This is terrible…
The Islamic State group released a video on Thursday showing militants using sledgehammers to smash ancient artifacts in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul, describing them as idols that must be removed, according to the Associated Press.
The destructions are part of a campaign by Islamic State, who have destroyed a number of shrines — including Muslim holy sites — in order to eliminate what they view as heresy.
While the world was watching the Academy Awards ceremony, the people of Mosul were watching a different show. They were horrified to see ISIS members burn the Mosul public library. Among the many thousands of books it housed, more than 8,000 rare old books and manuscripts were burned.
Let’s not forget that people of many faiths (ancient and modern) have used the defacement or destruction of art or cultural items as a way to “wipe the slate clean” of previous heresies. From Hatsheput to Josiah pulling down the high places in Israel to the burning of books, these tactics are power plays designed to show that the deity or deities are on one’s side in a presumed theo-political battle.
Lost in the fear that ISIS / ISIL / IS is imminently planning to attack the US is the cultural damage this collection of people are doing to museums and sites in Syria (Damascus, Antioch, Palmyra, Dura Europos) and northern Iraq (Mosul / Nineveh).
Specifically for the stories linked above, the modern city of Mosul sites very near Nineveh, the historical capital of the Assyrian Empire, at its height in the 9th-7th centuries BCE. Believe it or not, Assyrian artifacts caused quite a rage in the late 1800’s after Sir Henry Austen Layard’s discovery of Assyrian palaces in the 1850’s.
These artifacts directly impacted the development of the missionary movement as northeastern universities used these impressive pieces of art as proof of God’s providence (as the folks in Jerusalem were saved from Sennacherib’s invasion by God’s hand according to the book of Kings… the folks in the Northern Kingdom of Israel as well as Lachish were less fortunate).
While doing graduate studies at Yale, I somehow lucked into a dream job at the Yale Art Gallery. I was so fascinated by the Assyrian antiquities there and the story of why Yale, Harvard, Amherst, Williams etc were so passionate about securing Assyrian pieces for their own collections in the 1800’s that I wrote a book about it:
This accompanying text to the Yale University Art Gallery’s famed Assyrian reliefs details the 19th-century American frenzy for reliefs taken from Assurnasirpal II’s magnificent palace in Kalhu near the Tigris River. The discovery of the palace by the British in 1845 captured the Victorian public’s imagination, leading to the discovery of other architectural sites and the deciphering of the Assyrian language. Soon, American missionaries sought to procure artifacts for their alma maters, most often coveting reliefs that were religious in content. William Frederic Williams was one such missionary and former Yale faculty member. He, along with Yale Medical School graduate Henry Lobel, secured six slabs from Assurnasirpal’s palace, which were divided up between Yale, Amherst, and Union Seminary in Utica. Harrelson analyzes at length the two reliefs obtained by Yale. He touches on the technical aspects of the materials as well as the reliefs’ religious iconography, situating them within the palace as a whole.
Along with the atrocities being done by groups such as IS to other humans, we should care about the destruction of irreplaceable pieces of world history whenever it happens. For those of us with a more jingoist mindset, we should especially care when these cultural pieces are directly tied to our own history and majority religion.
William F. Williams wrote back to his benefactors at Yale from the city of Mosul in the 1850’s that, “Asia has claims upon New England.” Perhaps that has never been more true in the modern context.
I pray for peace.