Iraq’s ancient holy sites lost forever

The country’s monasteries and mosques have no place in the Caliphate


The world watched in horror as Islamic State (IS) destroyed priceless antiquities in northern Iraq. Now we wait anxiously see if the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria will suffer a similar fate. But IS has also been demolishing Iraqi Christian and Muslim sites, alongside its brutal treatment of Christians and many Shia Muslims, forcing millions to flee.

Iraq has one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world, dating back to the first century. However, the number has dwindled in recent years and they now represent only about 1% of the population. Most are Syriac Christians, including members of the Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic churches.

According to Erica Hunter, a specialist on Eastern Christianity at SOAS, the University of London, 72 churches have been attacked by IS. Of these, 45 were in Mosul, which has been occupied by IS militia since June 2014. Although damage has sometimes been confined to statues, crosses and other symbols, in other cases churches have been completely destroyed.

Despite being intent on establishing a new Islamic caliphate, Sunni IS militants are intolerant of Shia Muslims, who represent the majority of Iraqi Muslims. IS has targeted Shia mosques, particularly those with shrines to martyrs they reject. One academic specialist in Iraq told us that 37 Islamic sites in Mosul have been destroyed during the past year.

In Iraq, most historic buildings are either mosques or churches, so the IS destruction has had a devastating impact on the country’s built heritage, as well as on its antiquities. Unesco’s director general Irina Bokova describes the policy of IS as one of “cultural cleansing”. She says “terrorists use the destruction of heritage in their strategy to destabilise and manipulate populations so that they can assure their own domination”.

Targeted by Islamic State… Christian sites Mar Behnam Monastery, 35 km from Mosul, was severely damaged in March 2015. Dating from the fourth century, it is named after the Syriac martyr Mar Behnam, who was killed with his sister Sara by their father, King Shapur II, for converting to Christianity. Both their tombs were blown up by IS. The church, rebuilt in the 13th century, housed an important early Mongol Uighur inscription. The monastery had a unique library, with manuscripts dating back to the 15th century, and its fate remains unknown after the monks were expelled in July 2014. Fortunately, all 530 manuscripts had been digitised recently with support from the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Mar Gurguis Church, on the outskirts of Mosul, was attacked in December 2014 and March 2015. It was founded in the tenth century and rebuilt on the early foundations in modern times. IS has destroyed statues and narrative tiles with sledgehammers, and has toppled crosses on the church and in the cemetery. The church still stands, but reports suggest it is now a detention centre for women.

Saint Ahoadamah Church, in Tikrit, south-east of Mosul, was blown up by IS in September 2014. Originally dating to around AD700, it was rebuilt in the 13th century and heavily restored in the 1990s under Saddam Hussein, who was born in the city. Known as the Green Church, it was one of the most important churches in Iraq.

Islamic sites Prophet Yunus Mosque, in north-east Mosul, was blown up by IS in July 2014. It was sited on a mound above the ruins of ancient Nineveh and is reputed to be the burial place of the prophet Jonah. An ancient mosque, later extensively renovated, was built above the ruins of an early Christian church.

Khudr Mosque, in Mosul, was blown up in February 2015 and its minaret was toppled in the blast. The mosque originally dated to 12th century, but had been rebuilt and was known as the Red Mosque.

Maryam Khatoon

Mosque, in Mosul, was destroyed in May. Built in the 1820s, under Ottoman rule, it was one of the best maintained mosques in the city.