Denying history in Mosul

Denying history in Mosul
Feature: The Islamic State Group's destruction of antiquities in Iraq is destroying the country's history.
5 min read
06 March, 2015
Nineveh is one of Iraq's great cultural sites [Getty]
The Islamic State group's (IS) destruction of antiquities in the Mosul museum drew a storm of international condemnation. The secretary general of the UN and head of Unesco as well as scores of politicians and intellectuals from around the world condemned the barbaric act.

However, the Arab response could at best be described as timid, as it was limited to a number of media comments made by antiquities specialists. Arab condemnations did not translate into positive actions in the Arab League or Arab ministries of culture, and Arab universities did not organise workshops, seminars or lectures about the importance of Iraqi antiquities.

The reality is that Iraq's cultural heritage does not only belong to the Iraqi population, but is an intrinsic part of world heritage. The civilizations whose antiquities were displayed in the Mosul museums are amongst the oldest in human history. Anthropologists consider Mesopotamia, which covers modern-day Iraq and northern Syria, to be the site were humans formed their first collective settlements. Thus, this area was the site of the earliest scientific and artistic developments that continue to have an impact on human civilization to this day.

While Iraqi antiquities have been smuggled to colonial capitals such as London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow and Washington, where they fill up the museums there, the artefacts that remain are no less historically and culturally important. Ironically however, after thousands of artefacts looted during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 were returned and the museums in Iraq were rehabilitated, the IS group took its hammers to destroy these priceless pieces.

Source of the antiquities
     Iraq's cultural heritage does not only belong to the Iraqi population: is an intrinsic part of world heritage.

Iraq like many other countries has built local museums to draw tourist activity away from the capital, as part of the state's model of decentralisation. Mosul is home to some of the country’s most important archaeological sites, as well as the city’s rich cultural and scientific heritage and institutions. Given its location and size, Mosul was an ideal place to house artefacts from the surrounding areas.

The most important archaeological sites around the city of Mosul are:

The city of Assur/Ashur

The ancient Assyrian city was occupied as early as 2600 BC, and named after the chief deity of the city. More than 16,000 tablets and cuneiform texts were discovered at the site when it was excavated in the early twentieth century, and document some of the earliest forms of writing in human history. Excavations have also uncovered palaces, stone carved figures and catacombs. Archaeologists have discovered ports on the banks of the Euphrates River and underground water channels. The most important find was the temple dedicated to the goddess Ishtar.

The city of Nimrud

Nimrud is the Arabic name for the Assyrian capital of Kalhu, south of Mosul. It was rebuilt as the capital of the Assyrian Empire by King Ashurnasirpal II (reign 883-859 BC). Palaces, temples, houses and sewage systems were discovered in the city. However the most important finds in the city were the colossal statues of winged bulls and lions, the Black Obelisk of Shalanseser III, which depicts his victories and the Treasures of Nimrud - 613 pieces of gold jewellery and precious stones.

Sir Austen Henry Layard, a British historian and archaeologist, sent most of the treasures and antiquities found in Nimrud in the mid-18th century to the British Museum in London. There were so many he called for a halt to excavations as the museum did not have the capacity to house any more treasures.

The city of Nineveh

Nineveh was constructed on the eastern bank of the River Tigris, opposite today's Mosul. It was the capital of the Assyrian Empire under King Sargon II. The city was surrounded by fortified walls to protect it from invaders and contained the palace of King Sennacherib in which archaeologists discovered statues and a library containing numerous tablets on various sciences such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy and geography. Other tablets discovered in the vicinity of Nineveh contained accounts of a flood that engulfed the world, that corresponds to the Great Flood described in religious scriptures.

The city of Dur-Sharrukin
     It is impossible to regain what has been pulverised by the hammers of IS.

Located 20km north east Nineveh, the city's name means the fortress of Sargon, named after King Sargon II who built the city. The city had seven entrances, one for each day of the week that were decorated with statues of winged bulls and lions, believed to provide protection. King Sargon II unexpectedly died before construction of Dur-Sharrukin was completed, and his son Sennacherib did not finish building the city and moved his capital to Nineveh instead. However, archaeologists discovered a palace complex containing 200 rooms, as well as 30 other palaces in the city.

Dur-Sharrukin also contained a list documenting the names of Assyrian kings and the length of their reign. Archaeologists also discovered 6,000 square-metres of marble tiles, opulent halls and a library containing tablets on various sciences and subjects, as well as weapons and food stores.

The history, heritage and cultural importance of Mosul cannot be covered in an article, and this brief description of the city’s history is only intended to shed some light on the tragedy that has befallen the city and its artefacts over the years.

A large amount of the city’s artefacts were looted and smuggled to colonial capitals, but at least they were preserved. We can hope to someday regain our looted heritage: it is impossible to regain what has been pulverised by the hammers of IS.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.