ISIS Destroys Antiquities in Mosul, Iraq

Scholar calls the filmed destruction a ‘staged performance’


Pictured is a lamassu sculpture from the palace of Neo-Assyrian King Sargon II (ca. 721–705 B.C.E.) in modern Khorsabad, Iraq, now housed at the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago, IL. This lamassu is similar to the one in Mosul destroyed by ISIS militants in a recently released video. Photo: Oriental Institute Museum.

The extremist group ISIS has released video footage documenting the destruction of antiquities in Mosul, Iraq. The video takes place in the Mosul Museum as well as at the Nergal Gate, one of the gates to Nineveh. Located near present-day Mosul, ancient Nineveh was the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the seventh-century B.C.E. With sledgehammers and drills in hand, the ISIS insurgents toppled, smashed and defaced millennia-old antiquities as well as modern replicas. Among the destroyed relics was a seventh-century sculpture of a lamassu, an Assyrian protective deity depicted as a human-headed winged bull, that guarded the Nergal Gate.

Lynda Albertson, chief executive officer of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, said in a statement that the Mosul Museum “specializes in antiquities from the Assyrian Empire [and] houses a significant collection of sculptures and other stone relics from Hatra, the capital of the first Arab Kingdom.”

The assault on antiquities enacted in the recently released video footage is part of ISIS’s objective to destroy anything—from humans of different beliefs to the cultural legacies of ancient civilizations—deemed idolatrous and outside of the extremist group’s narrow interpretation of Sunni Islam. Given that looted antiquities are one of ISIS’s sources of funding, it’s possible that in this new video, the militants were just destroying whatever was too big to smuggle out, as journalist Sam Hardy suggested on his cultural heritage blog Conflict Antiquities.

However, Brian Daniels, director of research and programs at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, cautions against underestimating ISIS’s ideological aims.

“We should not confuse archaeological site looting with ISIS’s commitment to destroy artifacts in such a way that it can realize its millennial beliefs and score a propaganda victory,” said Daniels in an email to Bible History Daily. “We have seen that ISIS is willing to destroy portable objects, like valuable antique books, for example, that could otherwise be sold to collectors. Many commentators have observed that ISIS is media-savvy. I think what we are seeing is that ISIS believes that the destruction at Mosul is more valuable to their core interests than money.”

In the Middle East, archaeological looting and the deliberate destruction of archaeological sites and monuments are rampant. What, if anything, can be done? Read more >>

That the new video footage from ISIS was circulated so quickly and widely, however, is in itself unsettling, according to Ömür Harmanşah, associate professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In an email to Bible History Daily, Harmanşah expressed his concern:

“These videos of the enactment of violence—whether they are against human bodies, buildings, archaeological sites or museum antiquities—are clearly fabricated as staged performance. I find it dangerous to take these video footages as if they were documentations of acts of violence. I am convinced that some of these destructive acts are precisely being carried out to be able to produce the films, which were then disseminated through social media.”

“We need to think of ISIS sort of like a reality show, where the show is the primary goal for the production, and the depicted events are the consequence of it,” Harmanşah continued. “Disseminating ISIS videos means serving as a medium for ISIS’s propaganda machine and contributing to the harm inflicted on the bodies, buildings and things that are impacted by these enactments.”

Many believe it’s imperative that ISIS’s course of cultural destruction be reported and documented as thoroughly as possible. What does that mean for these videos ISIS releases?

“We and the media use caution most of the time in publicizing and broadcasting videos of violence on human bodies,” said Harmanşah. “They are offensive and degrading and dehumanizing, besides the fact that they propagate a culture of violence and inflict actual physical violence for the sake of the production of the footage. The media needs to treat the videos of destruction of heritage likewise.”

“My strategy is to speak about these videos in their staged, fabricated nature through verbal description, strictly not sharing the imagery,” Harmanşah explained. “I consider that imagery as violence, whether it is a moving or non-moving image. It is part of ISIS’s rhetoric.”

In a joint statement released by the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Archaeological Institute of America, the Society for American Archaeology and the American Schools of Oriental Research, the professional organizations called for action from communities around the world:

“We urge all members with appropriate expertise to provide professional support to the archaeological community to repair damaged works to the degree possible and to identify and reclaim missing objects. We call on authorities, even in these unsettled times, to do what they can to protect the world’s archaeological and cultural materials. And we urge museums and archaeological communities around the world to alert the appropriate international authorities if they believe they have information regarding objects recently stolen from Mosul.”

From Babylon to Baghdad: Ancient Iraq and the Modern West examines the relationship between ancient Iraq and the origins of modern Western society. This free eBook details some of the ways in which ancient Near Eastern civilizations have impressed themselves on Western culture and chronicles the present-day fight to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Hanging Gardens of Babylon … in Assyrian Nineveh

Archaeological Looting and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage

ISIS Captures Syrian City of Palmyra

ISIS Plants Explosives in Ancient City of Palmyra

ISIS Executes Antiquities Scholar in Syrian City of Palmyra

Digital Humanities and the Ancient World

Temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra Blown Up by ISIS

Satellite Images Confirm ISIS Destruction of Temple of Bel and Other Monuments in Palmyra

Ancient Coins and Looting

Sold to the Highest Bidder: Antiquities as Cash Cows

Endangered Heritage: Archaeological Looting in Turkey


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