Last week, the world watched as ISIS militants swept through the archaeology museum in Mosul, Iraq, indiscriminately destroying priceless artifacts. Archaeology and antiquities experts who have reviewed the footage conclude that the damage is “devastating.”
The video, released by ISIS itself, shows its supporters smashing sculptures and defacing massive statues with hammers and drills. According to ISIS, “These ruins…are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah…The Prophet Mohammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them.”
Dr. Suzanne Bott, Hubert Debbasch, and Dr. Lamia al-Gailani Wer, assisted by Christopher Jones, a Ph.D. student of ancient Near Eastern history at Columbia University assessed the damage they saw in the video.
The team first pointed out that the situation had a silver lining: most of the Assyrian artifacts destroyed by the militants were actually replicas. Wisely, in 2003, museum administrators moved 1,500 objects from the museum in Mosul, a less-than-stable region, to Baghdad’s Iraq Museum, for safekeeping.
The most important Assyrian pieces damaged in the video were the “lamassu,” giant statues of winged human/bull creatures, part of an ancient gate, during the expansion of Nineveh sometime between 704 and 690 BC. The video shows the statues’ faces being drilled off in pieces. Statues of this kind are rare in their original locations, many having been carried off to Western capitals in the 18th century.
Even worse damage was inflicted upon the museum’s 2,000-year-old sculptures from Hatra, an ancient trading outpost, famous in the age of the Roman Empire.
“The damage by ISIS to the artistic legacy of Hatra has been catastrophic,” says Jones. “This tragedy is compounded by the fact that Hatrene sculpture has been chronically understudied. Almost all of it was excavated in the 20th century and the finds never left Iraq. The primary publication of the finds is in an Arabic-language book often inaccessible in the West. Very few scholars outside of Iraq have had the opportunity to study the statues.”
The ISIS video shows four statues of Hatrene kings being smashed – 15% of such pieces worldwide.
What did not appear in the video was the museum’s Islamic art wing, as well as large parts of the Assyrian exhibit. While the likelihood that those sections escaped unscathed is low, we can only hope that they were spared the needless destruction.
Jones adds, “From what we can see in this video the loss for the study of the Roman and Parthian Near East is absolutely devastating.”