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Mosul Cultural Heritage Under Threat: News Roundup

June 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

aajajah 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archaeological Sites in Mosul

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

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

Cultural Institutions in Mosul

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Churches and Monasteries

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

There are also reports that an Armenian church was bombed.

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

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

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