It is said that history is written by victors. In that case, it seems it is increasingly destroyed by losers. On Wednesday, the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul was reduced to rubble by Daesh militants as the Iraqi military came within 50 yards of the building. The 900-year-old structure was an important part of Iraq’s cultural heritage, another victim of the systematic demolition of historical sites by radicals across the Islamic world.
The loss of the mosque and its famous leaning Al-Hadba (Hunchback) minaret is a great blow to Iraq’s rich heritage. Built in the 12th century by Nur Al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, the structure has characterized Mosul’s skyline for centuries; it even features on the 10,000-dinar banknote.
Since the start of their reign of terror, militants have sought to destroy important monuments, including the ancient city of Palmyra northeast of Damascus, the tomb of the Prophet Jonah and the Assyrian ruins at Nimrud. They also sacked the collection of thousands of ancient manuscripts in Mosul’s library.
Daesh justifies its actions on absurd religious grounds, claiming such historical sites are heretical and incompatible with its apocalyptic vision of a caliphate. As well as intentionally causing destruction, the group has caused great damage to historic religious sites by routinely using mosques for military purposes. Minarets are frequently used as sniper nests, and prayer halls as weapon stores.
In complete disrespect of Islamic teaching prohibiting the waging of war from any religious places (including churches and synagogues), Daesh has continually highlighted how far removed it is from the tolerance stressed in Islamic rules of war.
In 2001, the world watched aghast as the Taliban defaced the 4th-century Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. Sadly, such acts of cultural barbarism have become more commonplace and do not shock the world as they once did.
It is hugely fortunate that Daesh has failed to capture the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus or the crusader castle Krak de Chevaliers. They are incredibly important world heritage sites, and their loss would be disastrous to humanity’s shared past.
What the bandits fail to note is that early Islamic rulers preserved and built upon the cultural foundations of previous civilizations. During the expansion of Islamic rule under Omar bin Al-Khattab, the second caliph, great care was taken to preserve holy sites that came under Islamic tutelage.
The loss of the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri in Mosul and its famous leaning Al-Hadba (Hunchback) minaret is a great blow to Iraq’s rich heritage.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Despite leading an army “large enough to make the ground shake,” according to contemporary records, Al-Khattab dismounted and entered Jerusalem on foot while his servant rode his camel.
His modest entrance greatly surprised inhabitants, including the Christian Patriarch Sophronius. The people of Jerusalem were amazed at the caliph’s strange simplicity, unable to believe that the humble man before them could be the leader of such a large army.
After the Pact of Omar was signed and the keys to the city were formally handed over in 637 AD, the gates of Jerusalem were opened and Al-Khattab entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The patriarch asked him to pray but he declined, concerned that it may establish a precedent among Muslims that would threaten the church’s use as a Christian place of worship.
The Pact of Omar remains to this day, a testimony to how one of the closest companions of the Prophet (piece be upon him) stressed the importance of preserving historical sites — a clear message that the present-day radicals have overlooked.
Last year, Ahmad Al-Faqi Al-Mahdi pleaded guilty in the International Criminal Court (ICC) to the destruction of cultural world heritage in the Malian city of Timbuktu. In the first case of its kind, the court classified his acts as war crimes “constituting intentional attacks against historic monuments and buildings dedicated to religion.”
Timbuktu’s loss of 40,000 manuscripts and 16 mausoleums has raised awareness of what is increasingly called “cultural terrorism.” In the absence of political stability, an unprecedented campaign of cultural terrorism has taken hold in the Islamic world, which risks slowly erasing the common heritage of humanity. There has been a huge toll on the treasures of antiquity in the last two decades.
When thieves raided the treasures of the Iraq Museum in 2003, 7,000 years of history disappeared overnight. Recently in Syria, opposition groups openly admitted to looting archaeological sites to finance arms purchases; an estimated $3 billion have been raised in stolen antiquities since the start of the crisis.
Despite this, institutions designed to protect world heritage, such as UNESCO, have yet to develop a strategy to prevent such barbarism. It is incumbent upon governments and international organizations to work collectively to combat cultural terrorism.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).