One week ago the world was shocked by a five-minute video posted online by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) showing its members toppling ancient statues inside the Mosul Museum, smashing them with sledgehammers, and pulverizing what remained with jackhammers. The destruction left scholars of Mesopotamia scrambling to figure out what exactly had been destroyed and what remained.
In some ways, the damage could have been worse. In April of 2003 around 1,500 smaller items in the museum were sent to Baghdad for safekeeping. A few of the items that remained, such as the Assyrian reliefs and the statues of Hercules and a seated goddess from the Roman-era desert city of Hatra, were replicas of originals kept in London or Baghdad.
Nevertheless, the losses are catastrophic. Five life-sized statues depicting kings of Hatra were smashed to bits. There are twenty-seven known statues of Hatrene kings, so this represents a loss of 15% of all such sculptures in existence. Three more life-sized statues of Hatrene noblemen and priests have likewise been destroyed, along with statues of Venus, Nike, and eagles and lions which once adorned Hatra’s temples.
Just as tragic are the loss of the four Assyrian stone lamassu, human-headed winged bulls which were installed in the Nergal Gate at Nineveh during the reign of Sennacherib sometime between 704 and 690 B.C. These were some of the few lamassu still installed at their original location, the same place where they had once greeted visitors to Nineveh over 2,700 years ago. Other lamassu survive on display in New York, Paris, London, Chicago, and Baghdad, but now only Nimrud and Susa retain lamassu at their original locations. (Recent reports indicate that the lamassu at Nimrud may have also been destroyed).
The media spokesman who narrates the video was quite explicit about why these artifacts were destroyed. According to a translation provided by MEMRI TV:
Oh Muslims, the remains that you see behind me are the idols of peoples of previous centuries, which were worshiped instead of Allah. The Assyrians, Akkadians, and others took for themselves gods of rain, of agriculture, and of war, and worshiped them along with Allah, and tried to appease them with all kinds of sacrifices.
Yet, when one takes stock of the items that were destroyed it is striking how few of them were actually depictions of gods. Of all the statues shown being shattered only four of them were actually depictions of deities: The statues of Venus and Nike, and the replica statues of the seated goddess and Hercules. At one point the video panned to a sign at the Nergal Gate and highlighted the section which identified Nergal as the god of the underworld, but the lamassu were not depictions of Nergal or any other deity but instead depicted protective spirits who guarded the doorway.
What’s more, several plaques depicting Hatrene gods and goddesses were shown early in the video, but at the end, when the camera pans through the rubble of the shattered museum, these plaques can be seen still hanging on the wall untouched.
But ISIS is quite open that their motives are not simply iconoclastic but also political. From later in the video:
The Prophet Muhammad shattered the idols with his own honorable hands, when he conquered Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad commanded us to shatter and destroy statues. This is what his companions did later on, when they conquered lands.
When Muhammad captured Mecca in 629 he famously destroyed the cult statues kept inside the Kaaba. In ISIS’ perverse logic, destroying physical evidence of the past serves to link themselves with an event from their own idealized version of the past.
In the Wahhabi ideology which informs ISIS, Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphs which followed him represent true Islam, and the embrace of classical philosophy and learning by the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties represents bid’ah or religious innovations that deviate from the teachings of the first Muslims.
Yet, when the early Muslims under Caliph Umar captured Egypt, they did not destroy the Sphinx or other clearly visible Egyptian antiquities. Churches in Jerusalem were respected rather than destroyed. Monks were left alone rather than expelled. ISIS’s videographer tries to rebut this objection, as towards the end of the video there is shown a photograph of the excavation of one of the lamassu with a caption stating that “These idols and statues were not visible in the days of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, but were extracted by the worshipers of devils.”
Furthermore, the influence of pre-Islamic cultures on Islam can be seen elsewhere. Al-Buraq, the legendary steed which carried Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem on his Night Journey, is traditionally depicted as a horse with wings and a human head, similar to the Assyrian lamassu which ISIS destroyed.
At this point it would be easy to simply mock ISIS as poor scholars of history. After all, its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was described as “a street thug” by US military officials, who gained most of his jihadist education not in a mosque but in a prison camp where he was confined for the majority of the Iraq War. But this obscures the purpose of ISIS’s actions: By erasing all evidence of both the pre-Islamic past and alternative interpretations of Islam, ISIS hopes to create a world where knowledge of any belief system except their own interpretation of Islam is forgotten forever.
As a result, the work of documenting what is lost takes on even more importance. Not only is it vital for future scholarship, it serves to remind the world of the existence of all that ISIS seeks to destroy.