquities black market. To help recognize them if they appear, I add the following photographs of the Balawat gates found in the British Museum:


Reconstruction showing how the Balawat Gates would have looked when installed on wooden doors. From the British Museum. Photo by Author.


A typical section from the Balawat Gates in the British Museum, showing a chariot attack above and the reception of tribute by the king below. Photo by Author.

Other lamassu

110At 1:10 of the video, two additional lamassu can be seen. These are an earlier type with a lion’s body instead of a bull’s. They are not shown being destroyed although by the end of the video all immovable sculptures in the museum seem to have been destroyed so there is little hope for their survival.

Relief Sculptures

At 1:19 a partially reconstructed relief identified by its sign as coming from Dur-Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad) can be seen. The city was constructed by Sargon II sometime after 716 BC and abandoned upon his death in 705. This sort of relief usually shows tribute-bearers seeking an audience with the king and in this case one of the supplicants is holding a model of a fortification.


Relief from Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) in the Mosul Museum, 1:19 of ISIS video.

UPDATE: Here is a better photo of the relief in the Mosul Museum sent in by reader Hubbert Debasch. This appears to be a heavily reconstructed but genuine relief from Khorsabad:

Palace relief from Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) in the Mosul Museum. Photo (c) Hubert Debbasch.

Palace relief from Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) in the Mosul Museum. Photo (c) Hubert Debbasch.

Similar scenes can be seen in reliefs from Khorsabad held in other museums, such as the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago:

Relief from Dur-Sharrukin in the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago showing a similar scene. Photo by Author.

Relief from Dur-Sharrukin in the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago showing a similar scene. Photo by Author.

Another relief from the Mosul Museum (1:26 of the video) shows a king kneeling before a god and goddess. Similar scenes are found in other Near Eastern art including on the stele of Hammurabi.


UPDATE: Prof. Paolo Brusasco has pointed out that the above image is a copy of the Maltai rock relief, which is carved into the side of a cliff near Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. It shows Sennacherib worshiping the gods Ashur, Ninlil, Sin, Anu, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar.

Maltai rock relief near Dohuk, showing Sennacherib worshiping Assyrian gods. (source)

Maltai rock relief near Dohuk, showing Sennacherib worshiping Assyrian gods. (source)

Another at 1:28 shows a siege scene where one soldier is counting the heads of enemy dead while others attack a fortified wall with scaling ladders:

128Something seemed slightly “off” to me about both the color and the level of detail in this relief. Initially I believed it to be a plaster cast of a relief held somewhere else but I have not been able to identify an original. It is definitely in an earlier style typical of the 9th-10th centuries. This may be a replica.

Another relief shown at 1:42 shows a dying lion from the famous lion hunt reliefs of Ashurbanipal (r. 668-627 BC):


Lion hunt relief in the Mosul Museum, seen at 1:42 of video.

This is clearly a replica taken from the reliefs in the British Museum:


Lion hunt relief in the British Museum. Photo by Author.

Today the British Museum issued a press release stating in part that “We can confirm that none of the objects featured in this video are copies of originals at the British Museum.” However, as can be seen from the above comparison this is not the case, as there is at least one that was either cast directly from the British Museum original or more likely was made as a replica in imitation of it.

At 1:43 the camera pans to a relief showing two archers and a battering ram:

143This is a replica of the right half of a relief from Nimrud held in the British Museum:

Relief from the Central Palace of Tiglath-Pileser III from Nimrud, in the British Museum. Photo from the British Museum.

Relief from the Central Palace of Tiglath-Pileser III from Nimrud, in the British Museum. Photo from the British Museum.

Therefore, I believe it is safe to say that a number of the Assyrian reliefs seen in the video are not originals.

Statue of Sargon (?)

At the 1:44 mark the video showed a fallen, broken statue identified by a museum sign as a statue of Sargon II of Assyria (r. 722-705 BC):

149 154The broken sections of this statue clearly indicate it is made of plaster. The shape of the statue and the pattern of folds in the robe resemble the statue of Ashurnasirpal II from the British Museum. However the hat on the above image means it is not a copy of that artifact, and the ringlets on the beard more closely match the following sculpture from the British Museum:


Lamassu-style head from the British Museum. Photo by Author.

This statue may be a reconstruction based on an original base. Similar statues of the god Nabu were found at Dur-Sharrukin. It is not, however, a statue of Sargon II but merely one from his reign:

Statue from the Temple of Nabu in Dur-Sharrukin. From the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Photo by Author.

Statue from the Temple of Nabu in Dur-Sharrukin. From the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Photo by Author.


It is worth noting that in 2003 around 1,500 smaller objects from the Mosul Museum were relocated to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad in order that they may be better protected. Nevertheless, many statues otherwise too large or delicate to be moved remained.

When it comes to the Assyrian artifacts, by far the most important losses are the lamassu at the Nergal Gate, one of which was exceedingly well preserved. They were some of the few lamassu left in their original locations to greet visitors to Nineveh the same way they would have greeted visitors in ancient Assyria.

As for the items inside the museum, a number are replicas of originals held elsewhere, while others are likely genuine.

The destruction of sculptures from Hatra appears to be even more devastating, and I will have another post on this damage shortly.

A Chinese translation of this article is available here.

Part 2 of this post, covering the damage to the Mosul Museum’s collection of sculptures from Hatra, can be found here.


[1] J.P.G. Finch, “The Winged Bulls at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh,” Iraq 10, No. 1 (Spring 1948): 9-18.

Article and relevant images © Christopher Jones 2012-2015.


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