Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Culturecide in Mosul: the Destruction of the al-Nuri Mosque

Over the years, I’ve almost lost count of the priceless treasures of art and antiquity which I’ve seen with my own eyes – and which now lie in pieces.

Fourteen years ago, racing across Mosul to see the building where US forces had just shot dead the sons of Saddam Hussein, I glimpsed the “hunchback” minaret of the 12th century al-Nuri mosque looming over the old city, built by Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, an Arab hero who united the Arabs against the Crusaders. Gone, my lords and ladies, in just a few seconds, scarcely a week ago. We blamed Isis. Isis blamed a US air strike.

Back in 2012, I ran past the 12th century minaret of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, pounding down the road towards the ancient Citadel as bullets buzzed up the streets. Within a year, the minaret was dust. We blamed the Syrian government for shelling it. The Syrians blamed al-Nusrah/al-Qaeda “terrorists”. All over Aleppo, they felt the ground tremble as the minaret fell.

Many times in the 1980s I walked through the Roman ruins of Palmyra, visited the Temple of Bel, gazed at the triumphal arch and walked on the theatre stage. When I returned in 2016 after the Syrian army had driven Isis from the ancient city, the arch had been destroyed with explosives and the temple was reduced to shards of stone, most of them only two or three inches in length. The theatre was undamaged though I noticed the end of a noose looped around a Roman column. This was Isis’s place of execution. Then Isis returned and recaptured Palmyra and this time they blew up the very centre of the theatre.

After the war broke out in Bosnia, I walked across the shining stones of Sinan’s 16th Ottoman bridge at Mostar. Within months, that which had stood for 427 years collapsed into the Neretva river under a salvo of Croatian artillery shells. It was exactly 3:27pm on November 9, 1993. I know the time because I still have the videotape of the destruction. I used to freeze-frame the tape and press the rewind button and rebuild the bridge, the spray falling back into the river, the old Turkish stones rising mystically upwards to recompose themselves in their magical span above the river. Its loss was mourned by the Bosnian Muslims – whose ancient mosques were crumbling under Serb gunfire – as the absence of the Mosul minaret is mourned by Iraqis.

The Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andric, in The Bridge on the Drina – surely one of the greatest European novels ever written – describes how “men learned from the angels of God how to build bridges, and therefore, after fountains, the greatest blessing is to build a bridge and the greatest sin to interfere with it…” But we are used to “the greatest sin”.  “Culturecide” – the destruction of libraries, graveyards, cathedrals, mosques – became a feature of the Bosnian war. In Kosovo in 1999, the Christian Serbs destroyed ancient mosques. Then the Kosovar Muslims destroyed most of the Serb churches in the province. I saw many of them, before and after their immolation.

And “the greatest sin” has, of course, a hundred thousand precedents. Who now remembers the 5th century Buddhas of Bamiyan, blasted with explosives for 25 days by the Taliban in 2001 until they were rubble. Who even cares that the Saudis – whose Wahhabi iconoclasm did so much to inspire the Taliban and Isis – have destroyed many of the ancient sites associated with the Prophet and his family?

And then what of the Second World War, the destruction of the ancient centre of Rotterdam, Coventry Cathedral, the Wren churches of the City of London, the wrecking of renaissance Italy, the levelling of Warsaw, courtesy of the Luftwaffe, the Wehrmacht and the SS. And the RAF’s 1945 destruction of Dresden and the bombing of the Middle Ages basilicas of Germany’s cities. And the mass theft of renaissance art and the sacking of museums across Europe, courtesy of the Nazi party’s “cultural” elite. And then we have the Germans of the First World War to thank for the burning of the 15th century university and library of Louvain and the total demolition of the medieval Cloth Hall at Ypres.

And – yes, this can go on and on – we can still see the ruins of the churches and abbeys which incurred the incendiary fury of Henry VIII and then digress still further and ask why the Romans of the Middle Ages used the Coliseum as a quarry – just as the Ottoman authorities used the Crusader castle of Beirut as a quarry for their port extensions in the early 20th century. And then come the Goths, Ostrogoths and Visigoths, not to mention the early Muslim invaders who themselves even tried to destroy a stone Buddha; I’ve seen its reassembled body in a Dushanbe museum. And when I think of pre-history and Sumeria, I can only remember walking through the ancient cities of southern Iraq, dug up and pulverised by tomb robbers after the 2003 Anglo-American invasion, and the statues whose broken limbs I crunched over in the darkness of the looted Baghdad Museum.

We can sometimes reconstruct. The Ypres Cloth Hall was reconstituted exactly as it was. The Old City of Warsaw was rebuilt from old maps and photographs. The UN organised the rebuilding of the bridge at Mostar. The Saudis have paid for the reconstruction of Bosnia’s mosques. Basil Spence designed the new Coventry Cathedral. Warsaw is almost picture-perfect but the new Mostar bridge will take years to look like the weathered old masonry which a 16th century visitor described as “like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies”. The Cloth Hall at Ypres looks magnificent. So is the post-war “medieval” city in Warsaw. The ghastly, concretised new mosques of Bosnia are a disgrace. And I’m not sure if Basil Spence’s new Coventry cathedral works today, either in faith or in art.

But now the problem. If a single human life is more precious than all the planets, why do we weep for the wreckage of Buddhas and Roman cities and churches and mosques and libraries? Of all the “-cides”, surely “culturecide” should be way down our list of priorities. Yet it’s clearly near the top – the UN waffles on about our children’s heritage. But I’ve never heard it better explained than in the words of a Croat woman, Slavenka Drakulic who wrote about this very question only a month after the destruction of the Stari Most bridge by her own Croat army. She recalled seeing a photograph of a middle-aged Bosnian woman “with a long, dark knife cut along her throat” and she asked herself why she felt more pain looking at the image of the destroyed bridge than that of the woman.

And this is what she concluded: “We expect people to die. We count on our own lives to end. The destruction of a monument to civilisation is something else. The bridge, in all its beauty and grace, was built to outlive us; it was an attempt to grasp eternity. Because it was the product of both individual creativity and collective experience, it transcended our individual destiny… You would think that nothing new could happen, that, after the concentration camps and the mass rapes, the ethnic cleansing… there would be no room left for imagination…”

And for Muslims, destiny and eternity are subjects of the Koran, which was first revealed to the Prophet on the 27th day of Ramadan, the “Laylat al-Qadr”, the Night of Power. It is the holiest night in the Muslim calendar. And it was on this night – this year – that the 12th century leaning minaret of Mosul was blasted to the ground.

More articles by:

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

October 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Middle East, Not Russia, Will Prove Trump’s Downfall
Ipek S. Burnett
The Assault on The New Colossus: Trump’s Threat to Close the U.S.-Mexican Border
Mary Troy Johnston
The War on Terror is the Reign of Terror
Maximilian Werner
The Rhetoric and Reality of Death by Grizzly
David Macaray
Teamsters, Hells Angels, and Self-Determination
Jeffrey Sommers
“No People, Big Problem”: Democracy and Its Discontents In Latvia
Dean Baker
Looking for the Next Crisis: the Not Very Scary World of CLOs
Binoy Kampmark
Leaking for Change: ASIO, Jakarta, and Australia’s Jerusalem Problem
Chris Wright
The Necessity of “Lesser-Evil” Voting
Muhammad Othman
Daunting Challenge for Activists: The Cook Customer “Connection”
Don Fitz
A Debate for Auditor: What the Papers Wouldn’t Say
October 22, 2018
Henry Giroux
Neoliberalism in the Age of Pedagogical Terrorism
Melvin Goodman
Washington’s Latest Cold War Maneuver: Pulling Out of the INF
David Mattson
Basket of Deplorables Revisited: Grizzly Bears at the Mercy of Wyoming
Michelle Renee Matisons
Hurricane War Zone Further Immiserates Florida Panhandle, Panama City
Tom Gill
A Storm is Brewing in Europe: Italy and Its Public Finances Are at the Center of It
Suyapa Portillo Villeda
An Illegitimate, US-Backed Regime is Fueling the Honduran Refugee Crisis
Christopher Brauchli
The Liars’ Bench
Gary Leupp
Will Trump Split the World by Endorsing a Bold-Faced Lie?
Michael Howard
The New York Times’ Animal Cruelty Fetish
Alice Slater
Time Out for Nukes!
Geoff Dutton
Yes, Virginia, There are Conspiracies—I Think
Daniel Warner
Davos in the Desert: To Attend or Not, That is Not the Question
Priti Gulati Cox – Stan Cox
Mothers of Exiles: For Many, the Child-Separation Ordeal May Never End
Manuel E. Yepe
Pence v. China: Cold War 2.0 May Have Just Begun
Raouf Halaby
Of Pith Helmets and Sartorial Colonialism
Dan Carey
Aspirational Goals  
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail