Islamic State’s War on History
Jihadist militants destroyed sites that stood for millennia
On March 7, Islamic State militants laid waste to the city of Hatra — one of Iraq’s most treasured historic sites. The Seleucid Empire built the ancient city during the third century B.C. and it stood for thousands of years.
It was once a major staging point on the Silk Road — the massive trade route of the ancient world that ran through China, India and Europe. As a result, Hatra’s architecture shows a wide range of Arab, Greek, Assyrian and Roman influences.
Hatra was heavily fortified. Would-be invaders needed to cross two walls sandwiching a moat to take the city. But the walls couldn’t protect it from Islamic State.
The jihadists are on a quest to destroy anything they deems un-Islamic — even cities with important historical significance to the Arab world.
Islamic State has made the destruction of historic sites a priority in both Iraq and Syria. It has destroyed Christian, pagan and even many Muslim places of worship — both Sunni and Shia.
Mosul was once one of Iraq’s most diverse cities — home to Sunni and Shia Muslims, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Yezidis and others. Mosul’s churches, temples and mosques are among the world’s oldest. Many Assyrian Christians from Mosul still speak Aramaic — a language that’s more than 3,000 years old.
But when Islamic State invaded last summer, the militants quickly began demolishing ancient churches and temples with explosives and bulldozers. Thousands of people fled.
The destruction of historical artifacts is a tragic loss for humanity and also a war crime, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
“This is yet another attack against the Iraqi people, reminding us that nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in the country,” UNSECO director-general Irina Bokova said in a statement.
“It targets human lives, minorities, and is marked by the systematic destruction of humanity’s ancient heritage,” Bokovoa added.
Islamic State has destroyed ancient and medieval tombs, sculptures and shrines, according to the archaeology blog Gates of Nineveh. Columbia University researcher Christopher Jones, the blog’s author, maintains an exhaustive list of documented attacks on cultural heritage sites in Iraq.
In July, Islamic State blew up the late 14th-century Mosque of the Prophet Yunus — also known as the Tomb of Jonah — in Mosul. The tomb is holy to both Christians and Muslims. All that’s left now is rubble.
The group blew up the 14th-century Tomb of Jarjis and its mosque in Mosul. Jarjis is a first-century associate of Jesus’ disciples.
The jihadists rigged Iraq’s tallest mausoleum—the Tomb of Imam Ibn Hassan Aoun al Din — with explosives and destroyed it.
They heavily damaged the medieval citadel of Tal Afar. This is in addition to destroying mosques and churches in Iraq on a widespread scale.
“On one level, ISIS’s destruction of the [Tomb of Jonah] is a pure display of power. They can blow up historic buildings treasured by the people of Mosul, and no one can stop them,” Jones wrote. “Bravo. We’ve got a bunch of real badasses over here.”
“But it hasn’t exactly gone unnoticed that a bunch of young men with C4 blowing up mosques in a testosterone-fueled rampage rather undercuts the whole sacred-warriors-for-God, fighting-to-restore-pure-Islam image.”
There’s a nightmarish logic to Islamic State’s attacks. By destroying a groups’ history, the militants weaken a peoples’ hold on their homeland and their resolve to defend it.
But they don’t destroy artifacts to simply intimidate their opposition — the terror group wants to erase the history and knowledge that other groups ever existed.
Demolishing the holy sites of other religions also limits the scope of acceptable worship in the areas Islamic State controls. Namely, they’ve created a society that prohibits almost all other forms of worship.
When the militants took the Yezidi town of Sinjar, thousands of people fled to the nearby Sinjar Mountain. It was high ground — and the Yezidis used it as a defensive bulwark and to put some distance between them and Islamic State.
The mountain is also holy in the Yezidi faith, and home to the sect’s most sacred temples. The Yezidi guerrillas — with Kurdish support — refused to allow the militants to destroy their history.
But the destruction of Hatra, a city of considerable importance to Arab history, was the most shocking new development.
The campaign against the ancient trading city began in the Mosul Museum, which housed a large collection of Hatra artifacts. In late February, the jihadists toppled statues of the city’s kings, Greco-Roman gods and smaller works depicting noblemen.
If an artifact didn’t break after it hit the ground, the militants worked it over with sledgehammers until it was rubble.
Islamic State next traveled to the city of Hatra itself, where the group blew up and bulldozed buildings. The militants did the same to the remaining ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. But the extent of the damage isn’t clear.
Islamic State has justified the destruction as part of its religious duty.
“To all Muslims, these statues are idols of the people in previous centuries which were worshipped other than God. God almighty says, ‘And we sent a messenger to you just to reveal that no God but I, so worship me,’” an Islamic State militant said in a video during the attack on the Mosul Museum.
“The Prophet ordered us to get rid of statues and relics, and his companions did the same when they conquered countries after him.”
But these artifacts and temples have existed in the Muslim world since the days of Muhammad. Many of the archaeologists and historians who have dedicated their lives to preserving these sites and antiquities over the centuries have been — and are — practicing Muslims.
“This is a direct attack against the history of Islamic Arab cities, and it confirms the role of destruction of heritage in the propaganda of extremist groups,” UNESCO and the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization stated.
“With this latest act of barbarism against Hatra, Daesh [Islamic State] shows the contempt in which it holds the history and heritage of Arab people.”
The disconnect further shines light on the increasing friction between more moderate Muslims against hard-line Salafist Islamists in the region. But it’s not a conflict that’s solely based in the Middle East.
Because Islamic State’s goal is to wipe out or subordinate every religion — including the faith practiced by most Muslims — in the entire world. And that campaign extends to ancient sites, and all their symbols and places of worship.
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