The Bombing of the Malwiya Minaret

Boston, Mass.

“I feel tremendous sadness,” laments Alastair Northedge, a Sorbonne professor of Islamic art specializing on the ancient Iraqi city of Samarra. “This is a disaster for the world. It is one of the most well known monuments in the world and its partial destruction is an assault on Islamic art and the world of art.” He refers to the bombing of the top floor of the Malwiya Minaret that occurred April 1. The 170-foot tower, built at the order of the Caliph al-Mutawakil in 852, when Samarra was the capital of the Abbasid Empire, is an unusual sandstone spiral minaret with winding ramps. One of Iraq’s chief tourist attractions, it appears on some Iraqi banknotes. In 2000, Baghdad proposed the UNESCO that it be listed as a world heritage site, and protected as such.

U.S. forces subdued the city on the Tigris last October, but some of the city’s resistance fighters regrouped in Fallujah, the City of Mosques, which was of course destroyed by a ferocious attack in November. Samarra itself has been a site of ongoing military action, so the U.S. troops who now own it have naturally sought to employ its highest buildings as lookout posts. Appropriating everything they wished, they established a lookout atop the minaret, and posted snipers there. According to Reuters, “Crouched behind sandbags, U.S. snipers sometimes fired at militants from the minaret.” Local people wrote letters of protest about this abuse of the holy place.

According to al-Jazeera, U.S. forces left the post two weeks ago, but Iraqi police report that after their departure the top floor was blasted by insurgents. The Boston Globe reported that two men were observed entering the structure and that they placed a bomb that produced the explosion before fleeing the premises. Debris of crumbled brick and clay was blown down onto the ramps, and Agence France Press reported a jagged hole on the top level.

It’s hard to understand why any insurgent faction would target the mosque. It is a Sunni mosque, but respected by the Shiites, and Shiites haven’t been attacking Sunni mosques anyway. A colleague in Middle Eastern history suggests that insurgents might have wanted to prevent it from being used as a sniper position in future. Whoever is responsible, the invasion has produced yet another casualty to Iraq’s rich cultural heritage, which the former regime, whatever its crimes, sought as a matter of national pride to protect. The occupiers seem truly indifferent to that heritage. According to the BBC, “A senior [Iraqi] government official told the BBC the Americans should have ensured it was properly protected.” Under the occupation the National Museum has been looted, the National Library was badly damaged by fires. Tens of thousands of irreplaceable manuscripts have been lost. In the ancient city of Ur, according to the Guardian, U.S. forces during the invasion “spray-painted the remains with graffiti” and stole “kiln-baked bricks made millennia ago.” Babylon has been turned into a military camp causing irreparable damage to the site. A British Museum report states that 2,600 year old brick pavement in Babylon has been “crushed by military vehicles,” and “archeological fragments scattered across the site, and trenches driven into ancient deposits.” It notes “cracks and gaps where somebody had tried to gouge out the decorated bricks forming the famous dragons of the Ishtar Gate.”,2763,1391042,00.html

The invading troops, encouraged to view their mission as one to avenge the 9-11 attacks, and thus to conflate all Arabs with al-Qaeda, cannot be expected treat the cultural heritage of the enemy with much sensitivity. You’d think that military chaplains would tell them that Ur is supposed to be the hometown of Abraham, the legendary father of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, and remind them of the importance of the Babylonian Captivity in the Old Testament narrative. You might think that with the Christian right and mostly Jewish neocons shaping U.S. policy, leadership would inculcate some respect for these sites in the military.

What I was raised to consider “Judeo-Christian ethics” are conspicuously absent in occupied Mesopotamia. U.S. troops have tortured and sexually abused innocent civilians, and killed tens of thousands. From the bizarre killing of the Baghdad Zoo’s prized Bengal tiger to the contamination of land, rivers and atmosphere, to the doubling of child malnutrition, the invasion piles up crime upon crime. It is as though it were seeking to so impress the subject population with arbitrary cruelty that it will be terrorized into submission. Indeed, Iraqis compare this occupation with the Mongol invasion led by Hulegu Khan in the 1250s, which destroyed Baghdad’s canal network, sacked the library, and slaughtered 80,000 men, women and children. Hulegu (grandson of Genghis Khan) had demanded that the last Abbasid caliph, al-Mutasim, recognize Mongol sovereignty, rather like George W. Bush (son of George H. W. Bush) demanded Saddam grovel before U.S. imperial demands. Al-Mutasim refused, thinking the Muslim world would rally to his side should the Mongols invade. He miscalculated.

Today’s barbaric occupiers display Mongol-like disrespect for their imperial prize. “Let’s take over the minaret,” they reason, and if that usage makes a precious monument a target, and it gets damaged, well, it’s the Iraqis’ just desserts. The foot soldiers of the new Golden Horde are encouraged to believe that Iraqis must be subdued in order to protect the U.S. from more 9-11s. Better their buildings get blown up that ours, even those of theirs that have been there for hundreds or thousands of years. History doesn’t matter. Like Bush told CBS’s 60 Minutes last April: “History? We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.” And what will the dead (or the “raptured”) care about Iraq’s National Library or the Ishtar Gate or the Malwiya Minaret?

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: