Late last week, a disturbing ISIS propaganda video emerged showing the wanton destruction of ancient artifacts at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. After a careful examination of the video, antiquities experts say the damage inflicted by the stunt is "absolutely devastating."
In the video, Jihadists can be seen toppling sculptures, smashing them to bits with sledgehammers, and using power tools to pulverize the faces of some statues.
According to the so-called Islamic State's Salafi interpretation of Islam:
These ruins...are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah...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.
Antiquities expert Christopher Jones, a Ph.D. student in ancient Near Eastern history at Columbia University in New York, has analyzed the video in detail to evaluate the extent of the damage. His report was divided into two parts, assessing the damage done to Assyrian artifacts, and assessing the damage done to the sculptures from Hatra. He was helped by Dr. Suzanne Bott, Hubert Debbasch, and Dr. Lamia al-Gailani Wer.
Mercifully, most of the damage inflicted on the Assyrian artifacts, many dating back 3,000 years, were done to replicas. Back in 2003, some 1,500 objects from the Mosul Museum were relocated to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad for safekeeping, while larger statues either too large or too fragile to be moved stayed there. But while a number of replicas were destroyed, many others were likely originals.
Interior of the Nergal Gate in 2009. (Source via Gates of Nineveh.)
The most important of the Assyrian losses were the lamassu — large winged human-headed bulls — at the Nergal Gate, one of which was exceptionally well preserved. This gorgeous and intricately decorated gate was built during the expansion of Nineveh sometime between 704 and 690 BC.
In the ISIS video, the right lamassu had its face chiseled off with a jackhammer, and the damage appears irreparable. This is a particularly disheartening loss, as these lamassu are some of the few still left in their original locations to greet visitors the same way they would have greeted visitors in ancient Assyria.
But the worst damage was done to the 2,000-year-old sculptures from Hatra, a city that was once a wealthy trading hub in the desert south of Mosul coveted by ancient Rome and other would-be conquerors. Over the years, its unique geographical position allowed it to be influenced by both east and west, resulting in a naturalistic but still unmistakably eastern artistic style.
Statue of an unidentified king of Hatra holding an eagle. Credit Col. Mary Prophit, United States Army, 2010 via Gates of Nineveh.
"The damage by ISIS to the artistic legacy of Hatra has been catastrophic," writes Jones. "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."
According to Jones, the destruction to four statues of kings of Hatra represents a loss of 15% of all statues of Hatrene kings in existence.
Above: Statue of Makai ben Nashri. Left photo by Diane Siebrandt, U.S. State Department, 2008. Credit: Right photo from Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God (via Gates of Nineveh). Below: The damage done.
All this said, the Mosul Museum is home to many more items which were not shown in the ISIS video. The Islamic art wing wasn't shown at all, while most of the Assyrian section was absent. Jones worries that many of these artifacts were also destroyed, but he remains hopeful that they're still inside the museum or that they were sold on the antiquities market.
"Regardless, he says, "from what we can see in this video the loss for the study the Roman and Parthian Near East is absolutely devastating."