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Cultural heritage at heart of propaganda battle in Iraq

Following vandalism at Mosul museum and Nergal Gate, Iraqi government says IS has destroyed ancient sites at Nimrud, Hatra and Khorsabad

by Martin Bailey  |  10 April 2015
Cultural heritage at heart of propaganda battle in Iraq
On 26 February IS released a video showing the destruction of an early eighth-century BC sculpture of a winged beast at the Nergal Gate. Photo: KARIM SAHIB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Fears of further threats against Iraqi archaeological sites are increasing, following the attack by Islamic State (IS) on Hatra. A propaganda film released on 4 April shows extremists using sledgehammers, pickaxes and automatic gunfire to destroy stone sculptures. Hatra was a fortified Parthian city, dating mainly from the first century BC to the second century AD. Lying 110 kilometres south-west of Mosel, it was inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1985.

Although some commentators claim that the destroyed sculptures were plaster replicas, most specialists believe that they were authentic antiquities. The destruction took place in a large building known as the Great Iwans, part of the central temple complex. Three large human-like faces high up on the walls were knocked down with sledgehammers, falling to the ground and breaking into fragments. A trio of faces in relief on a wall was attacked with machine gun fire (the reliefs were badly damaged, although not destroyed). Two sculptures of worshippers were broken up with pickaxes (they had been reconstructed in the late 20th century, with some plaster additions). Figures of eagles were attacked with pickaxes and machine guns.

Despite the breaking up of sculptures, there is no evidence of wholesale “destruction” of the site, as the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Baghdad had claimed on 7 March (and it is unclear whether the vandalism was filmed on that date). Although further damage may have taken place at Hatra which is unrecorded in the film, the confirmed damage is not as bad as it might have been (although it is still highly regrettable). Most of the important sculptures excavated at Hatra had been sent to the National Museum in Baghdad for safekeeping before the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Propaganda battle

Iconoclasm has now become a new front in IS’s propaganda war against the Iraqi government. Following its gruesome videos of executions, on 26 February IS released a film showing destruction at the Mosul museum and Nineveh’s Nergal Gate. This included images of a militant using an electric drill to dismember one of the greatest treasures at Nineveh’s Nergal Gate on the outskirts of Mosul, an early eighth-century BC lamassu (sculpture of a winged beast). As the extremists fled, they shouted at a guard, “Nimrud will be our next stop”. On hearing reports of this threat, one leading archaeologist told The Art Newspaper: “We are helpless, we can do nothing”.

A week later these fears appeared confirmed. On 5 March it was claimed that Nimrud had been bulldozed, followed by Hatra on 7 March and Khorsabad on 9 March. These reports came not from IS itself (as with the Mosul museum and Nineveh’s Nergal Gate), but from the antiquities ministry in Baghdad.

We are publishing translations of all three ministerial statements. These give very little detail and there is no evidence that the Baghdad ministry received direct reports from anyone actually at the sites. Second-hand reports of heavy vehicle traffic or explosions came from people living nearby. Although the ministry was right to raise the alarm about possible destruction, this does not necessarily mean that this has taken place. The statements also emphasise the Iraqi government’s call for international assistance in the war against IS, including military ground support.

Reports that these three sites have been destroyed are unconfirmed

  • Nimrud, 30km south of Mosul, was a major Assyrian city that flourished between the 13th and seventh centuries BC. The palace site had survived, with winged beasts and carved reliefs. Photo: AFP PHOTO/Karim SAHIB
  • Hatra, 110km south-west of Mosul, was a fortified Parthian empire city, with remains dating from the first century BC to the second century AD. The immense ancient fortifications protect a temple complex
  • Khorsabad (also known as Dur-Sharrukin), 15km north-east of Mosul, was built in the early eighth century BC. Mounds remain, and the Sibitti temple has been restored. Photo: Profimedia, Silvio Fiore


It is not just antiquities that are being targeted, but other religious and heritage sites, including two Syriac Catholic churches. On 17 March IS released a film showing destruction at St George’s (Mar Gurguis), an ancient monastery on the north-west outskirts of Mosul. The monastery’s buildings date from the 1930s, constructed above 17th-century and earlier remains. The video showed a cross on the building being toppled and modern sculptures of the Virgin and St George being destroyed. Two days later IS showed images of two tombs being blown up at the Mar Behnam monastery, 30km south-east of Mosul. The site still has some ancient remains (and an important collection of manuscripts), although the complex was extensively renovated in the 1980s. IS has also been widely involved in destroying Islamic sites that do not reflect its extremist Sunni theology.

Statements from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Baghdad


Nimrud 5 March
Daesh [IS] terrorist gangs continue to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity by carrying out another of its despicable crimes. Today’s new assault on the city of Nimrud has seen the archaeological remains razed by heavy military vehicles. Monuments that date back to the 13th century BC have been destroyed. Leaving the gang behind these attacks on Mesopotamian civilisation unpunished would be an insult to humanity. Our ministry denounces and condemns these criminal acts and calls upon the UN Security Council to hasten the convening of an emergency session and to activate its earlier relevant resolutions to support Iraq.

Hatra 7 March
There have been reports that Daesh terrorist gangs are looting and destroying Hatra. Despite the protests of all honest people and international warnings, the Daesh terrorist criminals continue to impact on other archaeological sites in our country. The response has been insufficient, reducing the international community’s support for Iraq and encouraging terrorists to commit another crime of looting and destroying the remains of Hatra, listed as a World Heritage Site, dating back to the second century BC. This cowardly act has affected the World Heritage Site, listed since 1987, and the world and international organisations should counter this blatant assault on mankind’s heritage. We are still waiting for a UN Security Council emergency session, and with it a serious reaction from the international coalition countries to co-operate with Iraq, which is now fighting alone on the ground to stop Daesh crimes. Otherwise these gangs will violate the achievements of mankind’s civilisation and with it centuries of knowledge and creativity.

Khorsabad 9 March
Persisting in its criminal and continual destruction of monuments in Iraq, news of Daesh terrorist activities has been received that monuments were bulldozed in the archaeological city of Khorsabad, one of the most important Assyrian cities in Nineveh province, dating back to the eighth century BC. The hand of terrorism is determined to erase the history of humanity through the destruction of Mesopotamia’s heritage, to the shock of the world. Our ministry denounces and condemns these terrorist acts and calls upon the UN Security Council to hold an emergency meeting to apply its earlier related resolutions and to support Iraq, which represents the first line of defence against this attack, to put an end to this tragic situation that the civilised world is experiencing and to stand with us against the enemies of civilisation and humanity.

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