Islamist militants used sledgehammers and drills to smash ancient artifacts and statues in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, saying the relics were against the teachings of Islam, according to a video by Islamic State.
In this image made from video posted on a social media account affiliated with the Islamic State group on Feb. 26, 2015, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, a militant topples an ancient artifact in the Ninevah Museum in Mosul, Iraq. The extremist group has destroyed a number of shrines --including Muslim holy sites -- in order to eliminate what it views as heresy.
The five-minute video, posted on websites used by the jihadist group, shows several bearded men inside what’s identified as the Mosul Museum, breaking up large sculptures. In another scene, a man drills through the statue of a winged bull, an Assyrian protective deity, that was almost 3,000 years old.
The bull was destroyed four days ago, Layla Saleh, a former official at the Mosul Museum, said by phone on Thursday. Other statues seen being broken in the film are from the Nergal Gate in the ancient city of Nineveh, located near Mosul in what’s now northern Iraq.
The smashing of artefacts is the latest act of violence that Islamic State has broadcast to the world. The group has filmed the beheading of prisoners including Egyptian Christians and American journalists, and the burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot. The U.S. is leading a bombing campaign against Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The group’s cultural vandalism carries echoes of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which blew up two giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan Valley in 2001, and another Islamist group, Ansar al-Dine, which destroyed Sufi Muslim shrines in Timbuktu in 2012.
The Sunni Muslim group has directed much of its violence at Shiites and non-Muslim minorities. In recent weeks, Islamic State militants have attacked predominantly Assyrian Christian villages in northeastern Syria, taking dozens hostage according to human rights groups.
The filmed attack on the Mosul artefacts drew widespread condemnation. Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, called it an “act of catastrophic destruction to one of the most important museums in the Middle East.”
“This mindless attack on great art, on history, and on human understanding constitutes a tragic assault not only on the Mosul Museum, but on our universal commitment to use art to unite people and promote human understanding,” Campbell said in an e-mailed statement.
In the Islamic State video, a bearded militant justifies the action by saying that idols were worshiped in the past and had to be destroyed.
“The Prophet Mohammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca,” the militant said. “We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.”
Mosul, Iraq’s second-biggest city and the surrounding Nineveh province fell to Islamic State in June last year after its fighters routed the Iraqi army. It’s the largest city that the group has captured. U.S. and Iraqi officials have recently signaled that they’re planning an offensive to recapture it, though it won’t start for some months.
The Mosul Museum’s collection covers the range of civilizations in the region, among the world’s oldest, with sculptures from royal cities such as Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra. The winged bull is one of a pair of statues -- the other is in the British Museum in London -- and has appeared on Iraqi banknotes.
Saleh, the Mosul museum official, escaped to Baghdad in September after the Islamic State takeover. In a phone interview at the time, she said the city’s antiquities were “at real risk and danger from the both sides of the conflict, Islamic State and the coalition forces fighting it.”
She said the items in the Mosul museum were likely to be destroyed because they were too large to be smuggled out and sold. Smaller antiquities were moved to Baghdad after 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, Saleh said in September.
“Destroying these statues means the erasure of whole civilizations,” she said on Thursday.