the least out-of-date news on looting and destruction in Iraq

Limits on communication, limits on information and sheer lack of physical security severely limit our knowledge of the situation in Iraq. But in light of the threat to the safety of all civilians and the existence of minority communities, it is worth trying to establish some facts concerning looting and destruction in the conflict. Until recently, violent cultural destruction had been limited; but that had been a strategic self-limitation, rather than a moral decision or a physical incapacity, and the Islamic State has definitely initiated aggressive and provocative violence (in which Christopher Jones (@cwjones89) has done sterling work in identifying and describing the targets).


First, thank you to David Meadows (@rogueclassicist), imperatrixmundi (@o_fortuna), Chasing Aphrodite (@ChasingAphrodit), Tess Davis (@Terressa_Davis) and others who’ve been queueing up articles for me to read while I’ve been offline, and to Frederik Rosén (@FrederikRosen), Tommy Livoti (@LivotiTommy), Eleanor Robson (@Eleanor_Robson), Iraq Crisis (@IraqCrisis), Peter Campbell (@peterbcampbell) and his news feed Stolen Heritage (@StolenHeritage), Paul Barford (@PortantIssues), and others who’ve been keeping track of developments. And fuck you to the internet system that wiped dozens of article tabs.

Caution: the best sources are in the worst conditions

Many reports have been dependent upon stalwart archaeologist Lamia Al Gailani Werr’s contacts in Mosul, but between a lack of forensic evidence and a lack of electricity, it has not been possible to get very secure or very current information. So, on the 25th of June, the same day that the Telegraph reported via Werr that ‘no harm had come to either Hatra or any of the other ancient sites around Mosul’, al-Shorfa (correctly) reported confrontations and bombings in Mosul.

Furthermore, the Director of Museums at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Iraq, Qais Hussein Rashid, has warned that the Islamic State has ‘aggressively attacked our employees working in those [archaeological] sites and in the museums telling them that this is haram [forbidden] to work in a place with those statues and objects’. This shows the terrifying prospects for cultural heritage workers (and cultural heritage) in the Islamic State.

Realpolitik, recording, resisting and rebuilding

Documentation and investigation

The Director of the Artefact Recovery Department of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Iraq, Abbas al-Quraishi, has reported ‘information on incidents of random digging and theft in archaeological sites in Ninawa’ and ‘videos and pictures of organised acts of smuggling of large archaeological artefacts on board trucks’. Hence, the Ministry has established a multi-agency team to investigate looting and destruction by the Islamic State in Nineveh province.

Short-term and long-term Realpolitik

As the director of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Syria, Paolo Matthie, said (with the director of Priorità Cultura, Francesco Rutelli), demilitarising archaeological sites might be impossible, ‘[b]ut simply focusing on realpolitik would be abominable‘. If nothing else, people who cannot help otherwise can help in the protection and/or documentation of cultural heritage, so it does not (necessarily) detract from more immediate humanitarian efforts. But also, defending everyone’s historic remains defends shared community life. Ultimately, it supports the rebuilding of peaceful societies and the redevelopment of economies, so it contributes to reducing humanitarian challenges in the future.

Viral marketing of terrorism

People who share pictures of cats on the internet, look what you have wrought. With an ever wise eye to management of media and deterrence of Western intervention as much as implementation of ideology, ISIL/ISIS/Da’ash/Da’esh/Da’ish has declared itself a caliphate, the Islamic State.(1)

And one of its activists, Abu Turab al-Mugaddasi, has revealed the scale of its ambition (on a now suspended Twitter account): ‘If Allah wills, we will kill those who worship stones in Mecca and destroy the Kaaba. People go to Mecca to touch the stones, not for Allah.’ (It was first reported in Turkish: ‘Allah’ın izniyle Şeyhimiz el-Bağdadi önderliğinde Mekke taşlara ibadet edenleri (Hacıları) öldürecek ve Allah’ın yerine ibadet edilen Kabe’yi de yıkacağız!…. İnsanlar taşlara dokunmak için Mekke’ye gidiyorlar, Allah için değil.’)

It must be remembered that the Islamic State positively advertises its violence. As the Financial Times explained, it issues ‘annual reports, outlining in numerical and geographical detail its operations…. to demonstrate its record to potential donors‘. Official and semi-official social media accounts are ‘flooded with a co-ordinated campaign of… images, carefully calibrated to shock – and inspire’. Indeed, it has just issued its Report on the Demolition of Shrines and Idols in Nineveh Province [تقرير عن هدم الأضرحة والأوثان في ولاية نينوى].

It may take time for the Islamic State (or others) to advertise its acts, and attempts to suppress its propaganda may inadvertently delete evidence of its crimes, but there will be evidence. Occasionally, unevidenced rumours will prove true; but often they will not; and sharing unevidenced rumours can not only desensitise people to real danger, but expose them to such danger. For all concerned, it is safest to wait for verified videos, photographs and/or testimony from victims and/or witnesses (such as the documentation by Human Rights Watch or the Islamic State itself).

Violence against persons

Interpersonal violence is not only the gravest kind, but also the best demonstration of the difficulty of confirming the most basic information concerning any claims of violence. Whether out of optimistic self-deception or in an attempt to promote a protective myth of non-violence, Ninawa Province Council leader/mayor Bashar al-Kiki publicly argued that ‘ISIS is not actually hostile to Christians because they consider them the people of the dhimma [Non-Muslim citizens living under the protection of an Islamic state]’ (though he acknowledged that non-conformist Muslim ‘Yazidis, Shabaks and any Shiites in the city are in grave danger‘).

Since then, according to a member of the Iraq High Commission for Human Rights, Dr. Sallama Al Khafaji, when an Assyrian family could not afford to pay the jizya tax on dhimmi (non-Muslims under Islamic rule), the jihadist tax collectors raped the wife and daughter of the family; the husband/father, who was forced to witness the crime, later committed suicide. There has not been enough evidence for the story to be republished by any non-Christian activist media. Regardless of that particular claim, though the grim details are difficult to establish, there have been widespread acts of violence against persons, including massacres.

Displacement of communities and occupation of community property

The Islamic State has reused a Chaldean church in Mosul as an office and ‘confiscated’ the homes of displaced persons, including those of the Chaldean Patriarch of Mosul and of the Minority Affairs Advisor to the Governor of Nineveh (and member of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization (HHRO)), Dr. Duraid Hikmat Tobia.

Destruction of community property

Niqash, which had itself surveyed Mosul by foot without seeing any evidence of the burning of Christian homes, checked the hearsay with the head of the Iraqi Assembly of Assyrians, Ashur Georgis. He, too, had only heard ‘rumours‘, so there is no confirmed evidence of that yet.

Desecration of cultural property

@IraqiSuryaye saw a photograph of disrespectful handling of religious property and (rightly) declared: ‘This is Blasphemy.‘ However, it is also from Syria in June 2012, at the latest. It is allegedly a photograph of an al Qaeda fighter in Homs, which was taken or acquired by a local Christian woman.

Destruction of cultural property

Claims and denials of destruction of cultural property

According to Mawtani, on the 15th of June, Caliphate ‘gunmen [had] set fire to a number of churches and monasteries, destroyed religious shrines, and killed clerics’ (Khattab Hassan, Riyadh al-Wandi and Abdul Ghafoor Salman). Ninawa police spokesman Major Ahmed al-Obaidi told Mawtani that the Islamic State had ‘torched 11 churches and monasteries‘ in Mosul and ‘demolished the historic grave of the prophet Yunus (Jonah) and the shrine of prophet Shayth (Seth), revered by Muslims and Christians alike’.

[Update (25th July 2014): on the 24th of July, the Islamic State destroyed the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah – indeed, the entire Mosque of the Prophet Yunus.]

Yet (speaking before Mawtani and the police, but still two days after the alleged events), Ninawa mayor al-Kiki, who had many sources in Mosul, insisted that reports of death and destruction were ‘wrong’: ‘No members of any minority have been killed and no churches burned.’ (When al-Kiki did not have information, he neither confirmed nor denied claims, so he must have had confidence in his sources.)

Destruction of others’ religious property

According to Niqash, on the 19th of June, ‘militants destroyed… the Qabr al-Bint‘ (Tomb of al-Bint) in the eponymous district of the Bab Sinjar neighbourhood of Mosul. The Islamic State also ‘destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary‘ in the Chaldean al-Tahera Church of the Immaculate in the al-Shifa neighbourhood of Mosul (which was photographically documented by Ankawa, and which was confidently affirmed by Al-Monitor‘s sceptical Mohammed A. Salih (@MohammedASalih)) and ‘bulldozed‘ “the Tomb of the Girl” (actually, a reproduction of the tomb of medieval Sunni historian Ali ‘Izz al-Din Ibn al-Athir al-Jazari(2)) in Ras al-Jada. Terrified and exhausted, ‘everyone here is too busy trying to stay alive’ to try to protect cultural property as well.

Evidence and interpretation

Apparently, the Director-General of Public Relations and Media for the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Qassim al-Sudani, has (indirectly) affirmed this destruction and attacks on ‘ancient houses of worship in Mosul, including the historic grave and mosque of the prophet Yunus (Jonah), the shrine of the prophet Shayth (Seth) and a number of churches and monasteries’. Moreover, on the 20th of June, Niqash went to Mosul and reported that ‘armed men… claimed responsibility for burning the church‘.

Yet the Armenian Church of St. Etchmiadzin, at least, suffered fire damage from a car bomb in an attack on the neighbouring army base. At the end of June or beginning of July, a Christian councillor in Nineveh Province, Anwar Hadaya, insisted: ‘No churches, monasteries or ancient sites have been yet destroyed inside Mosul by the armed groups’. Al-Monitor secured a ‘consensus’ across ‘multiple sources’ that there had been ‘no destruction of churches or Assyrian and Christian archaeological sites in Ninevah’.

If the Islamic State had wanted to destroy the Church of St. Etchmiadzin or any other, it would have done so, and it would have advertised the fact. Indeed, it may still destroy that church and others, but it has not done so yet.

Civilian selflessness, paramilitary strategy

Certainly, any lack of violence has been due to Iraqi civilians’ selflessness or Islamic State strategy, not jihadist fighters’ conscience or lack of power. On the 24th, ‘[d]ozens of men, women and children’ had ‘formed a human wall‘ in order to prevent an Islamic State assault on the shrine of Sheikh Fathi in the al-Mushahada neighbourhood of Mosul.

[Update (6th July 2014): Christopher Jones has observed that, ‘[s]adly, it appears that the Shrine of Sheikh Fathi was destroyed not long after the local citizens came out to protect it. The second and third pictures in the “Report on the Demolition of Shrines and Idols” seem to show them coming out in the night and at least seriously damaging one side of it with a bulldozer.’]

And on the 25th, fighters ‘bombed two husseiniyas’ (ceremonial commemoration halls, named after a grandson of Muhammed, Shia Imam Husayn Ibn Ali) in Shireekhan. Indeed, Jones noted that IS used that term to identify all of its targets as ‘idolatrous’ and ‘pagan’.

Soon after, Human Rights Watch confirmed a days-long campaign of ethnic cleansing: destruction of the mosques of al-Zahraa and al-Imam Hussein in Shireekhan; destruction of the shrine of Imam Abbas and the mosque of al-Ridha in Guba; and destruction of the shrines of Imam Sa’ad and Khider al-Elias (or Khader Elias), and of the mosques of Hashim Antr, Imam Sadiq, al-Abbas, Ar Mahmoud (also known as ar-Mamut or the shrine of Arnaout) and Ahl al-Beit (or al-Bayt) in Tal Afar. On the 28th, the Islamic State ‘shelled’ the Shia neighbourhood of Sabaa al-Bour in Baghdad.

[Christopher Jones (@cwjones89) has done sterling work – identified and described the victimised sites in the Islamic State’s report/brochure. As well as the others mentioned here, he’s identified the mosques of Shia Sheikh Jawad, Qaddo, Imam Saad bin Aqeel and the Martyr of Lashkar-e-Mulla in Tal Afar, the shrine-mosque of Imam al-Hakim in Tal Afar, and the Tombs of Sufi Ahmad ar-Rifa’i and Sheikh Ibrahim in Muhallabiyah. So, alongside the looting of the Awqaf Library and the destruction of Qabr al-Bint, the range of targets reaffirm that the Islamic State’s targets are ‘not only political but also theological’.]

Provocation of civil war, globalisation of conflict

On the 30th of June, the Islamic State bombed the golden-domed al-Askari mosque and mausoleum complex in Samarra. The sacred Shia shrine was targeted repeatedly in 2006 (when it marked the eruption of civil war) and 2007 (when it drove intercommunal conflict), so this attack was another attempt to provoke communal violence as much as an attempt to erase the existence of the Shia community.

Due to the ‘Shrine Defense Narrative‘ of communal violence and defence, this will lead to an intensification and (further) internationalisation of the conflict. Indeed, as well as foreign states’ official intervention, ‘thousands of Shia Muslims in India‘ (and more elsewhere) have volunteered to enter the Iraqi conflict zone to protect their community’s religious sites [or four – not four thousand, four].

Destruction of archaeological sites

Answering Eleanor Robson’s query (@Eleanor_Robson), criminologist Muhanad Seloom (@M_Seloom) said that the archaeological site of Samarra had not been affected by the attack on al-Askari mosque.

Destruction of looted antiquities

Nevertheless, again, that is good luck rather than good management. For example, the available evidence suggests that the Islamic State unwittingly destroyed counterfeits of artefacts from Tell Ajaja/Tell Ajuja (ancient Šadikanni). The Real SyrianFreePress Network has collated photographs of other destroyed material, which may be authentic artefacts – though their sources include rank propaganda, so even if they are authentic artefacts, they may be from another time and/or place.

Looting of archaeological sites

According to Iraqi archaeologist Lamia Al Gailani Werr, in Mosul, ‘security is very well organised’ by locals, so there has been ‘no looting‘. However, according to the Department of Antiquities, outside Mosul, ‘government sentries and guards in charge of protecting the sites have fled‘. Unfortunately, the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Ashur, Hatra, Nimrud and Nineveh are controlled by the Islamic State and unguarded from looters. (Even if looters mined an unguarded site, smugglers could not export any significant number of antiquities, or any antiquities of significant size, without the support or direction of the Islamic State.)

Worse, the Spokesman of the Department of Antiquities, Ali al-Hashemi, has calculated that ‘400 archaeologically significant sites… are under threat of illegal diggers and smugglers’. Overall, the French Institute of Anatolian Studies (l’Institut Français d’Études Anatoliennes (IFEA)) estimates that Islamic State territory ‘encompasses some 4,500 archaeological sites [comprend quelques 4500 sites archéologiques]’.

“Protective custody” of cultural property… for the protection of public morals

Mosul Islamist Ghanem al-Abed told Niqash that statues had been ‘removed but they have not been destroyed‘ (yet). Ba’athist Islamist Naqshbandi Army fighter Jamal Abdallah ‘confirm[ed]’ that some statues had ‘just been removed because they were too visible’, and would therefore be held in some form of protective custody to preserve public morals, but that other statues, shrines and tombs would be demolished.

Mosul calligrapher Abdallah Ismail reported that, on the 19th of June, Islamic State fighters ‘removed’ the statue of poet Abu Tammam from the Bab al-Toub neighbourhood of Mosul. According to Niqash and the Hindu, the Islamic State also ‘removed‘ the statue to Ottoman poet Mullah Othman al-Musili from the al-Mahata neighbourhood of Mosul.

[Update (15th July 2014): Gilgamesh Nabeel has posted video of the empty plinth of Othman al-Musili in the Facebook group for Endangered Heritage Sites in Iraq.]

Calligrapher Ismail noted that the Islamic State ‘ha[d]n’t done anything to statues like the Assyrian winged bull,… which look far more like idol worship than these other monuments’. But that is probably because the IS already has control of and immediate access to Mosul Museum. I find it very difficult to believe that antiquities are being tracked down and confiscated for safekeeping…

The Islamic State has ‘seized inventory lists’ of exceptional antiquities across Mosul Province. Inevitably, according to an employee of the Department of Manuscripts in Mosul central library, while non-state plunder is punishable by amputation of limbs, rare historic manuscripts – mostly Islamic texts – have ‘disappeared‘ from that library and the charitable Sunni Awqaf Library. And they appear to have been smuggled to/through Turkey.

According to the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Amel Shamon Nona, on the 1st and 2nd of July, ‘armed groups raided the Syriac Orthodox Church of St. Ephrem and the Syrian Catholic Church dedicated to St. Paul. The raid lasted about ten minutes, and the cross at the altar has been removed from the Syrian Orthodox Church.’

(However, somewhat bizarrely, the Vatican’s news agency, Agenzia Fides, promotes suspicions of ‘a tacit convergence of interests’ and ‘an unwritten pact of non-aggression between Kurds and Sunni insurgents’. Kurds have repeatedly been attacked and have protected Christian communities. Kurdish Democratic Party official Sarbas Babiri has reassured Christian communities: ‘the Peshmerga will not desert them, no matter what happens’. In fact, there is convincing evidence of a pact between the Assadist regime and the Islamic State. So, the agency’s news is not necessarily reliable…)

Safekeeping, sale or annihilation?

As I reported before, there is no evidence that artefacts in Mosul Museum/Nineveh Museum have been damaged or destroyed yet. But their survival or obliteration is subject to the whim of the Islamic State. Iraqi officials have stated that the Islamic State itself has ‘padlocked the doors of Mosul Museum and… await[s] a fatwa, or Islamic judicial ruling, on whether to destroy‘ the artefacts inside.

Especially in light of the Islamic State’s behaviour towards cultural heritage workers, its destruction of the historic artefacts in Mosul Museum and elsewhere appears to be only a matter of time. Despite my pessimism, it is still worth noting that, on the 1st of July, Baghdad resident Taha Ala (@taha_ala) lamented: ‘It seems that every day must be ended with a bad news ! #isis has just break into the safe of the assyrian treasures at mousl museum [Mosul Museum]!’ He provided no evidence, and no evidence has emerged (but the museum is under the control of the Islamic State).

As we await either a remarkable change in the development of the conflict, or the mass destruction of material evidence of politically-unacceptable pasts and vulnerable communities’ histories, it is ever more important to challenge antiquities collectors’ excuses. They insinuate that antiquities would be better smuggled than burned, better saved in the West than lost in the East. But the threatening armed groups are in control of those territories and of the plunder of museums and archaeological sites in those territories. The smuggling pays for the burning.

If collectors “rescued” the threatened antiquities by buying them, they would necessarily buy the threatened antiquities from either the threatening armed groups or their partners-in-crime, so they would fund the threatening armed groups. They would fund the ethnic cleansing of vulnerable minority communities, because they would pay for some places to be looted and for other places to be destroyed. And they would fund the repression of majority society, because their purchases would provide wages for fighters and money for weapons.


1: the Islamic State/Caliphate used to be known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – or, in Arabic, Da’ash, Da’esh or Da’ish.

2: Ali ‘Izz al-Din Ibn al-Athir al-Jazari’s name is also transliterated as Ezzedine Abi al-Hassan al-Jazari, and he is also known as Ibn al-Atheer al-Jazari.

17 Responses to “the least out-of-date news on looting and destruction in Iraq”

  1. Sadly, it appears that the Shrine of Sheikh Fathi was destroyed not long after the local citizens came out to protect it. The second and third pictures in the “Report on the Demolition of Shrines and Idols” seem to show them coming out in the night and at least seriously damaging one side of it with a bulldozer.


  2. The Arabic captions on each of the images identify all of the buildings being destroyed. I was able to find a few of them (pre-destroyed) on Google Earth and confirm that they were the same structures.

    I translated all the names in the captions here:

    Some of the buildings pictured being destroyed I can find no information on whatsoever, besides the pictures in the ISIS report. There are also reports of buildings (mostly Shia mosques in Tal Afar) being destroyed that are not pictured in the report. I admit my knowledge of the architecture area is deficient so I am not sure if they are simply other names for structures pictured in the report.



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