Maltai, Dohuk, KRG, Iraq: Peshmerga have not used ancient Assyrian art for target practice

[Evidently, it is necessary for me to explain: yes, I do object to nationalists who vandalise cultural property; and yes, I am concerned with the suffering of the Assyrian community, as I am with the suffering of other civilian communities. In my work on state crime, I have highlighted how plunder of cultural property was a constituent element of the genocide of Assyrians.]

Based on multiple media reports and social media comments, I tweeted that Peshmerga had ‘practiced shooting and painted [a] flag on [the] ancient Assyrian city of Khenis (Dohuk, KRG, Iraq)’. Thankfully, Simone Muehl quickly pointed out that this was wrong.

A note of explanation

For readers who are new to this blog, I wrote this post to correct misinformation about the destruction of cultural property, because such misinformation worsens community relations and thereby endangers lives. For activists from any community, no, I will not become your mouthpiece. I work on trafficking and I am returning to that work.

I should also point out that I did not look for the comments that I have included in this post. Looking for information about the vandalism, in order to document the crime against the Assyrian community, I found comments on the vandalism. Especially due to the false information, I judged that the comments were important, as they demonstrated the impact of misinformation on community relations.

I absolutely recognise that there are nationalist and aggressive Kurds, as there are nationalist and aggressive individuals and groups within every community. The comments that are discussed here are reactions to a specific incident; they are not representative of any community (beyond the nationalist community). Nonetheless, they are genuine evidence of harm from misinformation about cultural property crime.

Due to the complaints and accusations, I ran the searches again. It was a limited but nonetheless scientific sample. I searched for “Kurdish” or “Kurd(s)” and “Assyrian(s)” on Twitter and “Kurds”, “Assyrians”, “flag” and “Iraq” in Google since the news broke. The searches are reproducible and the findings are checkable.

As further evidence of the problem with misinformation, despite the expert testimony of an archaeologist who knows the site and who has explained that the “bullet holes” are natural holes, “Assyria” (@KingSargon26) opined, ‘loool “it [the paint] can be washed off” what a joke.. what about the bullets holes can they be filled up?’ Much like harm to cultural property, harm to community relations can never be completely undone.

Original post

I don’t know who or what his sources were. And I don’t know what “deliberate damage” was supposed to include. But Associated Press reporter Sinan Salaheddin relayed apparent evidence of ‘[d]eliberate damage to [the] ruins of [the] Assyrian city Khenis[/Khinnis] in #Iraq’s #KRG. It was built around 700 BC by King Sennacherib.’ He did not repost the “before” image or repeat the claims about target practice that I fact-check here.

'Deliberate damage to ruins of Assyrian city Khenis in #Iraq's #KRG. It was built around 700 BC by King Sennacherib.' (c) Sinan Salaheddin, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 A

‘Deliberate damage to ruins of Assyrian city Khenis in #Iraq’s #KRG. It was built around 700 BC by King Sennacherib.’
(c) Sinan Salaheddin, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 A

'Deliberate damage to ruins of Assyrian city Khenis in #Iraq's #KRG. It was built around 700 BC by King Sennacherib.' (c) Sinan Salaheddin, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 B

‘Deliberate damage to ruins of Assyrian city Khenis in #Iraq’s #KRG. It was built around 700 BC by King Sennacherib.’
(c) Sinan Salaheddin, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 B

'Deliberate damage to ruins of Assyrian city Khenis in #Iraq's #KRG. It was built around 700 BC by King Sennacherib.' (c) Sinan Salaheddin, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 C

‘Deliberate damage to ruins of Assyrian city Khenis in #Iraq’s #KRG. It was built around 700 BC by King Sennacherib.’
(c) Sinan Salaheddin, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 C

'Deliberate damage to ruins of Assyrian city Khenis in #Iraq's #KRG. It was built around 700 BC by King Sennacherib.' (c) Sinan Salaheddin, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 D

‘Deliberate damage to ruins of Assyrian city Khenis in #Iraq’s #KRG. It was built around 700 BC by King Sennacherib.’
(c) Sinan Salaheddin, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 D

When I looked for more information, I found complementary reports from the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) and citizens and believed that they had been corroborated. So, I repeated them. Thankfully, Simone Muehl noticed my repetition of the claim and pointed out: ‘The holes are natural and not new. They are already visible on photographs from 1914 (W. Bachmann (1927), Felsreliefs in Assyrien)! I was there in 2010 and nothing has changed apart from the the grafitty [graffiti] vandalism which you can see on many reliefs in the region.’

What happened?

The beginning

The UK Consul General to the Kurdistan Region and Northern Iraq, Angus McKee, shared a photo of tomb art at Qizqapan/Qyzqapan/Seríserd, which he presented as a symbol of reconciliation. When she saw spray-painting on it, Kurdish Syrian archaeologist Hellen Almoustafa commented that they ‘should be more aware about vandalism and graffiti’.

Even though Hellen was civil and concerned, the reaction was immediately insulting. “Assyrian” (@ashooretah) categorised Kurds as aggressive ‘occupiers’ and offered empty sympathy that Kurds had ‘no history’. Freelance photographer Adam Mirani replied by sharing a photo, which apparently showed that the ‘Maltai Assyrian relief in Duhok [had] recently [been] vandalized as well’.

Adam Mirani’s photograph was republished by the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), which noted that, in 2006, ‘a team from the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project [ISDP] visited the site and reported that it had been used for target practice by Kurdish soldiers’.

As AINA’s original report explained, the ISDP was ‘a special project launched by the [international but] Chicago-based Assyrians [sic – Assyrian] Academic Society’, and it had ‘noted bullet holes, indicating that the reliefs have been used for target practice‘.

The Chair of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) and member of the Board of Advisers of the Assyrian Academic Society, Donny George Youkhanna, judged that local development works had not damaged the sculptures. Comparing the photos of the site with his memories of the site, George judged that ‘there must have been some new shooting, because there [had] been new chipping on the sculpture’.

The middle

Excluding the pre-conflict date of the apparent shooting, Assyrian activists such as Thomas Ashur decried: ‘Disgusting. Kurds vandalize ancient #Assyrian reliefs in Nohadra (Dohuk) after using it for target practice.’ Sharo-Kinu encouraged people to repost the image: ‘This is why I’m skeptical of the Kurdish regime! Kurds vandalizing Ancient Assyrian artifacts!!’

[Max J. Joseph, who had also said that the “occupiers” were ‘hateful and jealous’ (of Assyrian history), judged that it was ‘behaviour similar to ISIS‘.] Assyrian Voice proclaimed, ‘Kurds vandalize Assyrian reliefs. Not much different from what ISIS did to our artifacts in Nineveh last year.’]

[The Chairman of the American Mesopotamian Organization, David William Lazar, cried out against ‘#Kurds vandalizing #Assyrian heritage site just like #ISIS did before!’ Ashoor considered that ‘what these uneducated idiots are doing and what ISIS did last year by smashing our artifacts in Nineveh…. are more or less the same thing’.]

[Bershae Sargon sarcastically presented ‘#Kurds showing their respect for Assyrians via land they stole through planned genocide’. Citing a report by the Assyrian Democratic Movement (Zowaa), Ruba Ali al-Hassani presented ‘Cultural #genocide by #Kurdish parties against #Assyrian #heritage’.]

Occupied Assyria repeated, ‘Kurds vandalize Assyrian heritage in Nohadra (Dohuk) by painting a Kurdish flag on ancient reliefs after using it for target practice’. Unfortunately, there and elsewhere, the apparent evidence brought out the nationalism and bigotry that one might expect and fear.

[Simon said: ‘Kurds claim to protect #Assyrians. I guess that doesnt include our heritage, since they want to fabricate their own.’ Joe25 argued: ‘These are the true faces of the Kurds. A gypsy people of thieves with no true herritage [sic – heritage] and historic civilization. It is no surprise that this is how they react towards people who do have exactly those things.’ Kelba suggested that ‘Kurds’ were ‘going back to their natural state of being destructive towards culture and civilized society’.]

The discussion may have been particularly bitter because some people believed that the large hole was the product of a violent attack. Some people, such as Huaida, claimed to show photos of ‘Before and after kurdish militia barbarian actions against Assyrian relief in Nohadra (Duhok)’.

'Before and after kurdish militia barbarian actions against Assyrian relief in Nohadra (Duhok)' (Huaida, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 A)

‘Before and after kurdish militia barbarian actions against Assyrian relief in Nohadra (Duhok)’
(Huaida, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 A)

'Before and after kurdish militia barbarian actions against Assyrian relief in Nohadra (Duhok)' (Huaida, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 B)

‘Before and after kurdish militia barbarian actions against Assyrian relief in Nohadra (Duhok)’
(Huaida, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 B)

'Before and after kurdish militia barbarian actions against Assyrian relief in Nohadra (Duhok)' (Huaida, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 C)

‘Before and after kurdish militia barbarian actions against Assyrian relief in Nohadra (Duhok)’
(Huaida, Twitter, 23rd February 2016 C)

[Since Ishtar Toma objected to my characterisation of the discussion, I have added a few more of the English-language comments that I have seen (and there were similar comments in other languages too). For instance, Neon appealed: ‘May our gods smite those who did this. #Comeuppance.’ “Assyrian” (@ashooretah) observed ‘the only thing about this is that the flag is painted under the Assyrian kings feet, where it b—— [belongs]’.]

The end

The “rectangular-framed” carvings are at Maltai, where they depict king Sennacherib venerating Assyrian gods. Simone identified the “arch-framed” carvings as ones at nearby, but separate, Bavian/Bawian; they have also been damaged by ancient tombs, natural holes that look like bullet holes, and graffiti.

The large holes were not the products of violent attacks or ignorant military training exercises. As Simone Muehl explained to me in a message (and as Zainab Bahrani had recorded on Archmap), in the first to third centuries C.E., the local community cut through two panels to make tombs. The larger, finished tomb is the hole in these photos. Looter-dealers cut out part of a third panel (in the 1920s?); part of the third figure in the third panel is now in the National Museum in Baghdad.

[‘One group is broken by the door of a hermit’s cell and another by a niche hollowed out’, Gertrude Bell wrote in her diary, on the 9th of May 1909. Albeit more recent photographs show the site within the landscape, the entrance (which Michael Press kindly pointed out and which is also recorded in a reversed 3D scan), and the curve of the interior carving.]

Furthermore, the “before” image shows a completely different carving. (The carving of the “frame” is different; the figures in the frame are different; the weathering and staining of the stone is different…) Huaida had lifted the “before” image from Christopher Jones on the Gates of Nineveh, who had got it (with permission and understanding) from Paolo Brusasco on the Iraq Crisis listserv.

The flag was painted on the wall, but the other claims are false (or misrepresented). They are being used to fuel violent nationalism and must stop.

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9 Comments to “Maltai, Dohuk, KRG, Iraq: Peshmerga have not used ancient Assyrian art for target practice”

  1. Wait so at the end of the day Kurds (whether sanctioned by the KRG or not, painted and vandalized an ancient Assyrian site-target practice aside. This latest issue deals with the flag, which is what has brought the issue to fore. Since that is the case, a handful of Assyrians and non Assyriana criticizing the Kurds for doing this and the KRG for not protecting ancient sites is violent nationalism according to you but ACTUALLY vandalizing a side that’s 2400 years old ISN’T?

    Kurdish payrolls must be rolling out big $$ now a days. At least do a decent job at TRYING to be equally critical.

    Pathetic. You’ve entirely detracted from way has happened by downplaying spray painting a nationalist symbol on an ancient site that doesn’t belong to the government running it now.

    • I do not work for Kurds and have never worked for Kurds. I have never worked in Iraq or even been to Iraq.

      I have not downplayed the vandalism. I have corrected misinformation and put the genuine bad news in proper perspective.

      Surely, you don’t think that it is unreasonable for me to distinguish between ignorant individuals who have painted a flag on a wall (which can be cleaned) and a genocidal terrorist organisation?

  2. The tone of your article is hostile, condescending, dismissive of Assyrians and their feelings. If you had no agenda or bias, you would have written an objective piece, just pointing out the errors (if any) without accusing Assyrians of “nationalism and bigotry.” But you did not, so your opinion and bias are revealed. Even if you are correct about the bullet holes, and you probably are, your inflammatory language has caused your message to be tuned out. As the saying goes, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

    • I’m an atheist who documents destruction of cultural property and trafficking of antiquities. I have made a point of researching the genocide of Assyrians and showing how that genocide was financed by the theft and sale of Assyrians’ cultural property. What supposedly anti-Assyrian bias do I have?

      I did not accuse “Assyrians” of anything at all. I accused people who used “Gypsies” as an insult, and who called Kurds naturally destructive thieves who had no culture or history, of nationalism and bigotry.

  3. So much hatred in the comments of the Assyrians in this post. It is a shame that Assyrian are being protected, respected in the KRG, and the vast majority of them have much much better lives than the majority of Kurds, and yet they have so much hatred for Kurds – not that they should be grateful, it is their natural right as citizens of this country, this region, to be respected and protected like everybody else. But they should at least be also respectful when it comes to such sensitive matters. [I wonder if most of those, if not all, Assyrians who unleashed such hatred, are actually Assyrians who do not live in Kurdistan, or probably have never lived in Kuridstan among the Kurds? the most racist comments usually comes from those Assyrians living in Europe and the US]

    And let me make this clear that I am against the destruction of not only Assyria artifacts, but any historic, cultural artifacts. And the flag painted on the panel should be washed off, and if possible whoever did that should be brought to justice.

    And I assure you no Kurd is trying to “fabricate” a history of Kurds on the expense of Assyrians. I am from Erbil, and I am very proud of the city’s different civilizations including the Assyrian civilization which is probably the most important one of all the city has seen. We are proud of our own Kurdish history and culture, but we will never steal anyone’s history simply because we know it is not ours and we cannot boast of some sort of history or civilization which we know – and the rest of the world knows – is not ours.

    I have Assyrian friends and I love them. As a Kurd I am trying to understand them more, and learn more about them even though we live together in the same city, same community.

    Peace to all.

  4. So much hatred in the comments of the Assyrians in this post. It is a shame that Assyrian are being protected, respected in the KRG, and the vast majority of them have much much better lives than the majority of Kurds, and yet they have so much hatred for Kurds – not that they should be grateful, it is their natural right as citizens of this country, this region, to be respected and protected like everybody else. But they should at least be also respectful when it comes to such sensitive matters. [I wonder if most of those, if not all, Assyrians who unleashed such hatred, are actually Assyrians who do not live in Kurdistan, or probably have never lived in Kurdistan among the Kurds? the most racist comments usually comes from those Assyrians living in Europe and the US]

    And let me make this clear that I am against the destruction of not only Assyria artifacts, but any historic, cultural artifacts. And the flag painted on the panel should be washed off, and if possible whoever did that should be brought to justice.

    And I assure you no Kurd is trying to “fabricate” a history of Kurds on the expense of Assyrians. I am from Erbil, and I am very proud of the city’s different civilizations including the Assyrian civilization which is probably the most important one of all the city has seen. We are proud of our own Kurdish history and culture, but we will never steal anyone’s history simply because we know it is not ours and we cannot boast of some sort of history or civilization which we know – and the rest of the world knows – is not ours.

    I have Assyrian friends and I love them. As a Kurd I am trying to understand them more, and learn more about them even though we live together in the same city, same community.

    Peace to all.

  5. Hi Sam,
    found your blog when looking for information about Khanis and Maltai. I live in Iraqi Kurdistan myself and had the pleasure of visiting Khanis yesterday. Beautiful remains, if even very little.

  6. Hello, just chiming in from Duhok. Went hiking to see the reliefs this weekend with a group of local youth and some expat friends. It was my first time going there since last year – when there was no flag graffiti. As of yesterday (9Apr16), there are two Kurdish flags spraypainted (happy to provide pics).

    The good news about the vandalism is that most of it (most) is not on the carvings itself. So it might be possible to investigate graffiti removal.

    That said, it’s important to realize that the local Directorate of Antiquities (DoA) has done nothing to preserve this site or raise awareness about them and their historic importance. We’re going to see if we can talk to some motivated youth here, including those from our hike, to see if there might be a way to organize an awareness-raising and advocacy campaign focused on the need to protect and preserve sites like the reliefs.

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