Outcry as IS group destroys ancient Iraqi artefacts

An IS group propaganda video released Thursday, February 26, shows militants destroying ancient artefacts in the Iraqi city of Mosul
An IS group propaganda video released Thursday, February 26, shows militants destroying ancient artefacts in the Iraqi city of Mosul Screengrab

Islamic State militants released a video Thursday showing the destruction of priceless ancient artefacts in the Iraqi city of Mosul, an act that archeologists have described as an attack on the world’s “universal heritage”.


The propaganda video shows men using sledgehammers and drills to reduce sculptures and statues, some of which are believed to be thousands of years old, to rubble in a museum in Mosul – the Iraqi city seized by the IS group in a lightning offensive in June last year.

The footage shows a room strewn with the debris of the destroyed artefacts, which include Assyrian and Hellenistic works dating back to the 7th century BC.

"Muslims, these artefacts behind me are idols for people from ancient times who worshipped them instead of God," a militant says in the video.

He condemns the Assyrians, Akkadians and other peoples as polytheists and said the militants are following the example of the Prophet Mohammed by destroying the objects.

“The Prophet ordered us to get rid of statues and relics, and his companions did the same when they conquered countries after him,” he says.

Artefacts compared to the Mona Lisa

Though many of the destroyed artefacts are thought to be ancient works, others are plaster copies or reconstructions built around fragments of the original piece, experts have said.

Nevertheless, Axel Plathe, head of UNESCO’s Iraq office, told FRANCE 24 that while the organisation could not confirm the authenticity of the IS group video, the region is home to a number of “priceless works”.

“It's like the Mona Lisa, they are works that cannot be sold in a market," he says. "They are part of a universal heritage that is extremely important for the history of mankind."

Images suggest a number of the items destroyed in Mosul were plaster copies

Mosul sits in the heart of the Iraqi province of Nineveh, an area rich in religious and cultural heritage. It contains the ruins of the ancient Assyrian capital, also named Nineveh, which sits across from Mosul on the opposite side of the Tigris River.

The area has been the site of extensive archeological excavations since the mid-19th century.

An Islamic State militant told FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist groups, Wassim Nasr, that the destroyed artefacts were “satanic” objects that “should have been left in the ground”.

"Archaeologists should not have touched them," said the militant.

IS group sending ‘unacceptable message’

The Islamic State group has systematically destroyed heritage sites, including several Sunni Muslim shrines and mosques, in the areas it has conquered in Iraq and Syria.

Earlier this month, the group was accused of burning thousands of rare books and ancient manuscripts in Mosul’s library.

"They want to say: 'We do not respect your culture'. It is a strong and unacceptable message", said Plathe. "There is a risk that this kind of action is repeated, and we have no way to respond."

UNESCO on Thursday demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage “as an integral element for the country’s security”.

“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,” said Director-General Irina Bokova.

Bokova said the Mosul destruction was a violation of UN Security Council's resolution 2199, designed to counter illicit trafficking of antiquities and cultural objects from Iraq and Syria – believed to be a key source of income for the IS group.

But in what was perhaps a pointed message to the UN, the man appearing in the video released Thursday states that the destroyed objects may be “worth billions of dollars” but “we don’t care”.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning