The plains of Ashur and Nineveh: communities and their ancient lands are at risk

It’s difficult to say anything when cooperating groups are issuing contradictory official statements, when vehemently denied claims can become real new actions within hours. (For example, I suspect that some of the false reports of international air strikes were attempts to guilt-trip or hurry the international community into action, by forcing them to deny that they were protecting civilian communities from genocide, and others were well-informed people jumping the gun.) The situation had changed between me starting and finishing this post, had changed yet again between me finishing and being able to publish it, and will have changed yet again between me posting it and you reading it.

Particularly in an environment of panic and propaganda, I’m very reluctant to post anything prospective (or even contemporary). Nonetheless, it may help to highlight a few possibilities concerning cultural property, with which we can compare developments, in order to work out what’s happening.

Ancient communities and their cultural property are at exceptional risk

Since the 2nd of August, the Islamic State (1) has widened its war with the Kurdistan Region (as well as continued its war with the rest of the Iraqi state and in Syria, and tested its other borders). On the 6th, it declared that the decision of the ‘[Kurdish] coalition with the Safavid Shia [Shiites] and the cross worshippers [Christians] to attack the Sunni Muslims to stop them from their “project” to create an Islamic state [had] resulted in all the Mujahideen standing up and fighting back’.

On the 6th, the Islamic State took Makhmur and Gwer. As Simone Mühl has explained elsewhere, the plain of Makhmur is the land of Ashur. By the 7th, according to photojournalist Benjamin Hiller, the Nineveh plains were ‘almost entirely unprotected by the Peshmerga Forces’, because they had made a tactical retreat, which had led to yet ‘another refugee wave’ of Assyrians, Êzidîs, Shabaks, Kurds, Shia Turkmens and others from Qaraqosh (2), Tal Kayf (3) and elsewhere.

On the 7th, a Shia mosque in Kirkuk was attacked with two car bombs; they killed at least six, injured at least 40 and wrecked the mosque. The Islamic State occupied Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh. Now, Erbil Citadel is near the front line, the flow of displacement has started to run from Erbil city too.(4) Even the oil companies are moving out. As an archaeologist who has worked in Kurdistan said, ‘now you know that things are fucked’. The simultaneously realistic and dangerous suspicion of Islamic State sleeper cells amongst the displaced persons is setting in amongst the Kurdish locals in the city.

Genocidal threat

(As I will eventually explain in a long post of its own…) This is one of the reasons that I sleepily blurted out to the Washington Post that the Islamic State was a threat to ‘basically pretty much anything in the Bible‘ (which made the Center for Law and Religion Forum understandably but incorrectly assume that I believed that the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah was an attack on the Christian community). All of these ancient lands from earliest history, and the remains of their development through the ages, are at risk of plunder or destruction.

As is shown by the Caliphate’s commitment to genocide of “heretic” and “infidel” minorities, Yezidi, Shabaki, Turkmen, Alevi and Shia cultural properties and community places are at extreme risk. Sufi places may be [might have been] at less immediate risk [in the past] because of tactical cooperation between the Islamic State and Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), but IS has even targeted Sunni cultural heritage, so any tolerance would only be [ever have been] a temporary reprieve [and JRTN has cut any ties with IS]. As ever, I am not prioritising these places over their inhabitants, but these places will help their inhabitants to survive and recover culturally, socially and economically.

[Update (10th August 2014): I originally excluded JRTN and its activist Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq‘s denunciations of cultural destruction, because they alleged that it was a programme of false flag operations by the ‘sectarian government’. However, Iraqi and Syrian specialist Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi has translated JRTN’s full statement and, conspiracy theory aside, it is an unequivocal rejection of the Islamic State’s ethnic cleansing and genocide: ‘bombing, forced displacements, or explosions that have hit holy sites… and civilizational and cultural landmarks [are] an act of hostility to be rejected and a disgraceful act of terrorism…. racist…. contrary to Scripture and the Sunna, and the greatest crime that infringes on the customs of the people, their beliefs and holy sites, and a gross violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’]

In relation to its military aggression and success or failure, the Islamic State’s engagement in cultural destruction may reveal its perceptions of its own situation: destruction may be an act of eradication, a means of ethnic-religious cleansing and weakening of resistance through mental torture, a declaration of conquest, or an attempt to attract fighters and funds. So, the study of destruction might inform strategies for the protection of civilian communities (and it will support prosecution of war criminals).

Hypocrisy undermines faith

For example, the Caliphate appears to have destroyed the Shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, but not the Shrine of Sherfedin, though both of them are in Sinjar, and the Islamic State would not suffer any significant military disadvantage if it sent a minimal crew on simple demolition jobs. And it has bombed the Shia mosque in Kirkuk, which proves (if further proof was needed) that its violence is about terrorism as much as Islamism.

As Christopher Jones highlighted in relation to the Caliphate’s choice to profit from conflict antiquities rather than destroy the supposedly sinful idols, extremists’ ‘attraction to ISIS’ ideology could be broken if ISIS are shown to be hypocrites‘; and the Caliphate’s selective, stylised, publicity-conscious violence against cultural property is even more visibly inconsistent. Though pointing out crimes that a genocidal state has not committed might be seen as a risky strategy, the Caliphate knows what it is doing, and the exposure of hypocrisy might stem the flow of fighters and funds to the Islamic State and thereby curtail the conflict.

Potential permanent threats to civilian communities and archaeological workers

Simone Muehl highlighted the harms of depleted uranium and wished in Endangered Heritage Sites in Iraq,

let’s hope that certain weapons will not be used, and haven’t been used by others. Vast areas in southern Iraq already suffer from contamination by remains of Uranium ammunition from the last intervention. Long term health of the population and also the health of future archaeologists who, hopefully sooner than later, will work on the ground on damage assessment and scientific work about the cultural heritage in Iraq are also important. Survey people know well, that it is not always possible to foresee, what you pick up and hold in your hands. Of those weapons only the splinters will do enough to people’s health.(5)

Evidence of harm abounds despite cover-ups. Like residents and archaeologists poisoned by mafias’ illegal dumping of toxic waste in Italy, people exposed to depleted uranium in Iraq will suffer and die long after any conflict is resolved.


1: The Islamic State is also known as the Caliphate, Da’ash, Da’esh, Da’ish, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

2: Locally known as Qaraqosh, it is officially known as Bakhdida, and it is also known as Baghdeda, Qara Chauq, Qaraqoush, Karakosh and Al-Hamdaniya.

3: Erbil is also known as Arbil and Irbil (and was once known as Arbela).

4: Locally known as Tal Kayf, it is officially known as Tel Keppe, and it is also known as Tel Keipeh, Tal Kepe and Tal Kaif.

5: I corrected a typo of “decontamination” to “contamination”.

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