Mosul: no petrol, no salaries and only two hours of electricity a day – ‘we are dying a slow death’

Lamia Al Gailani Werr has shared more news from Mosul. Eleanor Robson (@Eleanor_Robson) has already tweeted the key points, and the news is fully archived on the Iraq Crisis listserv, but that is unreadable to machines, so I’m going to summarise it here and add some notes. The most important thing is that, so far, all of the archaeologists are “okay” (although, obviously, definitions of “okay” may vary…).

‘We are dying a slow death’

‘No petrol, no salaries and only two hours of electricity each day’ in Mosul: ‘We are dying a slow death.’ There is ‘constant’ bombing. Allegedly, the bombing is being done by Iranian planes.

Certainly, Iranian pilot Shoja’at Alamdari Mourjani was killed while ‘defending’ a Shia shrine in Samarra. But he might have been serving as a footsoldier on the ground. And the planes might have been annexed and repatriated or owned and sold by Iran, rather than employed by the Iranian Air Force.

The museums are being guarded, but to what end?

According to locals, ‘the rebels are mostly from the tribes around Mosul’. ‘Mosul museum is being guarded by masked fighters, two or three of the museum staff are working there, they have been asked by the guards to remove the statues and put them in storage until further instructions.’

Fighters told museum staff that their artefacts were ‘against Islam’; the Islamic State(1) officially announced that ‘false idols’ – anything iconic, anything that could be worshipped, anything that was Shia – would be destroyed; and fighters told museum staff that they were only ‘awaiting instructions… to destroy these statues‘.

Is the Islamic State going to destroy everything to signal Zero Hour, or to declare victory, or to capitalise on a slow news day? Is it going to hold a gun to the statues’ heads to goad and frighten Western audiences? Is it going to display mass destruction to deter investigation, then quietly sell off masterpieces? Only time will tell.

Christian cultural property has not been destroyed

‘No churches’ have been ‘demolished except for one’, which was ‘just being built’ and was still an ’empty’ ‘skeleton’. Apparently, the police had ‘stored their ammunition inside’, when the ‘rebels’ ‘bombed’ it.

That sounds very much like the uncertain story of the Church of St. Etchmiadzin. According to the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, jihadists attacked the army base next to the church. And, according to an Armenian source in Kirkuk, a car bomb outside caused the fire damage to the church. Detonation of ammunition would certainly explain any damage. However, neither the archbishop nor my source claimed that the church had been bombed or destroyed.

Non-conformist Islamic cultural property and community property has been demolished

The only Sunni targets have been the ‘modern’ buildings and ‘restored’ (replicated) shrines of Abbasid Ibn al-Athir (Qabr al-Bint) and of Sheikh Fathi (though Fathi’s shrine dated to the Eighteenth Century and its mihrabs to the Thirteenth Century). ‘No other Sunni shrine has been damaged.’ ‘Shia shrines… are the [primary] victims: ‘most’ had been ‘newly constructed’, ‘built after 2003’. The Islamic State has ‘also demolished the houses of senior government officials, such as [that of] the governor’.

Shia Turkmen shrines and mosques have been obliterated in Guba, Shireekhan and Tal Afar, including sites that were holy to Christians and Yezidis as well as Shia Muslims. The Islamic State has also attacked the al-Askari mosque in Samarra.

There has been collateral damage, but not to archaeological sites

‘One worry is the Shrine of Imam Yahya al-Qassim… and nearby the ruins of Bash Tabia. The government planes have been constantly bombing a building about fifty meters away from these sites. The building was a medical centre, which belonged to the Ministry of Health…. [In] Nineveh, one archaeologist is living there, he has reported that nothing has been damaged. He has not heard of any damage to Hatra.’

Considering that other archaeologists have testified that the Islamic State is using bulldozers and strip-mining archaeological sites throughout its territory, is it focusing on minor or remote sites in order to minimise reporting of its looting (which would ease illicit sale and hide hypocritical profiteering from supposed idolatry)?

That would suggest that it believes that its conflict antiquities trading could harm its reputation and power. If so, that would suggest that documentation and education regarding the conflict antiquities trade could weaken the Islamic State’s authority and support and ease progress towards peace.

Preparations for Zero Hour

The National Museum of Iraq has started to ‘move antiquities from upper rooms into basement stores’ and introduce ‘new security measures‘.

The new security measures will certainly help to protect cultural property from collateral damage during any fighting, but they may not help much if the Islamic State conquers Baghdad. (Could Mali’s success be repeated?)


1: the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); in Arabic, Da’ash, Da’esh or Da’ish.

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