Tunnels under ancient Mosul mosque show Islamic State's focus on loot
Extensive excavations by Islamic State militants under Mosul's ancient Mosque of Jonah show they took care to preserve artefacts for loot, a local archaeologist said, in sharp contrast to their public desecration of antiquities.
The ultra-hardline Islamists seized the mosque when they stormed through northern Iraq three years ago, bulldozing and dynamiting ancient sites and smashing statues and sculptures, declaring them all idolatrous.
Jonah's mosque was blown up in July 2014, but experts surveying the damage after it was recaptured in January by a U.S.-backed Iraqi campaign found a network of tunnels dug by the militants, leading down to a 7th century BC Assyrian palace.
The careful way the tunnels were dug show the militants wanted to keep the treasures intact, said archaeologist Musab Mohammed Jassim, from the Nineveh Antiquities and Heritage Department.
"They used simple tools and chisels to dig the tunnels, in order not to damage the artefacts," he said, standing near the tunnel network which leads from the mosque ruins above ground to the much older subterranean palace.
The digging "was carried out according to a plan and a knowledge of the palace," he added.
The efforts to avoid damaging the antiquities contrast with the destruction of ancient sites across Islamic State's self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, from the desert city of Palmyra to the Assyrian capital of Nimrud, south of Mosul.
Palmyra: an oasis of cultural history
The ancient ruins of Palmyra are remnants of a bygone golden era. For several days now, the ruins have been controlled by the militias of Islamic State. UNESCO has warned that the World Heritage site is now at risk of being destroyed.
The ruins of Palmyra lie right in the middle of the Syrian desert. The once prosperous metropolis was surrounded by palms – hence its name – and for centuries was a popular caravan stop for those travelling to the Silk Road. It was a centre of wealth and trade. Gradually, however, the city went into decline and was recaptured by the desert sands. The ruins were later excavated, and given world heritage status in 1980.
Temple of Baal: in the first century AD, the people of Palmyra built a grand Roman-style temple for the deity Baal. It formed the centre of religious life in Palmyra, which joined the Roman Empire under Emperor Tiberius some time after 14 AD. The huge Baal temple is oriented in all directions. The walls have already been scarred with bullet holes – stark reminders of the ongoing Syrian civil war.
Avenue of treasures: built in the second century, the Great Colonnade is more than a kilometre long. Spices, perfumes, precious stones and other treasures once passed down this magnificent colonnaded boulevard. The avenue's entrance is marked by Hadrian's Arch, built in honour of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It is a fine example of the Greco-Roman style, which was extremely popular at the time, with some Oriental-style decorations.
Roman monument: the Tetrapylon of Palmyra was built on a crossroads. The four groups of slender pillars, each supporting an alcove, were made of red granite brought in from the quarries of Aswan. Each one used to house statues. Today, almost all the columns are replicas. Only one is an original.
Baalshamin, the god of wind, was another important deity for the residents of Palmyra. Fittingly perhaps, the temple dedicated to him has weathered the stand storms far better than the funerary temple built at the other end of the Great Colonnade. It is not clear when exactly the Baalshamin Temple was constructed, but it is thought to have been built by Phoenicians who came to settle in the city.
Oriental drama: with its portico, thermal baths and amphitheatre, Palmyra bore many characteristics of a Greco-Roman city. Many oriental dramas were performed on this stage. Unfortunately, the plays, written in Aramaic, haven't survived. In addition to being a theatre, the arena was also used for battles between gladiators and animals.
Forum of high society: some 200 statues of important individuals once stood here, taking up honoured positions in the porticoes of the agora, or main square. In the agora's south-western corner stand the remains of a building where the city council is likely to have held its meetings. The council was made up of representatives from influential merchant families, who were responsible for shaping the fortunes of the desert city.
Ornate burial sites: there are a number of burial grounds just outside the city gates. Prominent families built tall towers housing ornate sarcophagi and tombs big enough for several generations. There are also many underground gravesites decorated with rich architectural flourishes and frescoes that hint at the daily life and wealth of that period.
In the third century AD, Palmyra became a military base. After the reign of Zenobia, the city came under the power of a string of different rulers. The city went into decline and its splendour was eventually buried beneath the desert sand. Even today, the city's ruins are still partly covered. Now, the ancient city is under threat from "Islamic State" militants, and UNESCO fears it could be destroyed altogether.
The desecration was recorded on video and widely published by Islamic State supporters, who portrayed it as part of their campaign to erase any cultural history which contravenes their extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam.
However the United States has said looting and smuggling of artefacts has been a significant source of income for the militants. In July 2015 the U.S. handed Iraq a hoard of antiquities it said it had seized from Islamic State in Syria.
While Islamic State's 30-month occupation of the Mosque of Jonah left a legacy of damage and theft, it has also opened up fresh opportunities for archaeologists.
Excavations which were launched in 2004, the year after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, revealed an entrance to the palace of Assyrian king Esarhaddon, guarded by large lamassus – human-headed winged bulls carved from stone.
But work halted shortly after because it threatened the foundations of the mosque, built over the reputed burial site of the biblical prophet revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims – who know him as Nabi Yunis.
"The whole palace remained untouched by the experts and foreign excavation," Jassim said as he toured the tunnels, still lined with broken bits of pottery as well as sections of stone panel with carved figures and cuneiform text. "So this site, the Esarhaddon Palace, maintained all its features...It contains large collections of sculptures of different sizes and shapes and valuable artefacts".
Esarhaddon, who ruled ancient Assyria for 12 years in the early 7th century BC, was the son of Sennacherib whose military campaigns against Babylon and the kingdom of Judah are recorded in the bible.
A U.S.-backed Iraqi campaign dislodged Islamic State from most Iraqi cities captured in 2014 and 2015. The militant group is now fighting in its last major urban stronghold, in the western part of Mosul.
Iraqi forces earlier this week captured the ransacked main museum of Mosul, where the militants filmed themselves destroying priceless statues. (Reuters)
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