Mosul: museum and archive on the front line

Islamic State militia captured Mosul on 10 June last year. By December, there were reports of the destruction of libraries and archives: the Sunni Muslim library, the library of the Latin Church and Monastery of the Dominican Fathers, and the Mosul Museum Library. Parts of the campus of the University of Mosul have been occupied and university libraries and archives damaged. Then, in February this year, IS released a video of militants destroying artefacts in the Mosul Museum with sledgehammers and drills. In April, the IS distributed a further video of their destruction of the thirteenth century BC city of Nimrud.

IS’s depredations have been countered by international outrage. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova: “I condemn in the strongest possible manner the destruction of the archaeological site of Nimrud in Iraq. This is yet another attack against the Iraqi people reminding us that nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in the country: it targets human lives, minorities, and is marked by the systematic destruction of humanity’s ancient heritage”.

Writing for the Spectator on 15 March, columnist and iconoclast Simon Jenkins attacked UNESCO as a “world cultural bureaucracy” that is “at the service of fanaticism”. For Jenkins, these standard responses to the destruction of cultural property are hypocritical, the concern about uniqueness and authenticity a waste of time:

What the West can and should do is prepare for the aftermath of this devastation. A huge task will one day face those who care for these places. Syria and Iraq host the records of the dawn of the known world. The ancient city of Aleppo has been flattened. The Assyrian and Parthian capitals are bulldozed. The oldest Christian churches on earth are being wiped off the map as you read this. These sites must be restored, with replicas if necessary.

When it comes to hypocrisy, Jenkins has a point. The West has been destroying other people’s cultural property since the Crusades. Jenkins remembers the Dresden firestorm of the Second World War – “the heirs of Bomber Harris are not squeamish about the far end of a bomb site, be it a human being or a historic building”.  W.G. Sebald’s extraordinary book, On the Natural History of Destruction, is well worth revisiting for his evocation of the total destruction of Hamburg in 1943: “the death by fire within a few hours of an entire city, with all its buildings and its trees, its inhabitants, its domestic pets, its fixtures and fittings of every kind, must inevitably have led to overload, to paralysis of the capacity to think and feel in those who succeeded in escaping” (Sebald 2004: 25).

The issue of uniqueness and authenticity, though, is more complicated.

Jenkins is right to point out that no archaeological site, and certainly not the treasures of Iraq and Syria that are now in such danger, are authentic. Archaeologists and robbers (sometimes the same thing) have been at them for two centuries and generations of custodians and conservators have been restoring, repositioning and reinterpreting. The bottom line for Archaeology is that it is a discipline that destroys as it discovers. However painstaking and scientific an excavation may be, once a site is dug it’s dug, and everyone afterwards is dependent on the excavator’s notes and records rather than the original traces in the ground.

Uniqueness, though, is different. Jenkins is quick to propose replicas. He is also chairman of Britain’s National Trust. The National Trust looks after more than 300 historic buildings and it is unlikely that many of their millions of visitors would be content with replicas. Not surprisingly, Iraqis interviewed after the IS videos were distributed online were horrified by the destruction. Mardean Isaac, an Assyrian writer in Baghdad, told the Guardian: “when you watch the footage, you feel visceral pain and outrage, like you do when you see human beings hurt”. Tamara Saad, a young woman from Mosul interviewed by the New York Times said: “we feel proud of our ancient culture in the way you have something in your house that you pay no attention to until someone comes into the house and destroys it. You feel devastated.” It’s difficult to imagine these interviewees being any more satisfied with a replica than, say, a visitor to the Tower of London.

The significance of these material traces of the past is all the more for communities caught up in the vortex of extreme and continuing violence. Art and artefacts are some of the few stable markers of identity; memory made material, something to hold on to. Mahfodh Dawood, a poet who used to work for the Ministry of Culture, told the New York Times: “the message of ISIS was that it wants to rob us of our identity. At this point, just about the only thing it means to be Iraqi is that you are responsible for the civilization that was here and goes back thousands of years, nothing else”.

This can make museums important in post-conflict reconstruction. Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq was closed after the American occupation of 2003. Then, there was extensive looting and theft of high-profile antiquities that has still not been satisfactorily explained. The museum has been officially re-opened in defiance of the IS damage to the libraries, archives and museums of Mosul. Close examination of the IS video showed that, as with the looters of the National Museum back in 2003, the IS militia had often mistaken plaster cast replicas for originals; the National Museum’s Director was able to announce that the originals were in safe storage in Baghdad.

But not everything destroyed in Mosul has been a replica. The IS video shows the partial destruction of one of the Winged Bulls of Nineveh. These sculpted mythological figures were known to the Assyrians as lamassu, and are believed to represent the strength of the animal, the swiftness of the bird and the intelligence of the human head. They guarded the gateways to palaces and temples in Mesopotamia as protection against demonic forces.

Other Assyrian lamassu were removed in the name of archaeology in the nineteenth century. Two were taken by Austen Henry Layard, who excavated here between 1845 and 1851; one is now in the British Museum and the second in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Simon Jenkins is a passionate advocate for the importance of continuity with the past and for the cultural heritage that anchors us:

To read of the loss of ancient monuments is heartbreaking. When they date from the dawn of western civilisation in the Mesopotamian valley, the pain is the greater. Nimrud, Hatra and Nineveh are 6,000-year-old bedrocks of our culture. Like the smashed statues in Mosul museum, their destruction tears at the roots of Eurasia’s shared identity. That identity may stay recorded in books, pictures, museums. But the continuity of place is lost. The narrative is snapped.

Here, at least in part, a solution is evident. When the IS militia have been defeated and Iraq is recovering from the firestorm unleashed by the 2003 war, the lamassu removed by Layard almost two centuries ago should be repatriated from London and from New York.

Given their years of suffering and their pride in their history, why should Iraqis make do with replicas?


Guardian (2015). “Isis video shows destruction of ancient Assyrian city in Iraq”. April 11.

Hall, J. (2015). “’Ancient statues’ destroyed by ISIS in Mosul were FAKES – and the originals are safely stored in Baghdad, claims Iraqi museum director”. Daily Mail, March 16.

Jenkins, S. (2015) “When Isis destroy ancient monuments, it’s not always true that ‘people are more important’”. Spectator March 14.

Kimmelman, M. (2015). “A Struggle to Secure Iraq’s Shared Past, and Perhaps Its Future”. New York Times, 9 April.

Sebald, W. G. (2004). On the Natural History of Destruction. New York, Modern Library.

Shaheen, K. (2015). “Isis fighters destroy ancient artefacts at Mosul museum”. Guardian, February 26.

UNESCO (2015). Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Accessed 22 April 2015.

UNESCO (2015). “UNESCO Director General condemns

destruction of Nimrud in Iraq”.

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