From Nineveh to Jonah's Tomb: ISIS' War on History

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Dark clouds hang over the ancient city of Palmyra, in an archive image taken in 2014. Now ISIS flags fly over the city - which reportedly remains intact, so far.Credit: AFP

It is an irony of fate, courtesy of ISIS, that "artifact looting" by western archaeologists over the last century-plus may have saved the last remnants of civilizations long gone.

In the year since the Islamic State declared itself a global caliphate, it has not only ruined and ended countless lives – it has declared war on history. As it sweeps across towns that go back thousands of years, some to the dawn of civilization, ISIS has blasted away not only enemy strongholds but sites of churches and pagan worship – as well as Sunni shrines that ISIS, a Salafi sect, declares to be "un-Islamic." Now the group has reached the world heritage site of ancient Palmyra, though this time, according to the Guardian at least, ISIS says it will leave the ancient ruins intact, and will only destroy "infidel" idols. It was less forgiving of a host of ancient cities that now exist only in literature, and memory.

Jonah's Tomb, Mosul

Enhanced image of 'Jonah and the Whale' found in a Jerusalem burial cave: The tale of the prophet is region-wide. (Photo: Associated Producers).

The biblical prophet Jonah was believed to have been buried in Mosul, Iraq, in what had been part of the ancient city of Nineveh. Over the eons, the site was converted numerous times, including into a Christian church, and later, in the 14th century, into a large Sunni mosque – which remained dedicated to Nabi Yunus (the Prophet Jonah, in Arabic). It was a place whose sanctity was honored by believers in the three great religions – until ISIS destroyed the purported tomb on July 24, 2014. Reportedly it took just an hour for ISIS to rig the Tomb with explosives that blew away this monument, whose roots go back unknown thousands of years.

Saint Ahoadamah Church, Tikrit

Saint Ahoadamah Church, Tikrit. It stood for over 1.400 years, but stands no more. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Also known as the Green Church, Saint Ahoadamah Church had been one of the oldest Syriac Orthodox churches still existing in the world, not that it enjoyed a peaceful existence. Built in the 7th century, it was looted and destroyed in the 11th century, then restored - and destroyed once more during the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. None other than Saddam Hussein ordered a renovation in the 1990s, when neglect of the edifice was the main danger. On September 25, 2014 ISIS fighters proved to be the structure's last, and deadliest, enemy.

The ancient wall of Nineveh, Mosul

A bas relief from Nineveh depicting warriors on horses. Photo: Getty Images

The ruins of the ancient wall of Nineveh, about 12 kilometers in circumference, had stood in the middle of modern Mosul, in Iraq. The city of Nineveh itself, named capital of the Assyrian empire by the powerful King Sennacherib, had been built over the ruins of human settlements going back some 8,000 years. On January 28, 2015, ISIS rigged large parts of the wall with explosives, ridding the world of one of the most distinctive archaeological monuments in Iraq. The wall had stood for about 2,700 years.

Mosul Central Library, Mosul

Not content with destroying the stone artifacts of history, on February 26, 2015, ISIS went after the written word, burning over 100,000 books and manuscripts dating back to the Ottoman period. While other ancient artifacts have been esteemed mainly for their age and connection to ancient cultures, this attack on culture cost the world a rare collection of newspapers and documents from the 20th century that could have contributed to understanding of Iraq's history in these turbulent times.

Mosul Museum

From an ISIS video showing the destruction of artifacts at Mosul Museum. (Reuters)

The day after the Central Library attack, ISIS destroyed the second largest museum in Iraq as well. Built in 1952, it had amassed a vast collection of mostly Assyrian artifacts. A number of great museums in the west have preserved isolated items from this region's long history, but the loss of this single building cost posterity the true panorama. Meticulously carved statues that had survived 3,000 years of wars were vanquished by a few men with sledgehammers.

The Assyrian city of Nimrud

Workers cleaning a winged bull in Nimrud, in July 2001. It's gone now. (AFP)

Nimrud, the main residence for Assyrian kings until 727 BC, had stood for almost 2,750 years and, lost in time, had been rediscovered in the 1820s. According to the archaeological record, Nimrud - originally called Khalhu - was built by King Shalmaneser I in the 13th century BCE. The royal tombs discovered there in the 1980s were considered to be one of the most important archeological finds of the 20th century. In March 2015, ISIS destroyed the slabs bearing reliefs of pagan Assyrian deities and razed the city using bulldozers and explosives. Some relics remain in the British Museum in London. ISIS explained that the city had been un-Islamic.

The ancient city of Hatra

Still from an ISIS video showing the destruction of Hatra, April 3, 2015. (AP)

Only two days after ISIS began ending the history of Nimrud for all time, the movement turned its attention to another magnificent ancient city, Hatra.  Built in the 3rd century BCE, it rose to prominence with the Parthian Empire, withstood Roman invasions in the 2nd century AD, and many of its artifacts survived - until March 7, 2015. Although most Westerners are more likely to recognize it from the horror film "The Exorcist," the temple at Hatra dedicated to the sun god Shamash was named a UNESCO heritage site for its historical significance. Now it is gone.

The ancient city of Khorsabad

A day after demolishing Hatra, yet another Assyrian city was destroyed. Khorsabad's construction had been ordered by King Sargon II in 722 BC. Built in just a decade, it was one of three capitals in the Assyrian empire's history. Khorsabad, also known as Dur-Sharrukin – famous for its magnificent pagan statues of winged bulls, among other things – didn't exist for long. It was abandoned after the king's death in 705 BCE, but its unique remains stood in the wind-swept desert some 20 kilometers away from Mosul. Until ISIS smashed them into dust.

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