ISIS' Destruction of Biblical Iraq: A Bitter Irony of History

Nineveh has come full circle: After 2,700 years, the gleeful destroyer was itself destroyed. And now Hatra and Nimrud are gone too.

Julia Fridman
Julia Fridman
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A bas relief from ancient Nineveh depicting warriors on horses, from the Palace of Ashurbanipal.
A bas relief from ancient Nineveh depicting warriors on horses, from the Palace of Ashurbanipal.Credit: De Agostini / Getty Images
Julia Fridman
Julia Fridman

Within days, militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria destroyed three extraordinary cultural heritage sites in Iraq going back thousands of years: Nineveh, Hatra and Nimrud. For the ancient Assyrian capitals, their wanton destruction was a tragically ironic turn of events, given that their rulers, some 2,700 years ago, had been among the most brutal and destructive the region had known.

The destruction of cultural heritage by an occupier is nothing new. There is even a term for it: Urbicide, the destruction of an urban center in order to erase its memory for future generations.

The rulers of Nineveh, which fell first, then Nimrud and now, Hatra had done their share of destruction – records of which they proudly left behind, including in the form of wall art.

Though while ISIS seems to be following the Assyrians' rule book, whether in ignorance, irony or specifically to mimic long-gone great rulers, they do not cavil at selling antiquities they loot. In fact this is apparently a major source of funding for the group.

Although reports that Nineveh’s citadel had been destroyed proved false, in its assault on Mosul, ISIS did blow up the purported Tomb of Jonah. Then, perhaps spurred to further war crimes, as the UN called its actions, by the ensuing coverage and outrage, ISIS went on to destroy the Mosul museum and statues of ancient Nineveh’s great rulers and cultic treasures, smashing, drilling and crushing these ancient monuments into pebbles with their typical cinematic flair. But they hadn't exactly invented the wheel.

Bronze head of a king, believed to be King Sargon the Great of Akkad - possibly the origin of the Moses legend? Found in Niniveh.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Erasing the memory of Ishtar

Nineveh had stood the test of time for thousands of years. Originally dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and ideally positioned between two rivers, the Tigris and Khosr, this once magnificent and extremely powerful city was capital of the Assyrian empire. It was brought to fame by Sennacherib (705–681 BCE), the same Assyrian king who famously conquered Judah - leaving behind a trail of destroyed cities that archaeologists are excavating to this day.

“Nineveh comes up very frequently in my teaching. It was after all the capital of the empire that defeated Israel and destroyed much of Judah," says Jacob Wright, professor of Hebrew Bible at Atlanta, Georgia's Emory University.

Sennacherib and the other Assyrian kings really liked keeping records of their accomplishments, including in wall reliefs. The images would have been displayed so all could see the conquests and not get any funny ideas.

The reliefs, says Wright, helped shape our understanding of "one of the most important, and brutal, political powers in world history.”

In the mid-19th century, while digging in Nineveh, archaeologists found the famous "Lachish Reliefs," depicting the conquest and destruction of the great Judahite city of Lachish in 701 BC. The reliefs show the decapitation of the Judahite warriors, the destruction and abduction of Lachish's cultic items, processions of captives, and more.

In yet another twist of irony, if the Lachish panels, and other irreplaceable archaeological finds, had not been taken by the original excavators they would probably now be rubble. But they were, and are now safely found in some of the greatest museums in the world, including the British Museum and the Pergamon.

Repeating history, for different reasons

In fact, ancient Mesopotamian records frequently describe gods waging war on one another. This actually meant that the cities, with those gods as their guardians, waged war against one another. The walls of Nimrud, also known as Kalhu, had contained scenes of great brutality.

Imagery of destruction also appears in other Assyrian reliefs. Wright points to a scene found on a relief in Khorsabad, an Assyrian city near Nineveh and Nimrud, of Assyrian soldiers smashing statues in a temple. It is starkly reminiscent of the ISIS terrorists doing the very same thing. But Wright argues they are not the same thing at all.

“These two images are separated by a few kilometers, 2,700 years of history and very different mentalities. One is iconoclasm," says Wright – meaning the destruction of religious or political icons and monuments for religious or political motives. "The other is a post-battle ritual in which soldiers dismembered images of the enemy."

That said, their performances are very similar, he adds. "If you watch the videos of the Mosul event, you will see how they begin by decapitating the heads in the same way that we witness in ancient Near Eastern punitive actions. As a scholar I am fascinated by what's unfolding, even as I find these perpetrators utterly abhorrent.”

Destroying Jonah once and for all

Jonah is associated with the Assyrian city in the bible: "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me" (Jonah 1:2). It was the prophet's reluctance to visit the city and lecture it for its brutish ways that peeved the Lord and led to Jonah's ingestion by the "great fish". Jonah begged for forgiveness, and in the third chapter of the biblical story, he does finally go to Nineveh, to warn its king and inhabitants of the Lord's wrath. They repent, atone and fast, and the city is saved.

“Every year on Yom Kippur, the story of Jonah is read and studied. It depicts the prophet being very distraught when he learns that God was not going to destroy Nineveh despite its long history of imperial aggression," says Wright.

Nineveh then, and ISIS now, had similar ambitions: imperial domination and world conquest, ambitions that the Hebrew Bible frowns upon.

Nor was ISIS first in the modern era to wreak destruction intended to eradicate a proud history and memory. The Taliban, the very same organization which reportedly is chilly to ISIS for being too extremist, itself destroyed two extraordinary ancient monuments in 2001: the Bamiyan Buddhas, 53 and 35 meters tall. They had stood for 1,500 years until being blown to smithereens, in another act of iconoclasm.

ISIS deliberately targeted monumental urban architecture, such as municipal walls and statues of rulers, says Wright, a practice that has a long history in the Middle East. "From that perspective, it’s really quite fascinating," he says. "But for those of us who love history and are convinced we have a moral obligation to the past, the destruction of this monumental architecture is very painful to behold.”

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