For a group that’s made filmed beheadings a central aspect of its PR strategy, ISIS still managed to shock the international community last week with their latest round of propaganda videos. The amateur footage that surfaced shows Islamic State militants destroying artifacts on display at a museum in Mosul, Iraq using sledgehammers and drills.
The gleeful destruction was widely condemned, particularly by UNESCO, the U.N. agency tasked with the protection of worldwide cultural heritage. As Irina Bokova, the organization’s Director General, said in a statement, “This tragedy is far from just a cultural issue: it’s an issue of major security… We see clearly how terrorists use the destruction of heritage in their strategy to destabilize and manipulate populations so that they can assure their own domination.”
The plundering of cultural artifacts in wartime is not particularly new. The famous Library of Alexandria was destroyed during one or several ancient skirmishes. The Mongols reportedly heaved precious manuscripts into rivers during their conquests. Nazi Germany infamously destroyed “degenerate” artwork deemed unacceptable to the so-called master race, and sold other works for which restitution efforts are underway today.
In Iraq, cultural plundering has largely stemmed from economic imperatives. The Baghdad Museum was looted in 2003 amidst the U.S. invasion, but most items taken are believed to have been sold off. The Islamic State has also used antiquities as a source of revenue, making millions selling various objects to private collectors. However the use of destruction in this latest case serves a very different purpose, i.e., “cultural cleansing” as stated UNESCO.
Historians who studied the videos agreed that the pieces that were destroyed were consciously chosen to reflect the ideology of the Islamic State. Christopher Jones, a doctoral student at Columbia studying the Ancient Near East, closely analyzed the video on his blog [include link to blog]. Jones contended that most of the objects originated in the ancient Assyrian City of Nineveh and from ancient Hatra, a part of modern Mosul that served as the capital of the First Arab Kingdom and later became part of Rome. The most significant work destroyed in the video was the Assyrian winged bull, whose previously well-preserved 1400-year-old face is shown being chiseled off by a jackhammer.
The emphasis on Assyrian destruction is not surprising, given how explicitly ISIS has targeted Assyrian Christians in their territories. Rooting out Assyrian history and the heritage of others is inextricably bound to ISIS’ apocalyptic ideology. Mesopotamia’s multicultural legacy is an inconvenient counterpoint to the caliphate’s claim to the land it occupies, and they are essentially rewriting the city’s history with sledgehammers. In an interview with Democracy Now, Art Historian Zainab Bahrani stressed that such cultural destruction is consistent with ISIS’ modus operandi: “This is very much a last straw on top of a terrible annihilation of people…this is not just about the past. This is about a destruction and erasure of the history of the people of Iraq, as a way to say they never belonged here.”
Many experts cited the most obvious parallel to ISIS obliteration of Mosul Museum artifacts as the Afghanistan Taliban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. The two Buddha statues were constructed in the late 500s under the Gandhara Empire, which embraced Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Needless to say, the Taliban did not, and they used dynamite to reduce the Buddhas to rubble. In both incidents, the Taliban and ISIS set out to alter (or rather, delete) history and in the process make a statement about which cultures deserve to be commemorated. While partitioning collections and selling pieces off is undeniably destructive, there is something singular and deliberate about destruction for its own sake.
While the Bamiyan Buddha targeting may have been similar to ISIS’ Mosul raid in intent, the use of video and social media certainly maximizes the impact of the latter message. By filming the destruction, ISIS is being globally provocative, as well as reaffirming the narrative of the caliphate’s righteous claim to the area. While the Taliban was trying to create a cleansed Islamic space by eliminating Buddhist imagery, the group was internally focused and did not have the recruitment functions that obsess the Islamic State.
UNESCO officials and other experts have long worried about the fate of the historical record housed across Iraq and Syria in light of the rise of ISIS. Sadly, many more artifacts are likely to become casualties of the caliphate’s brutality. Until then, many of Mosul’s most precious objects — moved to Baghdad during the U.S. occupation — are newly exhibited at the Baghdad Museum, which just reopened for the first time since 2003.