Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria have stepped up their war on the region’s cultural heritage, attacking archaeological sites with bulldozers and explosives.
The so-called Islamic State (commonly known as ISIS) now controls large stretches of northern and western Iraq, and there's little to stop its militants from plundering and destroying sites in a region known as the cradle of civilization.
In late February, ISIS released a video that showed militants rampaging through the Mosul Museum with pickaxes and sledgehammers, toppling and defacing millennia-old statues.
And last week the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced that members of ISIS had damaged the ruins of ancient cities dating back thousands of years, including a trio of Assyrian cities and the Roman-era metropolis of Hatra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Meanwhile in Syria, the country's civil war has done tremendous damage, killing close to 200,000 and leaving millions more homeless. ISIS is just one of many factions fighting for control of the country, but it has encouraged looting as a moneymaking venture. Sites in Syria's eastern provinces, known to be ISIS strongholds, have been particularly hard-hit by looters.
As reports trickle in, archaeologists caution that facts and evidence are still scarce. Except for the video from the Mosul Museum, there's still little information on how much damage has been done to sites such as Hatra and Nimrud, which once were large, thriving cities.
"We don't have photographs that show us how far the damage might go," says Margarete van Ess, the head of the German Archaeological Institute's Iraq field office. "We need to understand what was destroyed."
Making Sense of Senseless Destruction
In the video released on February 25, ISIS claims the Mosul Museum destruction was motivated by religion. "We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them," an ISIS member says. "These ruins that are behind me, they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah."
Van Ess says the thinking behind the attacks is inconceivable—but that doesn't mean it's not sincere. "Deeply religious people don't ask questions," she says. "I'm sure some of them really believe this." (Read more about why ISIS is destroying ancient religious sites in Mosul.)
This is not the first time war has damaged archaeological sites in Iraq. Shortly after the 2003 invasion of the country, U.S. forces built a base on the ruins of Babylon in southern Iraq, bulldozing and damaging part of the site.
And looting was rampant throughout Iraq in the chaos that followed the invasion. The Mosul Museum, for example, was plundered in 2003. Before ISIS seized the city, many of the objects that remained were taken to Baghdad for safekeeping.
But van Ess says the gratuitous nature of the recent destruction—and the way ISIS has proudly packaged and posted it online as propaganda—is hard to take.
"The destruction is nothing special. Wars have always done this, all through history," she says. "It's the way they present it to the world that's shocking and new."
Damage Assessment: A Site-by-Site Summary
Built in the third century B.C., Hatra was the capital of an independent kingdom on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. Its combination of Greek- and Roman-influenced architecture and Eastern features testify to its prominence as a trading center on the Silk Road. Hatra was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.
Last summer Hatra was taken over by ISIS and reportedly used as an ammo dump and training camp. It was reportedly damaged or destroyed by bulldozers in late February. "The destruction of Hatra marks a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing underway in Iraq," UNESCO head Irina Bokova said at the time.
Ancient Assyria was one of the first true empires, expanding aggressively across the Middle East and controlling a vast stretch of the ancient world between 900 and 600 B.C. The Assyrian kings ruled their realm from a series of capitals in what is today northern Iraq. Nineveh was one of them, flourishing under the Assyrian emperor Sennacherib around 700 B.C. At one point, Nineveh was the largest city in the world.
Its location on the outskirts of Mosul—part of the modern city is built over Nineveh's ruins—put it in ISIS's crosshairs when the group took over the city in 2014. Many of the site's sculptures were housed in the Mosul Museum (see entry below), and some were damaged during the rampage through the museum documented on video. Men were also shown smashing half-human, half-animal guardian statues called lamassus on Nineveh's ancient Nirgal Gate.
Mosul Museum and Libraries
Reports of looting at Mosul's libraries and universities began to surface almost as soon as ISIS occupied the city last summer. Centuries-old manuscripts were stolen, and thousands of books disappeared into the shadowy international art market. Mosul University's library was burned in December. In late February, the ISIS campaign escalated: Mosul's central public library, a landmark built in 1921, was rigged with explosives and razed, together with thousands of manuscripts and instruments used by Arab scientists.
The book burning coincided with the release of the video showing ISIS fighters rampaging through the Mosul Museum, toppling statues and smashing others with hammers. The museum was Iraq's second largest, after the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Statues included masterpieces from Hatra and Nineveh.
Van Ess says a trained eye can tell that about half of the artifacts destroyed in the video are copies; many of the originals are in the Iraq Museum.
Nimrud was the first Assyrian capital, founded 3,200 years ago. Its rich decoration reflected the empire's power and wealth. The site was excavated beginning in the 1840s by British archaeologists, who sent dozens of its massive stone sculptures to museums around the world, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum in London. Many originals remained in Iraq.
The site itself is massive: An earthen wall surrounds 890 acres. The Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities says ISIS bulldozed parts of the site, but the extent of the damage isn't yet clear. Some of the city was never uncovered and remains underground—protected, one hopes.
Khorsabad, is another ancient Assyrian capital, a few miles from Mosul. The palace there was built between 717 and 706 B.C. by Assyria's King Sargon II. Its reliefs and statues were remarkably well preserved, with traces of the original paint still decorating depictions of Assyrian victories and royal processions.
Most of the reliefs and many of the statues were removed during French excavations in the mid-1800s and by teams from Chicago's Oriental Institute in the 1920s and '30s, and are now in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad as well as in Chicago and the Louvre in Paris. It's not clear what part of the site ISIS targeted. "We don't have photography showing how far the damage might go," van Ess says. "The only information right now is from local people and Iraqi antiquities ministry."
Mosque of the Prophet Yunus
Mosul's Mosque of the Prophet Yunus was dedicated to the biblical figure Jonah, considered a prophet by many Muslims. But ISIS adheres to an extreme interpretation of Islam that sees veneration of prophets like Jonah as forbidden. On July 24, ISIS fighters evacuated the mosque and demolished it with explosives.
Like many of Iraq's sites, the mosque was a layer cake of history, built on top of a Christian church that in turn had been built on one of the two mounds that made up the Assyrian city of Nineveh.
Imam Dur Mausoleum
The Imam Dur Mausoleum, not far from the city of Samarra, was a magnificent specimen of medieval Islamic architecture and decoration. It was blown up last October.
A rich Roman-era trading city, Apamea has been badly looted since the beginning of Syria's civil war, before ISIS appeared. Satellite imagery shows dozens of pits dug across the site; previously unknown Roman mosaics have reportedly been excavated and removed for sale. ISIS is said to take a cut from sales of ancient artifacts, making tens of millions of dollars to fund their operations.
A Greek settlement on the Euphrates not far from Syria's border with Iraq, Dura-Europos later became one of Rome's easternmost outposts. It housed the world's oldest known Christian church, a beautifully decorated synagogue, and many other temples and Roman-era buildings. Satellite imagery shows a cratered landscape inside the city's mud-brick walls, evidence of widespread destruction by looters.
Mari flourished in the Bronze Age, between 3000 and 1600 B.C. Archaeologists have discovered palaces, temples, and extensive archives written on clay tablets that shed light on the early days of civilization in the region. According to reports from locals and satellite imagery, the site, especially the royal palace, is being looted systematically.
Follow Andrew Curry on Twitter.