[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.
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.
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.’
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’.
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)’.
[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 “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.