The limestone sculptures, statues and reliefs smashed by militants in northern Iraq provided valuable historical insights into kingdoms that flourished thousands of years ago and were crucial in the formation of early Arab identity, experts say. The destruction took place in Mosul, in one of the most important museums in the Middle East.
On Friday, archaeologists and historians in Iraq and around the world studied a video posted by the Islamic State showing millenniums-old artifacts being smashed by sledgehammers, seeking to come to terms with what artistic and historical riches had been lost in an exercise clearly meant to promote the militants’ extreme beliefs and project their power.
Paul Collins, curator of the Ancient Near East at the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, said Mosul’s treasures were mainly from two eras, the Assyrian Empire and the kingdom of Hatra, a trading city from the first and second century A.D., whose ruins are in the desert about 60 miles southwest of Mosul. “You are seeing two very significant moments in Iraqi and Middle Eastern history — from the seventh century B.C. and the second century A.D. — being destroyed at the same time,” he said.
Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, called it an “act of catastrophic destruction.”
In Paris, the head of Unesco, Irina Bokova, asked for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on how to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage. “This attack is far more than a cultural tragedy — this is also a security issue as it fuels sectarianism, violent extremism and conflict in Iraq,” Ms. Bokova said on Thursday.
The smashing of the antiquities — described as “idols” by an Islamic State spokesman in the video report titled “The Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice #1 — Nineveh Province” — seemed to echo the destruction of the Great Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Afghan Taliban in 2001.
The video showed destruction at two sites: inside the Mosul Museum — which was established in 1952, and looted in 2003, after the American-led invasion of Iraq — and outside, at the Nergal Gate, an entryway to Nineveh, the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire, which was guarded by colossal human-headed, winged bulls.
In advance of the United States-led invasion, many of the most important statuary and works from Nineveh and Hatra were moved from the museum in Mosul to the Baghdad museum, meaning important works were safe from the militants’ latest bout of destruction. But important larger objects that could not be moved were left behind, making their destruction now even more poignant.
“These artifacts are as good as those in other global museums,” said Ali al-Nashmi, an Iraqi historian. With three halls and several storage rooms, the museum contained some of the finest relics from Hatra.
According to Mr. Collins, Hatra was explored and recorded after the major European expeditions to the region — in which so many artifacts were taken back to Western museums — so the majority of its wealth of treasures remained in Hatra or in the museum in Mosul. “If you really want to understand this extraordinary period, then this collection is absolutely crucial,” he said.
The militants appeared to systematically topple and destroy many of the sculptures — Unesco estimated 173 objects were contained in the museum, not all from Hatra — defacing works of art made by unknown artisans nearly 2,000 years ago.
“They represent some of the deities and actual kings and leaders” of Hatra, said Augusta McMahon, an archaeologist at Cambridge University. “Each one represents an individual. It makes them unique and irreplaceable.”
Abdulamir al-Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist and a visiting researcher at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said some of the important Hatra sculptures that had been destroyed included a statue of Sanatruq, a king of Hatra; a statue of a priest of Hatra; and an important mask from Hatra.
He said a stone winged lion excavated from Nimrud dating to the ninth century B.C. had also been in the museum. It was not shown in the video, but he worried for its safety.
Some Assyrian reliefs inside the museum and shown on the video appeared to be replicas, experts said. And several experts wondered whether some of the Hatra sculptures, too, were replicas because they appeared to shatter easily under the militants’ hammers.
But Ms. McMahon said they were made from soft limestone, which breaks easily. The sight of a metal reinforcement bar in one may be evidence of how the ancient artifact was attached to its plinth in more modern times, or how an ancient broken object had been reconstituted, she said. “I would say probably 90 percent of these are originals,” she said.
Outside the museum, the militants’ video lingered on a description of the gate at Nineveh, which explained that the entrance was dedicated to Nergal, the Sumerian god of plague and the underworld in ancient Mesopotamia. The association of the winged bulls — they have a body of a bull, wings of an eagle and a human face — with this pre-Islamic god was offered by the spokesman for the militants as a justification for their destruction. Men used drills and sledgehammers to deface and pulverize three winged bulls on the site.
There are other similar ancient winged bulls in museums in the West. But they are from different periods, and other locations, experts said. And importantly, none of those now in the safety of museums are still in places where their original creators had built them.
“They have torn Iraq’s history,” said Dr. al-Nashmi, the Iraqi historian.
Adel Fahad al-Shirshab, Iraq’s minister of tourism and artifacts, called on the international community to stop the destruction by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“This cultural genocide against Iraqi humanity has to be stopped immediately before ISIS wipes out what is left,” he said.
Omar Al-Jawoshy contributed reporting from Baghdad.
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