PARIS — More than two and a half millennia ago, the Assyrian King Senaccherib descended on his enemies “like the wolf on the fold,” as the Bible tells us—and as Lord Byron wrote in cantering cadences memorized by countless Victorian schoolchildren: “His cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold; And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea.”
The Assyrian and Babylonian empires appear throughout the Old Testament as examples of ruthless grandeur and godless decadence. The Bible says Sennacherib’s army was destroyed by the Angel of the Lord. The Israelites were carried off to Babylon, where they wept by the waters. And since the middle of the 19th century, archeologists have labored mightily to unearth the mythical and the verifiable past in the extraordinary cradle of civilizations they used to call Mesopotamia and now call Iraq.
No trace ever has been found of the Garden of Eden, said to have lain near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, but one of the great prizes the excavators did discover was Senaccherib’s capital, Nineveh, which the biblical prophet Nahum called “the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!”
Last month, a new marauder descended on Nineveh and the nearby city of Mosul. He, too, came down like the wolf on the fold, but his cohorts brandished Kalashnikovs from pickup trucks, not shining spears; their banners were the black flags of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham.
The risk now—the virtual certainty, in fact—is that irreplaceable history will be annihilated or sold into the netherworld of corrupt and cynical collectors.
Soon afterward the minions of the self-appointed caliph of the freshly self-declared Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, paid a visit to the Mosul Museum. It has been closed for years for restoration, ever since it was looted along with many of Iraq’s other institutions in the wake of the culturally oblivious American-led invasion of 2003. But the Mosul Museum was on the verge of reopening, at last, and the full collection had been stored there.
“These groups of terrorists—their arrival was a brutal shock, with no warning,” Iraqi National Museum Director Qais Hussein Rashid told me when he visited Paris last week with a mission pleading for international help. “We were not able to take preventive measures.”
Indeed, museum curators and staff were no better prepared than any other part of the Iraqi government. They could have learned from al-Baghdadi’s operations in neighboring Syria that a major source of revenue for his insurgency has been the sale of looted antiquities on the black market. As reported in The Guardian, a windfall of intelligence just before Mosul fell revealed that al-Baghdadi had accumulated a $2 billion war chest, in part by selling off ancient artifacts from captured Syrian sites. But the Iraqi officials concerned with antiquities said the Iraqi intelligence officers privy to that information have not shared it with them.
So the risk now—the virtual certainty, in fact—is that irreplaceable history will be annihilated or sold into the netherworld of corrupt and cynical collectors. And it was plain when I met with Rashid and his colleagues that they are desperate to stop it, but have neither the strategy nor the resources to do so.
“We as Iraqis are incapable of controlling the situation by ourselves,” Abbas Qureishi, director of the “recovery” program for the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told me. It’s not just a matter of the museums, he said. Mosul is in the middle of 1,791 registered archeological sites, including four capitals of the Assyrian empire. “The Iraqi army will be obliged to conduct operations next to these archeological sites,” said Qureishi. The jihadists “will destroy them and say the Iraqi army bombed these sites.”
“So we are asking Americans and Europeans—especially Americans—to understand the gravity of the situation,” said Qureishi, and “to put pressure on the governments of their countries to intervene militarily.”
I said I thought that was highly unlikely.
“Here’s the thing,” said Qureishi. “In a traditional military engagement, tanks and artillery will damage a site.” Indeed, the shells might obliterate it. But “U.S. drones have very precise munitions which can hit targets without destroying the [archeological] sites nearby.”
(Predators and Hellfires like stars on the sea …)
This, we all know, is not going to happen. Nothing about the Obama administration’s toe in the noxious Iraqi water suggests it will commit major resources to saving the current government of the grossly incompetent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, much less the ancient stones of Nineveh.
The excavations of the last 170 years found Senaccherib’s “Palace Without Rival.” They discovered enormous winged bulls and winged lions with the faces of men, and they carted away the extraordinarily beautiful lion-hunt bas-reliefs that are in the British Museum. But there is so much more to find, so much of such phenomenal beauty and historical importance, that a visitor to those ancient precincts might feel as if he or she were in touch physically, mystically with the world described in the Old Testament. If only the stones could survive.
And it's not just the monumental sculptures that are in danger, but thousands of artifacts and, also, ancient manuscripts from the many cultures—Islamic, Christian, and pagan—that inhabited the region of Mosul when it sat astride the caravan route that led from the Far East into the Near East and Europe.
Soon after al-Bagdhadi’s men arrived in Mosul, they told the museum staff that the ancient statues were “against Islam.” But then they left the building. The collections remained unmolested for several days, and the initial reports that the statues had been smashed appear to have been erroneous. The photographs of shattered sculptures that circulated on the Web actually came from Syria, according to local officials in Mosul. But the caliphate’s gauleiters issued a city charter and declared in its Article 13 that “false idols” would have to be destroyed.
For this strain of Sunni Muslim jihadists, any representation of the human form (with the apparent exception of their own propaganda videos), any shrine that might lend itself to idolatry, and any place of worship dedicated to the faith of supposedly heretical Shia Muslims must be obliterated.
And so, day by day, night by night, the demolition teams and bulldozer drivers of the so-called Islamic State have gone about their work.
First the statue of a beloved local poet and the tomb of a great Arab historian fell to the caliphate’s wrecking crews. The world paid little attention.
“The worst thing about wars is that they do not distinguish between the past and the future,” Mosul calligrapher and conservationist Abdallah Ismail told a local correspondent for the German-funded publication Niqash.org. He suggested that the shrewd new rulers of the city were “taking the pulse” of the local population to see how it would react to their appetite for destruction.
The caliphate’s troops “have removed statues of people that the city is really proud of,” said Ismail, “but they haven’t done anything to statues like the Assyrian winged bull, which are thousands of years old and which look far more like idol worship than these other monuments.”
“The people of Mosul have not reacted,” said Ismail. “They act as if these things are going on in another city, not their own.”
So al-Baghdadi’s men have picked up the pace, attacking and destroying one Shia mosque and shrine after another. Eventually, locals reportedly resisted by surrounding one mosque and throwing rocks, but that was during the day, and the caliphate just brought back the bulldozer during the night.
Then, last week, al-Baghdadi’s men returned to the Mosul Museum. They broke the lock to the storage rooms, and they have occupied the building ever since. “They say they are awaiting instructions from their guide [al-Baghdadi] to destroy these statues,” says Rashid, the National Museum director who is in touch with the local staff. Typically, al-Baghdadi is looking for the moment when he can get the most global attention.
Maybe this all sounds very distant. But the jihadist appetite for violent iconoclasm already has proved to be tremendously dangerous for the West. Those who claim to speak for a vengeful Allah take great delight in smashing idols wherever and whenever they can get to them. Theirs is a war of symbols. In early 2001 the Afghan Taliban, encouraged by al Qaeda, blew to bits the towering Buddhas of Bamiyan. Western leaders wrung their hands but took no substantive action. A few months later, the jihadists attacked some of the most spectacular icons in the world: the skyscrapers of the World Trade Center in New York City.