A team of Czech scholars is working to document architectural sites in Mosul that have been destroyed by the Islamic State (ISIS) since the terrorist group overran the city in June of 2014. Supported by the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague, the project—called “Monuments of Mosul in Danger”—seeks to preserve for posterity an accounting of the devastating loss of antiquities at the hands of radical militants, whose videos posted online show them smashing relics and statues from Mosul Museum and the city of Hatra.
The team’s interest in studying Mosul is a natural continuation of their other research in Medieval Urban Landscape in Northeastern Mesopotamia. But ISIS’s seizure of the city and its barbaric attitude toward heritage accelerated their research in Mosul, says Miroslav Melčák, a historian from the Oriental Institute who specializes in the social and cultural medieval history of the Middle East. “The devastation of the city was so quick, and media reports were bringing terrible news about the scope of the destruction.” The scholars began to use satellite imagery to document the destroyed monuments.
Mosul has long been a crossroads of cultures. In the Islamic and Ottoman periods, it served as a meeting point for Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, and Shabaks. “All these peoples lived together peacefully most of the time,” said Karel Nováček, an archaeologist and historian of architecture at Palacký University in Olomouc. “It created a unique, multi-cultural atmosphere that is reflected in the architecture of the city.” Right up to the beginning of the thirteenth century, he said, peculiar architectural forms developed that were not linked to a single cultural group. While other examples of this cultural mix exist in cities in Iraq and the Near East, he said, Mosul is exceptional in terms of the intensity and length of this cultural exchange.
Scholars have rarely studied the city’s historical architecture, making the current documentation even more urgent. “The first and only systematic survey of Mosul’s monuments by a Western scholar was in 1907–8, by the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld,” said Melčák. And while many outstanding Iraqi scholars have researched the city’s heritage, their work remains largely unknown in the West. “One of the aims of our project is to get Western scholars acquainted with the scholarly work of our Iraqi colleagues,” added Melčák.
In February, the team released an interactive map of the monuments they know have been destroyed. The map contains links to profiles of individual monuments, including satellite images of the damage done. The scope of destruction is extensive.
“We’ve found that 38 monuments have been either ruined or completely razed,” said Melčák. “In some cases the debris has been cleared and the empty spaces paved over for use as car parks.” The scholars have identified 33 out of the 38 monuments. Two of them were Christian: an Orthodox church and a partly ruined monastery. The destroyed Islamic buildings included mosques, shrines, madrasas, and tombs.
Two tombs, dating from the reign of a Mosul governor, Badr al-Din Lu’lu’ (d. 1259), are among the most serious losses, said Nováček. Even older Islamic buildings, dating from the second half of the twelfth century and representing the earliest still-preserved layer of the Mosul heritage architecture, were blasted and razed to the ground, Nováček said.
Reports from inside the city suggest that many other monuments were pillaged or set on fire. But the damage hasn’t always appeared on satellite images because the buildings’ exterior construction is still stable. News reports and eye witnesses have said that this was the fate of many churches and monasteries. Those accounts, Melčák said, “are too contradictory to assess their actual state, but we are trying to verify them.”
Lenka Starková, an archaeologist specializing in remote sensing from the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen, transforms the satellite images into layers on a database that stores information according to geographic position. “Using these images, we compare the state of architecture before and after ISIS took the city,” said Nováček. “Every previouslyknown monument and every neighborhood has to be checked.” (See related article: Iraqis Watch Antiquities Take Hit After Hit).
Besides monitoring the destructive activities of ISIS, the project team is trying to understand the rationale behind their behavior. The head of the Oriental Institute, Ondřej Beránek, is a historian who specializes in the history of Islam, particularly its Salafi and Wahhabi interpretations. “Two key factors are at play,” he says. “They are religious and strategic. Attacks against Islamic funeral and sacred architecture are frequently seen across the Muslim world. These are not random acts of vandalism, but are considered acts of ‘religious duty.’” This duty—of leveling graves (taswiyat al-qubur)—is contained in the Wahhabi tradition and texts, cited by the contemporary Salafi movements, and promoted by the Saudi religious establishment.
“Graves, tombs and mosques containing deceased saints,” he added, “must be destroyed in order to stop them becoming a place of worship, as they understand it. The reason behind the destruction of statues and sculptures stems from the fear of idolatry.”
“The strategic objective of these acts is to destroy the culture, background and pride of local people and their intellectual bedrock,” added Beránek. “The harsh approach toward cultural heritage has proved in the past to be a very powerful instrument in the fight against various forms of popular Islam. It has also served as a way of controlling local Muslim communities all around the world. Sometimes, though, this can backfire and lead the local communities to resist.”
Along with collecting satellite imagery, the Czech researchers are gathering all the widely dispersed historical records, archives, and scholarly writing they can about lost buildings. These documents are widely dispersed among scholars and the private collections of locals. “If we succeed, we could create a base for future architectural restoration,” said Nováček.
Reconstructing the lost heritage sites with the same historical and artistic value they used to have would, of course, be impossible. The only option would be to build replicas of some of the finest pieces of architecture, if enough documentation could be gathered.
“Hopefully, more documentation of the most significant sites will come to light after the city is liberated,” said Melčák. “But I am more skeptical about the less significant, modest architectural sites in the city. For them, even basic photographic documentation is hard to find. Still, with 3D modeling, at least partial virtual models of some of these sites will be possible.” (In a separate effort, a group of digital restorers called Project Mosul—recently renamed as REKREI—is trying to create digital restorations of artifacts once displayed in the Mosul Museum.)
The Czech team currently works with available photos, documentary films, descriptions, satellite images and aerial photos from 1940s and 1950s. They are also gathering information from residents and former residents of Mosul. They have discovered Facebook pages, such as that of Mosul Eye “Let’s Preserve Mosul and Ninawa Heritage” and historical photographs of Mosul on the group “Old Mosul: Pictures and Memories.” (See related article: Q & A with the “Mosul Eye” Historian).
From Prague, Nováček expressed his fears about the inevitable damage that will be done when military forces try to retake the city. “We are in close contact with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad, trying to promote an initiative to protect what architectural richness remains against destruction that might occur during the liberation of the town,” said Nováček. “We are ready to provide all our data and experience to responsible authorities and to help in preparing a ‘rescue plan’ for Mosul.” In the takeovers of Sinjar, Tikrit and Ramadi by coalition forces, he said, a lot of heritage was destroyed.
Coalition forces reportedly have their eye on Mosul as the next ISIS-controlled city they hope to retake.