Mosul and Palmyra have been two great cities that have seen their history destroyed under the yoke of Daesh. Local and international initiatives have managed to bring their heritage back to life when there was only oblivion

From the destruction perpetrated by Daesh to hope

photo_camera REUTERS/KHALID AL-MOUSILY - Worshippers attend prayers at Al-Nuri Mosque during the first day of Eid al-Adha in Mosul, Iraq, 9 July 2022

Five years have passed since Daesh suffered its defeat in Iraq and Syria. 

And, with it, the consequent disappearance of the Islamic caliphate that the jihadist group tried to establish through terror and barbarism, using one of the most extremist interpretations of the Sharia as a banner.

During the jihadist occupation, both Syria and Iraq experienced a collapse at all levels. Terror had taken hold in politics and society. Burqas became the only clothing allowed for women and repression became the daily life of citizens who lived under their yoke for many years.


As part of Daesh's strategy to implement terror and chaos and in this attempt to erase any trace of the history of other cultures, the cultural, artistic and architectural heritage of Iraq and Syria suffered one of its most dramatic episodes after the consecutive destruction of an artistic heritage that belongs to humanity in its entirety.

Mosul was one of the examples of this destruction during the war. Among the many other destructions were the attacks on Mosul's Al-Nuri mosque, known for its leaning minaret, which was particularly symbolic, and which provoked widespread shock among Mosul's citizens. 


In addition to the mosque, dozens of sculptures belonging to the Assyrian civilisation, the ancient civilisation that occupied northern Mesopotamia between 1813 BC and 609 BC, were destroyed with sledgehammers and drills, as were several giants in the Iraqi city of Nineveh. In a video released by the terrorist group, a fighter from the organisation addressed the umma after stating "Muslims, the objects behind me are idols of peoples before us. The Assyrians had gods for war, rain and approached them through offerings (...) The prophet ordered us to get rid of the statues and relics".

For the art historian Antonio L贸pez, the destruction of works of art in war and conflict is intended "to encourage the uprooting of the dominated population. The aim is not just to change the pot, but to cut the root of the plant. With what intention, very simply. The aim is not the physical death of the opponent, but his spiritual liquidation".


In the case of Daesh, he says, "they did not only impose their culture, religion and traditions because they believe it is legitimised by the victory that their weapons have given them. They do so because they think they are ethnically superior and that their cultural heritage is indisputably better than that of the defeated. They consider their victory to be logical and inescapable, because the mind of the vanquished must necessarily be weak".

Thus, "they believe that they are doing humanity a benefit by liberating it from these supposedly inferior cultures. It is a kind of cultural disinfection that often precedes ethnic cleansing processes".

It was not only the statues that were badly damaged. The ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh and Hatra, the former Parthian capital and World Heritage Site, listed in 2010 as an 'endangered' cultural site by the World Heritage Fund, have also been severely affected both by Daesh and as a result of multiple looting.


In addition to the Assyrian statues, the jihadists demolished Sunni and Shiite mosques, as well as monoliths such as those of Abu Taman, an Arab poet from the Abbasid era, and the mausoleum of Ibn al-Azir, an Arab philosopher who was part of the court of Sultan Saladin.

The historian and coordinator of the journal FUA, Alejandro Salamanca, told Atalayar that "Daesh is part of a certain tradition of Salafist movements that consider the worship of tombs, holy men or any other type of monument to be idolatry", which is why "the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, were destroyed".

"In most wars, especially between groups that seek ethnic cleansing or the disappearance of people, eliminating culture and art is one of the ways to ensure dominance over territory. We are seeing it now in Armenia, for example, when Azeri soldiers destroy historical heritage they are not doing it out of any kind of religious precept but to eliminate the Armenian presence and pretend it never existed".


For Salamanca, the objective is "that there is no memory of a previous occupation by other people. It is one of the tactics of territorial domination".

He points out that "when Daesh destroyed Mosul, on the one hand, they intended to eliminate the remains of a multicultural city in which different communities have existed, and on the other hand, they did it in compliance with a political-religious precept that dictates that nothing from the past can be worshipped". 

He adds that "this has happened throughout history and is a common practice. The Romans already did it with the Damnatio Memoriae, the condemnation of memory, which consists of eliminating a person's passage through the patrimonial register, destroying any trace and leaving no trace of his or her passage through the world. This has happened in the past, but it is a logical thing to do against cultures that have left nothing written down, but whose historical permanence has been oral and visual. Eliminating the remains of the past is a way of rewriting history.


Another of the jihadist group's targets was the Christian legacy of the Iraqi city, such as the Chaldean cathedral and the Syrian Orthodox cathedral in Mosul. For the jihadists, destroying "these false idols" was part of their propaganda that encouraged them to wipe out and destroy anything that did not respect their interpretation of Islam. For this reason, UNESCO, alarmed by the loss of heritage that this entailed, was quick to react. At the time, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova noted that "humanitarian and security concerns are inseparable from cultural concerns. Protecting human lives, cultural heritage and identity go hand in hand.

Reviving the spirit of Mosul

For this reason, and as a ray of hope within the darkness, in 2018 and after the fall of Daesh, the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, announced the launch of the Organisation's most ambitious initiative. Under the name "Reviving the Spirit of Mosul", this initiative, launched by UNESCO in partnership with the United Arab Emirates, which has invested 50.4 million dollars, aims to rebuild the city, its most emblematic monuments and the lives of its citizens through three key areas: monumental heritage, education and cultural life, thanks to the contribution, work and help of its own inhabitants.


In 2022, five years after the city was severely affected, work has already begun to rehabilitate the Al-Nuri mosque and its minaret, as well as the Al-Tahera and Al-Saa'a churches. With regard to the reconstruction of the mosque and minaret, UNESCO has already announced that the work is expected to be completed by 2024. In addition, both UNESCO and the Emirates are reconstructing 124 historic residential houses and the Al Ekhlas school, through the work of local employees and technicians.

The rebirth of heritage 

Just a few days ago, the ancient ruins of the northern Iraqi city of Hatra reopened their doors to dozens of visitors who came for the first time in years to admire the historic ruins. The tour was organised by the Mosul Heritage House, a new museum in the capital that opened in June.

The tour is the first organised by the Mosul museum, which offers tours of its 2,000-year-old monuments. During the Parthian Empire, Hatra was an important religious and commercial centre with imposing fortifications and temples that blended Greek and Roman architectural styles with oriental decorative elements. 

Palmyra tries to forget the terror 

Palmyra, located in the Syrian province of Homs, has been one of the many cities that have suffered first-hand the destruction of Daesh. However, unlike the attacks on other cities, Palmyra has an imposing cultural and architectural heritage which, until the arrival of the jihadists, was an outstanding symbol for humanity and which it is gradually trying to recover


After the loss of the heritage caused by the Daesh's passage through the city, the director general of Unesco spoke out to clarify that the "destruction" is a new act of war and "an immense loss for the Syrian people and humanity".

Palmyra was one of the first ancient cities along the Silk Road. The Temple of the god Bel, the great colonnade and what was once an Agora were preserved from this period. Hundreds of well-preserved tombs were discovered in the surrounding area, as well as other funerary temples and the camp of Diocletian, the former palace of Queen Zenobia, ruler of the kingdom of Palmyra after the assassination of her husband.


All these discoveries made Palmyra a World Heritage Site since 1980. Until before the war this city was the most visited archaeological site, however, after the outbreak and the consequent advance of Daesh in the country, the Jihadist group used the archaeological ruins to show propaganda executions.

In addition, the Temple of Bel, considered one of the symbols of the city, was destroyed with a package of explosives, an act that was described by UNESCO as a "war crime". However, this did not stop the group from destroying three tower tombs, including that of Elahbel dating from 103 BC, as well as Palmyra's iconic Triumphal Arch built in the 2nd century BC by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus.


These deplorable actions dealt a severe blow to global society, as a heritage that belongs to all people equally was mercilessly taken away by radicals.

After the fall of Daesh, various local initiatives, including foreign aid provided at the time by Vladimir Putin's government as an ally of his counterpart Bashar al-Assad, succeeded in carrying out a project "to restore all the damage". Little by little, specialists have begun to reconstruct the ancient Arc de Triomphe, which is currently at a stage of enumeration and documentation of its main stones, which will then be transported and arranged according to different patterns to resemble its ancient plans. 


After the reconstruction of the arch is completed, reconstruction will begin on the Temple of Bel, the Temple of Baal Shamin, the fa莽ade of the Palmyra amphitheatre and the Tetrapylon, all of which were dynamited by the terrorist group but which now hope to be re-erected to remind the world of what humanity, our ancestors, was more than 2,000 years ago in a region of the world that is also considered one of the cradles of civilisations.

Art and cultural heritage have the capacity to unite human beings as a single unit, forgetting everything that differentiates us in order to meet again in a common legacy that reminds us of where we come from and helps us to answer questions that, if it were not for the artistic and architectural remains, we would not have a past to honour or a story to tell.

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