Members of ISIS destroying ancient statues in the Mosul Museum (animated gif by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Members of ISIS destroying ancient statues in the Mosul Museum (all GIFs by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

A video released on Thursday by ISIS shows members of the terrorist organization destroying ancient Assyrian artifacts at Iraq’s Mosul Museum and the nearby Nineveh archaeological site. The disturbing footage shows men toppling statues, smashing them with sledgehammers, and breaking them apart with drills and jackhammers.

A large a bull-man sculpture being excavated at Niveneh in 1990 (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

A large a bull-man sculpture being excavated at Nineveh in 1990 (photo via Wikimedia Commons) (click to enlarge)

“The prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues,” a spokesman for ISIS says at the beginning of the video, according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute. “This is what his companions did later on when they conquered lands. Since Allah commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey and we do not care [what people think], even if this costs billions of dollars.”

The video begins inside the Mosul Museum, which ISIS has occupied since last summer, when it first threatened to destroy the collection. Considered the country’s second most important museum, after the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the institution houses many artifacts dating back to the city’s heyday as the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The museum, which like many of Iraq’s institutions was looted after the US invasion in 2003, was on the verge of reopening following an extensive renovation when ISIS took control of Mosul in June 2014.

The interior of the Mosul Museum (video screenshot by the author)

The interior of the Mosul Museum (video screenshot by the author)

The latter portion of the video shows the destruction of sculptures at the Nineveh archaeological site directly across the Tigris river from Mosul. While many of the large-winged figures and bas-reliefs that used to adorn the ancient site have made their way into the collections of the West’s most prestigious museums — including the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum, and the Louvre — others remained at the site, whose ancient gates have also been preserved. The ISIS video shows men using drills and sledgehammers to destroy at least three tall statues of winged and bearded figures, some of which date back to the 7th century BCE. The large sculptures adorned the gates of the ancient city.

According to an ISIS spokesperson at the beginning of the video, the artworks were “the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshiped instead of Allah.” The group has been known to smuggle antiquities out of Iraq and Syria and sell them to fund its operations, but the decision to destroy rather than export the invaluable Mosul artifacts is part of ISIS’s mission to decimate shrines, buildings, and artworks that it views as heretical to its theology.

Members of ISIS destroying ancient statues in the Mosul Museum (animated gif by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Members of ISIS destroying ancient statues in the Mosul Museum

In a statement this afternoon, Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, expressed sadness and anger over ISIS’s actions:

Speaking with great sadness on behalf of the Metropolitan, a museum whose collection proudly protects and displays the arts of ancient and Islamic Mesopotamia, we strongly condemn this act of catastrophic destruction to one of the most important museums in the Middle East. The Mosul Museum’s collection covers the entire range of civilization in the region, with outstanding sculptures from royal cities such as Nimrud, Nineveh, and Hatra in northern Iraq. This mindless attack on great art, on history, and on human understanding constitutes a tragic assault not only on the Mosul Museum, but on our universal commitment to use art to unite people and promote human understanding. Such wanton brutality must stop, before all vestiges of the ancient world are obliterated.

Update, 7:11pm ET: Archaeologists told the UK’s Channel 4 that many if not all of the sculptures shown being smashed at the Mosul Museum are in fact replicas of the originals, most of which were moved to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in anticipation of a situation such as this one.

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Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

14 replies on “ISIS Destroys Mosul Museum Collection and Ancient Assyrian Statues [UPDATED]”

  1. This is a sad display of pathetic men vainly trying to destroy objects and cultural ideals. Each one lost only enhances the value of every object they have not touched.

    I’m going to a museum dammit!

    1. And what the Spanish did to America during the Renaissance, this is barbaric and unacceptable. It crushes my soul either.

  2. I love ancient history, archaeology, and their associated arts and relics as much as the next person, but i would find it insanely callous to cry about ancient art when a few hundred thousand people combatants and civilian alike, have died in a fairly small country over the last years. The international community has elected to let the massacre go on unchallenged. Isis thrives on that tragedy.

    As beautiful and important ancient art is, hundreds of actual human lives are extincted every day. Among them, artists, too. Musicians. Painters. Creators. Young and old. People our descendants might find as interesting as the ancient Assyrians are to us. Let’s not mistake the forest for the trees.

  3. ““The prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues,”
    Then your prophet is a destructive fuckwit.

  4. I cried my eyes out when that footage first surfaced but I am so happy to know that at least some of the exhibits survived

  5. Would anyone be so bold as to compare and contrast the dissenting artistic gestures of Ai Weiwei and ISIS’s recent acts of terrorism in the Mosul Museum? As a disclaimer, I’m not in any way calling Ai Weiwei a terrorist or condoning acts of terrorism (although you’re welcome to make the argument if you can justify your reasoning). Rather, I’m contemplating the subtle differences that distinguish productive-destruction from destructive-destruction. Is labeling acts of terrorism a matter of property rights? Or, is it a matter of perspective within a relationship of disproportionate power?


  7. When Isis destroy ancient monuments, it’s
    not always true that ‘people are more important’

    Civilized people balance the short-term interest of one
    generation against the values enshrined in the past, and the right of future
    generations to share that past

    People will sooner or later forget and forgive that scores
    of millions of babies are being murdered thru abortions worldwide, the many
    peoples are raped in India or the middle east, the abuses of authority in
    America, corporative global sale of weapons of mass destruction by Russia, the
    US, North Corea and Israel to other nations, and even other unkind regimes, the politically
    and religiously motivated genocides, how corrupt politicians and secret
    combinations of all sorts are plundering the rights and treasuries of respective
    their nations, but they will not forget or forgive when somebody overthrows
    their idols nor that steals the money from their altars.

    I don’t lose any sleep over broken stones, false gods, engraven
    images or idols, nothing of that will remain there or anywhere when the end of
    the world comes. As a matter of fact
    that is one thing I don’t regret. For, no
    statue of Mary, no wooden cross or statue of the LORD Jesus Christ, no painted
    image, no saintly monument, no esteemed picture, no high tower, no engraved
    image. For it is going according to the
    order and program of heaven; and the LORD has spoken it and commissioned us to
    declare it publicly and not conceal it saying:

    will utterly consume all things from
    off the land, saith the LORD.

    (Old Testament
    | Zephaniah 1:2)

    Babylon shall be destroyed and never rise
    again—Scattered Israel
    shall be brought again into the lands of her inheritance.

    word that the LORD spake against Babylon
    and against the land of the Chaldeans
    by Jeremiah the prophet.

    ye among the nations, and publish, and set up a standard; publish, and conceal not: say, Babylon is taken, Bel is confounded, Merodach
    is broken in pieces; her idols are confounded, her images are broken in pieces.

    out of the north there cometh up a nation against her, which shall make her
    land desolate, and none shall dwell therein: they shall remove, they shall
    depart, both man and beast.

    (Old Testament
    | Jeremiah 50:Heading – 3)

    And they shall waste the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod in the entrances
    thereof: thus shall he deliver us from the Assyrian, when he cometh into our
    land, and when he treadeth within our borders.

    Micah 5:6

    the day of the Lord of Hosts soon cometh upon all nations, yea, upon every one;
    yea, upon the proud and lofty, and upon every one who is lifted up, and he
    shall be brought low.

    and the day of the Lord shall come upon all the cedars of Lebanon, for they are
    high and lifted up; and upon all the oaks of Bashan;

    upon all the high mountains, and upon all the hills, and upon all the nations
    which are lifted up, and upon every people;

    upon every high tower, and upon every fenced wall;

    upon all the ships of the sea, and upon all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all
    pleasant pictures.

    the loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be
    made low; and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. And the idols he
    shall utterly abolish.

    And they shall go into the holes of the rocks,
    and into the caves of the earth, for the fear of the Lord shall come upon them
    and the glory of his majesty shall smite them, when he ariseth to shake
    terribly the earth.

    that day a man shall cast his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which he
    hath made for himself to worship, to the moles and to the bats;

    To go into the clefts of the rocks, and into
    the tops of the ragged rocks, for the fear of the Lord shall come upon them and
    the majesty of his glory shall smite them, when he ariseth to shake terribly
    the earth.

    ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils; for wherein is he to be accounted

    (Book of Mormon
    | 2 Nephi 12:12 – 22)

    I, even I, will bring a sword upon
    you, and I will destroy your high places. And your altars shall be desolate,
    and your images shall be broken: and I will cast down your slain men before your idols.

    (Old Testament
    | Ezekiel 6:3 – 4)

    Thus saith the Lord God; I will also destroy
    the idols, and I will cause their images to cease
    out of Noph; and there shall be no more a prince of the land
    of Egypt: and I will put a fear in the
    land of Egypt.

    Ezequiel 30:13

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