Archaeologists expressed fears Friday that after ransacking the Mosul museum in Iraq, Islamic State group jihadists would embark on a systematic destruction of heritage in areas under their control.
Particularly at risk are the ancient cities of Hatra, a UNESCO world heritage site, and Nimrud. Both are south of Mosul, which has been the jihadists’ main hub in Iraq since June last year.
“This is not the end of the story and the international community must intervene,” said Abdelamir Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist at New York’s Stony Brook University.
IS released a video on Thursday showing its militants smashing ancient statues to pieces with sledgehammers at the Mosul museum.
Jihadists were also seen using a jackhammer to deface a colossal Assyrian winged bull at the Nergal gate in the large archaeological park that lies in the city.
“They told the guards they would destroy Nimrud,” said Hamdani, who used to be based in Iraq with the department of antiquities.
“It is one of the very important Assyrian capitals, there are reliefs and winged bulls there… This would be a real disaster,” he told AFP by telephone from the United States.
“Maybe they will also attack and destroy Hatra, it is a very isolated site in the desert,” he said.
Hatra is a UNESCO-listed site that lies in IS-controlled territory around 100 kilometres (60 miles) southwest of Mosul.
UNESCO says the “remains of the city, especially the temples where Hellenistic and Roman architecture blend with Eastern decorative features, attest to the greatness of its civilisation.”
“I am afraid that more destruction is in their pipeline,” said Ihsan Fethi, an Iraqi architect and heritage expert based in Jordan.
“They could do anything, they could move to the temples in Hatra, and say they’re heathens and blow it up pretty easily. Who will stop them?,” he said.
On Thursday, IS blew up a 12th century mosque “because it housed a tomb”, Fethi said.
In the jihadists’ extreme interpretation of Islam, statues, idols and shrines are a material corruption of the purity of the early Muslim faith and amount to recognising other objects of worship than God.
Their views are marginal however and most clerics, even those who promote a rigorist Islam, argue that what were idols in the day of the Prophet are now part of cultural heritage.
UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said on Thursday that she had sought an emergency meeting of the Security Council following the demolitions in Mosul, which she called “intolerable” and described as a threat to Iraq’s security.