Antiquities and Archaeology Conservation Heritage Iraq

Blowing up Mosul's historic mosques is 'a war crime'

British archaeologist and peer compares loss to the destruction of an English medieval cathedral

Tombs as well as mosques have been reduced to rubble, courtesy Iraq News

Leading British archaeologist and member of the House of Lords, Colin Renfrew, says the destruction of historic mosques in Mosul, northern Iraq, by Islamic state militants (Isis) “is a disaster for the cultural heritage of Iraq, and indeed of Islam”. The Prophet Jirjis mosque and shrine in Mosul was destroyed on 27 July, according to unconfirmed press reports. The 14th-century mosque was the latest in a series of holy sites targeted by the jihadist group.

Last week on 24 July, Isis blew up the Mosque of the Prophet Younis (Jonah) in Mosul. The militants said that “the mosque had become a place for apostasy, not prayer”, according to Agence France Presse. A day later, Isis destroyed a shrine venerating the Nabi Shiyt (Prophet Seth) in the same city. “Isis militants stopped people from coming close, set explosives in and around the shrine and then detonated them as a crowd looked on,” a resident told Agence France Presse. Isis, an Al Qaida breakaway group, considers all religious shrines to be idolatrous.

Renfrew, an academic and chairman of the all-party parliamentary archaeology group, tells The Art Newspaper that “from a religious perspective [the mosques] were important as major monuments of the Islamic faith. From a cultural perspective the sad loss of some of the great historic monuments of Mosul is analogous perhaps to the loss of a medieval cathedral in one of England's cathedral cities, the fate of Coventry cathedral in the Second World War.”

How to protect Iraqi heritage needs to be addressed, Renfrew says. “It would seem that governments are powerless to intervene militarily. But the loss of Iraq's cultural heritage by deliberate action could be considered a war crime. The United Nations, advised by Unesco, could condemn it, and seek to proffer charges against the perpetrators. Such charges could be implemented when the political situation changes, as in the case of the charges against Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian leaders recently,” he says.

Meanwhile, Sam Hardy, an honorary research associate in archaeology at University College London, commented on the conservation challenges, saying: “Governments, IGOs [inter-governmental organisations], NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and others may be able to help by documenting looting and destruction (or supporting and processing locals' documentation), to enable prosecution and reconstruction, and by building capacity for conservation and reconstruction at the earliest opportunity in the post-war environment.” Hardy is documenting the damage on his blog, conflict antiquities

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30 Jul 14
22:7 CET


I am an Iraqi artist, and I'd like to mention that because of the Islamic control of the country, arts are destroyed and prevented, Id 'm afraid and threatening by militias and community, even my parents refuse my nude paintings, and galleries refuse to show it.

30 Jul 14
22:8 CET


Why is this a subject of such concern when 1800 year-old Churches there were burnt down just last week? Mohammed hadn't yet been born then. Just another atrocity added to the genocide against Christians in Iraq and surrounding areas.

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