The only way into the Mosul Museum, as I discovered a few months ago, was to crawl through a hole in the wall, accessed from an alleyway that cuts between the museum and its former administrative buildings. At the end of the alley is an Iraqi Federal Police barricade; beyond that are the narrow streets of Mosul’s old town and the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave his infamous July 2014 sermon after the jihadist group conquered the city. In March, Iraqi forces retook the museum, and I was granted access to the site with two colleagues. The surrounding neighborhood was blackened, destroyed, still unsafe. We were told to watch out for ISIS snipers, and the sound of gunfire shook the stillness. Only Iraqi Federal Police were wandering about, though I could also hear birdsong coming from the museum’s garden, where rosebushes and fig and olive trees had been planted in homage to the gardens of ancient Nineveh, around which the modern city of Mosul arose.
Inside the museum, I found the floor of the Assyrian gallery carpeted with shards of stone inscribed with cuneiform, remnants of the tablets that told the stories of Mesopotamia. In the gallery devoted to the city of Hatra, capital of the first Arab kingdom, the plinths bore no pedestals or statuary. It was here that ISIS fighters in 2015 filmed themselves smashing objects with sledgehammers. Nearby is a gigantic hole where explosives tore through an Assyrian winged bull statue that was too large to destroy by hand. Below that hole, in the basement, the floor of the museum’s library was thick with ash. The walls were licked black with fire, and the air was hot and sweet with the smell of burnt paper and plastic. Some 25,000 books had been destroyed.
Because of the building’s height, ISIS used it as a sniper’s nest. When the museum was retaken in March, Iraq’s Federal Police found bodies of ISIS fighters among the rubble, said Wisam Fadil of the force’s Third Division as he trod around the ruins. He’s from Baghdad, but for him, these objects transcend region: they are remnants of a shared, ancient past.
ISIS fighters announced their caliphate at the end of June 2014, after seizing Mosul, and began to impose dogmatic religious codes and punishments upon the people of the region. Since the worship of stones or images depicting gods or humans was now strictly forbidden, ISIS destroyed shrines and temples, particularly those of Shia Muslims and Yazidis, and looted objects that could be carted away. Now in Iraq, the group’s gains are being reversed. Neighborhood by neighborhood, Mosul is falling back under Iraqi government control, although at great cost to its people, who are being bombarded from all sides. ISIS fighters regularly kill civilians trying to escape. Not long after the museum was retaken, an American airstrike, part of the war against ISIS, killed more than 100 civilians sheltering in a house in western Mosul. Saba Omeri, a former museum worker and native of the city, spoke about the tension between protecting heritage and human lives. For her, the deaths of neighbors and friends and the forced displacement of the city’s ancient Christian community have been far more tragic than the loss of the museum’s pieces.
Despite the risks, staff members have returned to survey the damage and, most notably, what’s not there. Empty walls were once filled with Neo-Assyrian bas-reliefs and tablets and sculptures from Hatra. Most of the 115 or so objects in the galleries and another 200 in storage were looted, though only 18 or so pieces were destroyed, said former museum curator Leila Salih. She has hope that some of the objects can be recovered. The storerooms included tiles from Nineveh, pottery, jars, and Islamic decorative objects. Some of these pieces have already been found elsewhere in the city, she said, along with documents detailing illegal excavations.
“How many countries in the world went through four wars within 30 years?” asked Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani when I spoke to her later. She reeled off a list of wars, civil wars, and invasions that have killed and displaced Iraqis and damaged the region’s cultural heritage. But the systematic and deliberate destruction by ISIS was something completely different, she said. “It is an ideology they have to erase history.”
Another expert in Iraqi and Syrian archaeology with whom I spoke, Smithsonian fellow Katharyn Hanson, added: “In the past you could look at the skyline in Mosul and see the different minarets and tops of the different shrines and see that diversity reflected. You could walk through the halls of the Mosul Museum and see that diversity of people who lived in northern Iraq, and different interpretations of the past, not just the one homogenized interpretation of Islam ISIS wants it to be.”
These links are particularly important to the country’s Assyrian Christians, who trace their lineage back to the pre-Christian kingdoms of Nineveh. Under Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, symbols of these past civilizations were taken up to bolster a vision of shared history and national identity. Now, the damaging cultural losses have elicited a shared national feeling of outrage. In July 2014, when ISIS destroyed the mosque of Nabi Yunus, across the Tigris River from the Mosul Museum, the city collectively wept. Believed to hold the tomb of the prophet Jonah, the shrine sat above a mound inside the historic city of Nineveh. Muslims and Christians alike saw it as a symbol of the city. “The foundations of Mosul have all been lost,” said Adel al-Bakri, a Mosul historian, speaking to his nephew through his tears when he heard about the destruction. He told his family that it was up to the young people of the city to rebuild Mosul. Since the recapture of the mosque, archaeologists have found tunnels underneath the structure with Assyrian reliefs and possibly the entrance to another palace. According to Hanson, an Assyrian temple almost certainly exists below the mound.
This is not the first time Iraq’s cultural heritage has been under attack. Nineveh, the great city that held the palaces of the Assyrian kings (after the capital of the empire moved from nearby Nimrud), was sacked in 612 BC. In the mid-19th century, a time when the European powers were competing to gather up trophies from the ancient worlds, British and Iraqi archaeologists excavated at Nimrud and Nineveh, sending their finds back to the British Museum. (One Assyrian winged bull, on its way to France, was lost in the Tigris River as it was being ferried away.) In London, these plundered objects projected the might of the British Empire through the acquisition of knowledge and symbols of historical power. In subsequent years, plundering continued to be a problem (as have neglect and insensitive development). Many invaluable artifacts are still missing since the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq during the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. During that same invasion, the Mosul Museum was also looted.
Shortly after leaving Mosul, I traveled to London and decided to visit some of these plundered Assyrian artifacts. When I arrived at the British Museum, it was a bright day in early spring and the queues snaked along the front lawn. A cheery man checked my handbag with a flick of a small, black flashlight, and I was ushered in among a sea of European students and tourists. London was jumpy after five people were killed in a terror attack on Westminster Bridge in late March, and the main newspapers were earnestly manufacturing fear. (“Which bridge was it?” my friend asked darkly as we crossed the Thames.) Upstairs in the museum, I saw some of the clay tablets from the library of the last Neo-Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668–627 BC). The fires were so strong when Nineveh was razed that the tablets bubbled like molten glass, according to the description beside the objects. The king’s library included a copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which the British Museum now has. Having seen the destruction in the Mosul Museum not long before, I experienced a strange feeling of dislocation and doubling of place as I stood in front of these Assyrian objects, more than 2,000 miles from their home. Anthropologist Michael Taussig has noted that monuments “create public dream-space in which, through informal and often private rituals, the particularities of one’s life [make] patterns of meaning.” Gazing upon the massive, majestic winged bulls that guard the entrance to the Assyrian gallery, or the intricate lion hunt scenes of the stone bas-reliefs, I felt an intense sadness.
Iraqis have complained that their cultural heritage is displayed in Western museums, but since the rise of ISIS, Gailani told me that minds have changed, adding that many of the objects themselves were originally looted by the Assyrian and Babylonian kings. “It’s nice to walk around the British Museum, the Met, and see these objects in front of you complete,” she said, “but I feel very sad for Nimrud and so on, because I think, ‘I’ll never see them again.’ It is like a loved one has died.”
“I’m glad they’re safe, but they’re ours,” said a friend of mine from Baghdad, when I told him about my visit to the British Museum.
Last year, a replica of the Arch of Triumph, destroyed by ISIS in Palmyra, Syria, was displayed in London’s Trafalgar Square. Via 3D printing technology, a scale model of the monumental Roman arch, formerly a unesco World Heritage Site, had been conjured, out of context, in the heart of London. The replica sparked debate among archaeologists: some said the money would have been better spent preserving what remained at the actual site. And yet, in parts of the ISIS caliphate, the memory and ritual associated with a destroyed site linger still. One day, inside a U.S. military office, civilian employees charged with mapping targets in the war against ISIS noticed something unusual. A group of people, perhaps women, had gathered in an empty place for no obvious reason. And then they realized: this was not an ISIS cell, or militants on the move, but a group of people continuing to worship at the site where their former shrine had once stood.