An image grab taken off a video reportedly released by Media Office of the Nineveh branch of the Islamic State (IS) Group on February 25, 2015, allegedly shows an IS militant destroying the statue of Lamassu, an Assyrian diety, with a jackhammer in the northern Iraqi Governorate of Nineveh. AFP.
It is hard to overstate the historical and archaeological significance of the area extending from Mesopotamia to Egypt. This stretch contains the early stages of human civilization, especially from the Neolithic era (from 8,000 to 4,000 BC). It was during the late Paleolithic and early Neolithic periods that human beings acquired an advanced level of knowledge. We transitioned from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled agrarian existence with major implications for our cultural output and social modes.
This new lifestyle meant domesticating animals and securing some form of housing, leading to the establishment of larger human communities and villages. The Neolithic era ended with the metal age and the discovery of writing, ushering in the historic era — as opposed to prehistoric — with the preservation of written records.
During this period, the right climatic and geographic conditions were in place from southwest Asia to the Nile Valley to Afghanistan, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Asia Minor and Iran. A favorable climate and irrigated plains allowed for an increased population and larger societies. Humans planted grain and certain types of vegetables and domesticated some animals such as goats, cows, pigs and dogs. In addition, the first real signs of religion began to appear with sculpted statues of the gods emerging.
In the fourth millennium BC, writing appeared separately, yet almost simultaneously, in the Nile basin and Mesopotamia, an indicator of the level of civilizational development that human groups in these two regions had reached.
Geographically, Mesopotamia stretches from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula in the south to Armenia and the Zagros Mountains in the north, and from the Syrian desert in the west to the mountains of Iran in the east. The Mesopotamian terrain is dominated by mountains and hills in the north, plains in the center and south and desert plateaus in the west.
Just as Egypt is the gift of the Nile — as Herodotus remarked — this civilization was the offspring of the great Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Unlike Egypt however, Mesopotamia, by virtue of its geographic location, was more open to influences from India in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west and from Asia Minor and the Caucasus in the north to Egypt in the south.
Archaeological digs indicate that Mesopotamia has been inhabited since prehistoric times and has known advanced civilizations, especially in Ur, Jemdet Nasr, Eridu, as well as other areas.
From the fourth millennium till the 5th century BC, many peoples settled in Mesopotamia, established different political entities and made important contributions to the history of the region.
The first of these people were the Sumerians, known for their knowledge of writing, numbers, the calendar system, mathematics and astronomy since the fourth millennium BC (32,000 BC). They established several cities that were politically divided such as Ur, Uruk, Umma, Lagash, Larsa and Mari. In the middle of the 28th century (2,750 BC) the king of Umma was able to unify his city-state politically, but it soon fell to the Akkadians whose king Sargon I established a city near Babel, and who defeated the Sumerians.
Other civilizations flourished in Mesopotamia including the Assyrians who settled in northern Iraq in the beginning of the third millennium and were ruled by foreign powers until their King Ashur-uballit I established independence and occupied Babel. Assyrian expansion began with Tiglath-Pileser I (1,112 – 1,074) who got all the way to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Assyrians reached the height of their power in the 8th century BC with Tiglath-Pileser III (745 – 727) when the Assyrian Empire controlled all of Mesopotamia in addition to Syria, Phoenicia, Palestine and even Egypt, which was occupied by Ashurbanipal (668 – 626).
Afterwards, a period of decline began, which ended with the occupation of the cities of Ashur (614) and Nineveh (612), as Babylonian hegemony emerged on the ruins of the Assyrian empire.
Until the 19th century, information about this part of the world was limited to what was mentioned in the Old Testament, in addition to writings by ancient Greek travelers and Herodotus.
With the growth of Western studies of the region, from Iraq to Egypt, especially after Napoleon’s military campaign (1799), and the heightened possibility of reaching and excavating the area when it was part of the Ottoman Empire, digs and research in Mesopotamia began. First came French Consul Botha, in 1842. Excavations followed by various missions, including an English one (1845), another French mission (1851), followed by Americans (1889) and Germans (1899). Amazing artifacts were found, some of them were transferred to Western museums in Paris, London and Berlin, some were transferred to US museums, especially in Philadelphia, while others were taken to nearby countries such as the Museums of Tehran, Beirut, Damascus and Istanbul, or to Iraqi museums such as the Museums of Baghdad and Mosul.
The Mosul Museum is the second most important museum in Iraq after the Museum of Baghdad. It was established in 1951 and consisted of a small hall, before it was expanded in 1972 to showcase different sets of artifacts, especially those found in Nineveh. It covers four large exhibit halls, dedicated to ancient artifacts (prehistoric period), Assyrian, Hatran (artefacts of the city of Hatra) and Islamic.
With the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the museum closed its doors to protect its collection, after organized looting campaigns of a large number of archaeological sites and museums, including the Baghdad Museum, under the supervision of the US authorities . The Museum of Mosul was reopened in 2012 for school and university students, and rehabilitation work began in September of the same year to prepare it for general public access.
The US occupation of Iraq and the accompanying systematic destruction, looting and desecration greatly damaged the country’s historical heritage. This included the destruction of several archaeological sites due to hostilities, or looting, or illegal excavations aimed at trafficking in antiquities, or just a lack of general maintenance and care. This entailed huge and, in many cases, uncompensatable losses, due particularly to destroyed artifacts. A huge number of artifacts were smuggled outside Iraq and sold to collectors of antiquities or international museums through known auction houses; and a lot of these operations are documented. Other artifacts were destroyed locally.
With the return of violence to Iraq, and with the central government losing control of large swaths of land, numerous archaeological sites are under threat again. The media coverage of this disaster is anemic, especially since news of the murder and displacement taking place in areas under the control of the Islamists overshadows everything else.
Losses in Syrian and Iraqi areas outside of government control are enormous and have been going on for months. For example, churches, Sufi shrines and a number of mosques — such as the Mosque of the Prophet Jonah which used to be a church but was taken over a century and a half ago — were bombed. The Library of Mosul was burned down by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who bombed its central building in al-Faisaliah area in the center of the city, burning its books, documents and manuscripts, including rare volumes. Recently we witnessed the conquest of the Museum of Mosul. ISIS posted a five-minute video showing bearded men attacking the museum’s statues with sledgehammers and drilling tools to the sound of Islamist songs.
If it is difficult to make an accurate assessment of the damage done to the museum as it is impossible to get to, the video’s footage is enough to show the enormity of the loss.
Among the destroyed statues is the Assyrian winged bull inside the museum, which dates back to the 9th century BC. The video also shows the destruction of another winged bull found at the ancient Nergal Gate in Mosul. The winged bull is considered the symbol of the Assyrian civilization, which flourished in Iraq and expanded its control all the way to the Nile Valley.
The winged bull was a huge statue that measured 4.42 meters (14.50 feet) in length and weighed 30 tons. It had a bull’s body, eagle wings, and a human head.
The winged bull symbolized strength, wisdom, courage and eminence. The Assyrian civilization was known for its winged bulls, especially the Ashurite Kingdom (the Neo-Assyrian Kingdom) and the palaces of its kings in the cities of Nineveh and Assur in northern Mesopotamia.
In addition, artifacts from the Assyrian and Parthian eras were destroyed, some of which dated back to the era before Christ.
Experts pointed out that some of the destroyed artifacts were original and complete pieces while others were incomplete. They were reassembled from fragments of the original so they could be displayed in addition to replicas (moulages) of original pieces found in the aforementioned museums.
If ISIS and other groups benefit from trafficking in antiquities as one of their sources of funding, surely, the crime of destroying cultural artifacts like the one we saw in Mosul has an ideological and propagandistic dimension geared towards salafizing the religious text and heritage of certain groups. The problematic nature of depicting human and animal forms in Islam is too complicated to address in passing. What is certain, however, is that the losses multiply day by day. This issue requires more attention than can be derived from the occasional emotional outburst.