Islamic State militants destroy Iraq's ancient city of Hatra

A pillared ruin at the ancient Iraqi city of Hatra.
A pillared ruin at the ancient Iraqi city of Hatra. AFP/Philippe Desmazes

The Islamic State group has destroyed the ancient Iraqi fortress city of Hatra, Kurdish and Iraqi officials said Saturday, just two days after "bulldozing" the ruins of Nimrud and weeks after smashing artefacts in the Mosul museum.


Speaking from Mosul, Kurdistan Democratic Party official Said Mamuzini told the Kurdish news site Rudaw that militants from the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, had begun looting and destroying the site with shovels.

"The city of Hatra is very big and many artefacts of that era were protected inside the site,” he said. “ISIS has already taken away all the ancient currencies from the city that are in gold and silver."

Iraqi officials from the tourism and antiquities ministry confirmed the reports.

The fortified and pillared city of Hatra, which once withstood an attack by the Romans, is a 2,000-year-old site that lies 110 kilometres (68 miles) south of Mosul and is known for its beautifully preserved temples combining Hellenistic, Roman and Eastern influences.

Islamic State group jihadists "bulldozed" the ruins of Nimrud on Thursday using heavy military vehicles, Iraq’s tourism and antiquities ministry said.

“Daesh terrorist gangs continue to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity,” the ministry said, referring to the Islamic State group by its Arabic acronym, Daesh.

“In a new crime in their series of reckless offences they assaulted the ancient city of Nimrud and bulldozed it with heavy machinery, appropriating the archaeological attractions dating back 13 centuries BC."

A local tribal source confirmed the attack.

“Islamic State members came to the Nimrud archaeological city and looted the valuables in it and then they proceeded to level the site to the ground,” the source told Reuters.

“There used to be statues and walls as well as a castle that Islamic State has destroyed completely."

The radical Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State group dismiss Iraq's pre-Islamic heritage as idolatrous. Under the jihadists' extreme interpretation of Islam, statues, idols and shrines symbolise the recognition of objects of worship other than God and must be destroyed.

'War crime'

The Cairo-based Al-Azhar, one of Sunni Islam's leading authorities, also expressed outrage at the bulldozing of the ancient city of Nimrud, saying the jihadists must be "eradicated".

"What the terrorist organisation Daesh is doing by destroying monuments in the territory it controls in Iraq, Syria and Libya... is a major crime against the entire world," Al-Azhar said in a statement on Friday.

"What Daesh is doing is a war crime that history would never forget," it said, adding that destruction of monuments was forbidden under Islamic sharia law.

Al-Azhar also urged "everyone concerned in the countries where Daesh and other extremist groups exist, to cooperate and eradicate them and save our Arabic and Islamic nations from their evils".

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the Islamic State group's destruction of Nimrud in a statement on Friday, also describing it as a war crime.

"The deliberate destruction of our common cultural heritage constitutes a war crime and represents an attack on humanity as a whole," Ban said in a statement.

Some 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of the Islamic State group stronghold of Mosul, Nimrud was built around 1250 BC. Four centuries later it became capital of the neo-Assyrian empire, at the time the most powerful state in the world and extending to modern-day Egypt, Turkey and Iran.

Nimrud has been described as one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century, when a team unearthed a collection of jewels and precious stones in 1988.

The artefacts survived the looting that followed the 2003 US-led invasion and were eventually found in a Central Bank building. Most of Nimrud's treasures have since been moved to museums in Mosul, Baghdad, Paris, London and elsewhere, but giant lamassu statues   winged bulls with human heads   and reliefs were still at the original site, which has been excavated by a series of experts since the 19th century. British archaeologist Max Mallowan and his wife, crime writer Agatha Christie, worked at Nimrud in the 1950s.

Destruction in Mosul

A video released in late February showed Islamic State group militants toppling statues and carvings from plinths in the Mosul museum and smashing them with sledgehammers and drills. It also showed damage to a huge statue of a bull at the Nergal Gate into the city of Nineveh.

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

"The prophet removed and buried the idols in Mecca with his blessed hands," he added.

Archaeologists said it was hard to quantify the damage in Mosul because some of the items appeared to be replicas but many of the original articles destroyed were priceless.

Some have compared the assault on Iraq’s cultural history to the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas in 2001. But the damage wreaked by the Islamic State group on ancient monuments as well as on rival Shiite places of worship has been swift, relentless and more wide-ranging.

The Islamic State group spearheaded a sweeping offensive last June that overran Nineveh province, where Mosul and Nimrud are located, and swept through much of Iraq's Sunni Arab heartland.

The Mosul region was home to a mosaic of minorities, including Assyrian Christians, who consider themselves to be the region's indigenous people.

The militants have systematically destroyed heritage sites in areas they control, including Sunni Muslim shrines that they also consider heretical, and they have repeatedly attacked members of religious minorities.

Iraqi security forces and allied fighters are battling to regain ground from the jihadists with backing from an international coalition as well as neighbouring Iran.

They are currently engaged in their biggest operation yet, to retake the city of Tikrit, about 100 kilometres north of Baghdad.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)


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