Islamic State’s thugs are trying to wipe an entire civilisation from the face of the earth

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By Tom Holland
Just as the Nazis destroyed synagogues as well as those who worshipped in them, so Isil aspires to erase all traces of those it condemns as kuffar
Last week, a video was released showing the destruction of antiquities in Mosul’s museums. Since the antiquities themselves were probably smashed months ago, the dust in the display-rooms will long since have settled. Meanwhile, in the world beyond, the brutal and deliberate attack on treasures spanning millennia is already yesterday’s news.

The Islamic State, whose goons perpetrated the vandalism, appreciate more cynically than anyone that the world’s media feeds on a rapid turnover of atrocities. One succeeds another in a murderous churn. Why, then, should the destruction of statues matter more than the loss of human life? It is a question that troubles me: for I must acknowledge, if I am honest, that no images from the hell that is the Islamic State have upset me more than those which showed a winged bull more than two-and-a-half thousand years old being deliberately and methodically power-drilled.

An Isil militant destroys an Assyrian winged bull which dates back to the 9th century BC (Photo: AP)

Why should anyone care that it was destroyed? An answer, perhaps, is to be found in a Christian legend reported of Assyria, an ancient kingdom that incorporated what is today Mosul and its surroundings.

In AD 362, the daughter of the Assyrian king, dying of an incurable illness, was restored to full health by the prayers of a local Christian saint. So impressed was her brother, Prince Behnam, by this miracle that he turned his back on his ancestral religion and accepted baptism. His martyrdom, though, swiftly followed; for Behnam’s father, outraged by his apostasy, had him put to death.

When the king in turn fell sick, his wife had a dream which revealed that only his own baptism would serve to cure him. The king, bowing to the inevitable, not only agreed to become a Christian, but to found a number of monasteries.

One of them, named after his son, was established near the city of Mosul. From the 4th century until the present day, the monastery of Saint Behnam has served as a monument to the enduring Christian faith of the Assyrian people.

Then, last July, Islamic State fighters turned up. “You have no place here any more,” they told the monks. The expulsion of Christians from Saint Behnam’s monastery was part of a much broader process of ethnic cleansing. The capture by Isil of Mosul had brought the heartlands of Assyrian Christianity under the rule of jihadists so murderous that even al-Qaeda have expressed revulsion at their methods.

A Coptic icon of Saint Behnam

The jizya, a qur’anically-mandated tax on Christians that serves in effect as a license for extortion, was imposed with such rapacious brutality that most Iraqi Assyrians were left with no choice but to flee their ancestral homeland. Saint Behnam’s monastery was not the only church to be abandoned. In Mosul too, masses have stopped being said for the first time in over one-and-a-half thousand years.

Isil’s ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Now, over the course of this past week, Isil have been turning their ruthless attention to the Christians of the country that still, to this day, commemorates in its very name the ancient heyday of the Assyrians: Syria. Beginning last Monday, Islamic State fighters raided 33 Assyrian villages, and are reported to have taken as many as 300 Christians hostage. The militants, speaking on their radios, exulted in the capture of “crusaders”.

That an organisation teeming with murderous young men from Western Europe should refer to the Assyrians in such a manner speaks as powerfully of their historical illiteracy as of their hypocrisy. Not, of course, that those in the Islamic State with an appreciation of just how deep are the roots of Christianity in the region are thereby tempted to stay their hand. Quite the opposite. It only confirms them in their determination to erase both Assyrians and all traces of Assyrian culture from their blood-boltered caliphate.

Assyria, though, is far older even than its Christianity. The name of the king in the legend of Saint Behnam was one which reached back to a time many centuries before the birth of Christ. The memory of Sennacherib was preserved in the Bible as a terrible one: the rod of God’s anger against His Chosen People, whose armies had swept across the kingdom of Judah, and almost taken Jerusalem. For three centuries, between 911 and 609 BC, Assyria had been the undisputed superpower of the Middle East, and its capital of Nineveh, raised on the site of the future city of Mosul, the greatest metropolis of its day.

Despite the terror with which the Assyrian Empire had filled the Jews, memories of its glamour and sophistication had long survived its overthrow. This was why, when the Assyrians converted to Christianity, they made sure to enshrine Sennacherib as a convert too. As late as the 19th century, there were still those in the region who claimed descent from him. His greatness was never forgotten.

Militant smashes statue with sledgehammer. Credit: ITN

It was in the mid-19th century that archaeologists from France and Britain revealed to the world just how dazzling the civilisation of ancient Assyria had truly been. The reliefs and statuary from Nineveh which today adorn the British Museum are among the greatest works of art ever created. Not all the treasures exhumed from the buried cities of ancient Assyria were transported to the West, though. Many were preserved in Iraq. Great winged bulls fashioned in the reign of Sennacherib himself were reinstalled in one of the gateways of Nineveh. There, when the Islamic State took over Mosul, they served as a standing reproach to the new masters of the city: “statues and idols,” as the propaganda film released last week put it, “excavated by Satanists.”

It was one of Sennacherib’s bulls that was shown on the film being power-drilled. The aim of Isil was not merely to emulate the idol-smashing of the Prophet Muhammad, but to provoke and outrage world opinion – an aim in which they certainly succeeded.

More than that, though, their ambition is to complete the job they began when they expelled the monks from Saint Behnam’s Monastery: to compound the exile of the Assyrians from their ancient homeland by erasing all traces of their history and culture. Just as the Nazis destroyed synagogues as well as those who had worshipped in them, so does the Islamic State aspire to erase all traces from its caliphate of those it condemns as kuffar.

Control the past, and control the future. The shattered fragments of Sennacherib’s bulls bear fatal witness to just how thoroughly Isil have grasped this truth. Assyria and the Assyrian people risk being lost to a terminal darkness.