On Sunday night, more than 8,000 books and manuscripts were destroyed after ISIS militants bombed Mosul’s Central Library, The Fiscal Times reported. Ghanim al-Ta’an, the director of the library, said that some onlookers’ pleas to spare the library were ignored. Built in 1921, the building held one of the oldest historical archives in the city, with works dating back to the Ottoman Empire. Its website has since been suspended.
“I cry today over our situation,” Mosul-based activist and blogger Rayan al-Hadidi told the newspaper.
The tragic fire was ISIS’s second assault on the institution, according to the Associated Press. In January, militants broke into the library and filled empty flour bags with 2,000 books that filled six trucks. They included 18th-century manuscripts, 19th-century Syriac books published by Iraq’s first printing house, rare manuscripts from the Ottoman era, early-20th century Iraqi newspapers, and the valuable collections of more than 100 elite Mosul families. The fighters reportedly told onlookers, “These books promote infidelity and call for disobeying Allah. So they will be burned.” ISIS made it a capital crime to try to hide or preserve such books.
That same month, the group’s militants burned hundreds of books on science and culture in front of students at the University of Mosul library. They also destroyed collections at a Sunni Muslim library, the Mosul Museum Library (which has works dating back to 5,000 BCE), and the library of the 265-year-old Latin Church and Monastery of the Dominican Fathers. In the al-Anbar province of Western Iraq, local officials have reported that ISIS has burned over 100,000 books.
These events represent the latest efforts in ISIS’s campaign to cleanse culture in Iraq and Syria of anything that does not align with its radical ideology. They go hand-in-hand with the destruction of countless archaeological sites, as well as the public burning of musical instruments like modern drum sets.
Responding to the reports, UNESCO released the following statement in early February:
This destruction marks a new phase in the cultural cleansing perpetrated in regions controlled by armed extremists in Iraq … It adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people.
It added that, if confirmed, the burnings would represent “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history.” The Fiscal Times also noted that the burnings comprise the largest assault on cultural heritage in Iraq since the Mongol invaders burned the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and its collections in 1258. The news feels especially bitter given Iraq’s status as the birthplace of writing, with cuneiform having been developed by the ancient Sumerians in the 4th millennium BCE. It places ISIS in the ranks of the Nazi regime and Spanish conquistadors, all whom sought to kill culture by wiping out words.
The true fate of some of these books remains uncertain, though. The London-based Arabic newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi theorized that the burning of Mosul’s Central Library was actually a cover to distract from the looting and selling of rare manuscripts on the black market. A Baghdad bookseller told the publication he’d heard from fellow booksellers that ISIS fighters were only burning “normal” books. And a professor at the University of Mosul told the AP that ISIS fighters had arrived at the school in the middle of the night and carted away chunks of its library collection in refrigerated trucks with Syrian license plates. The sale of looted artifacts, principally antiquities, has become a major source of funds for ISIS.
But whatever comfort the potential survival of some of these books may bring, the destruction of the collections and buildings will likely prove unforgivable to the people of Iraq.