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Isil's cultural vandalism is just as chilling as its bloodlust


Erasing history: A militant topples an ancient artefact in the Nineveh Museum in Mosul, Iraq

Erasing history: A militant topples an ancient artefact in the Nineveh Museum in Mosul, Iraq


Erasing history: A militant topples an ancient artefact in the Nineveh Museum in Mosul, Iraq

On Thursday, the bulldozers of the Islamic State (Isil) began levelling the remains of a site as archaeologically significant as any in the world.

Until now Nimrud, some 20 miles south-east of Mosul, in northern Iraq, has boasted ruins dating back more than 3,000 years. The pulverising of the ancient city follows hot on the heels of other grotesque and heartbreaking Isil acts of vandalism. Only last week, a video was released showing the destruction of antiquities in Mosul's museums and the painstaking demolition of ancient sculptures too vast to topple.

The goons behind these acts of barbarism appreciate more cynically than anyone the publicity value of a rapid turnover of atrocities. One snuff video succeeds another in a murderous churn.

But if I am honest, no images from the hell that is the Islamic State have upset me more than those which showed a winged bull more than two-and-a-half thousand years old being deliberately and methodically power-drilled. Can the destruction of statues matter more than the loss of human life?

An answer, perhaps, is to be found in a Christian legend reported of Assyria, an ancient kingdom that incorporated what is today Mosul and its surroundings. In AD 362, the daughter of the Assyrian king, dying of an incurable illness, was restored to full health by the prayers of a local Christian saint.

So impressed by this miracle was her brother, Prince Behnam, that he turned his back on his ancestral religion and accepted baptism. His martyrdom swiftly followed; for Behnam's father, Sennacherib, outraged by his apostasy, had him put to death. When the king in turn fell sick, his wife had a dream which revealed that only his own baptism would serve to cure him.

The king, bowing to the inevitable, not only agreed to become a Christian but also to found a number of monasteries. One of them, named after his son, was established near the city of Mosul. From the 4th century until the present day, the monastery of Saint Behnam has served as a monument to the enduring Christian faith of the Assyrian people.

Then, last July, Islamic State fighters turned up.

"You have no place here any more," they told the monks. Saint Behnam's monastery was not the only church to be abandoned. In Mosul too, Masses have stopped being said for the first time in more than one-and-a-half thousand years.

Over the past two weeks Isil fighters have targeted Assyrian villages and taken hundreds hostage. But with their assault on Mosul's churches, monasteries, museums and Nimrud, it is clear that, for Isil, eliminating enemies is not enough; they are determined to erase all traces of Assyrian culture and civilisation from their blood-boltered caliphate.

Assyria, though, is far older than Islam and Christianity. For three centuries, between 911 and 609 BC, Assyria was the undisputed superpower of the Middle East, its capitals of Nineveh and Nimrud the greatest metropolises of their day. Despite the terror with which the Assyrian Empire had filled the Jews, memories of its glamour and sophistication had long survived its overthrow.

It was in the mid-19th century that archaeologists from France and Britain revealed to the world just how dazzling the civilisation of ancient Assyria had truly been.

The reliefs from Nineveh and the statuary from Nimrud that today adorn the British Museum are among the greatest works of art ever created. Not all the treasures exhumed from the buried cities of ancient Assyria were transported to the West, though. Many were preserved in Iraq. Great winged bulls fashioned in the reign of Sennacherib himself were reinstalled in one of the gateways of Nineveh. There, when Isil took over Mosul, they served as a standing reproach to the new masters of the city - "statues and idols," as the Isil propaganda film released last week put it, "excavated by Satanists".

It was one of Sennacherib's bulls that was shown on the film being power-drilled. The aim of Isil was not merely to emulate the idol-smashing of the Prophet Mohammed, but to provoke and outrage world opinion - an aim in which they certainly succeeded. Just as the Nazis destroyed synagogues as well as those who had worshipped in them, so does the Islamic State aspire to efface all traces from its caliphate of those it condemns as kuffar or infidels.

Control the past, and you control the future: the shattered fragments of Sennacherib's bulls and the dust of what was once Nimrud bear fatal witness to just how thoroughly Isil has grasped this truth. It is not just antiquities that are being destroyed, but the memories, identity and future of an entire people. Assyria and the Assyrian people risk being lost to a terminal darkness: a darkness the shadow of which menaces the cultural heritage of all humanity.


Sunday Independent