Remembering The Relics And Rich History Of Mosul, Before ISIS

Then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill (right) tours the Mosul Museum of History in May 2009. This week the self-declared Islamic State posted a video online that showed militants going through the museum, pushing over statues and smashing artifacts with sledgehammers. (AFP/Getty Images)
Then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill (right) tours the Mosul Museum of History in May 2009. This week the self-declared Islamic State posted a video online that showed militants going through the museum, pushing over statues and smashing artifacts with sledgehammers. (AFP/Getty Images)

When I visited the Mosul museum in 2010, it was as cool and damp as any tomb. It was winter; the power was out and the lights were off.

But as a State Department visit, escorted by U.S. soldiers, made its way around the gloomy rooms, the enthusiasm of the staff lit up the treasures that gradually became apparent.

The Nineveh plain in northern Iraq, where Mosul is, saw mighty civilizations rise and fall, but their relics endured for millennia. In the museum were depictions of the great winged Assyrian beasts called lamassu. There was a stone tablet that might be the world's oldest menu: a record of a banquet given by King Ashurbanipal II of Assyria.

I was dwarfed by friezes of giant Assyrian warriors, with vast, muscular bodies and finely sculpted details: the petals of the chamomile flowers, the curls of the beards.

Little, it seems, has been spared. The latest video by the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State — though not footage of human slaughter — is also painful to watch. Bearded men take sledgehammers to the artifacts of the museum and go to archaeological sites nearby.

When I visited the remnants of the cities and palaces at Hatra and Nimrud, they were guarded only by a few men living in trailers. They were in rural places, and the main concern was that rain and pigeon droppings were erasing carvings — not that fanatics with power tools would come and wreak destruction.

Despite claims to the contrary, the statues and friezes they destroy are all originals, thousands of years old, said one expert who worked at the museum for 10 years but didn't want to be identified for fear of ISIS.

"We expected this," says the former museum worker. "Nobody can do anything ... they did what they want."

When ISIS arrived last summer, the worker says, some of the museum staff — the men — tried to negotiate. They tried to strike a bargain, for example, that ISIS destroy only the tomb said to be that of Jonah, but not the ancient church-turned-mosque built on top. It didn't work.

In this latest video, an unidentified man says Islam calls for the destruction of all idols. The museum worker was dismissive of this piety, saying the militants "don't care about the statues" but rather are trying to "send a message to all the world."

As we walked around the ruins of Hatra five years ago — as the American soldiers snapped photos of themselves next to statues — the museum director, Hicket al-Aswad, told me that most of the city still was unexcavated.

At the time, he wished they could get funding and peace so they could begin exploring the history. As things stand, maybe it's better it remained underground.

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