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A photo of a person riding a bicycle in front of the destroyed Prophet Jirjis mosque in central Mosul.

A boy bikes past the Prophet Jirjis mosque in Mosul, Iraq, on July 27, 2014. The Muslim shrine was destroyed by militants who overran the city in June.

Photograph by AP

Eve Conant

for National Geographic

Published August 2, 2014

Mosul has long been known for its religious diversity. Iraq's second largest city has been home to Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Christians of all denominations since it was first believed to have been settled in 6000 B.C. The ruins of Ninevah, one of the greatest cities in antiquity and former seat of the Assyrian Empire, lie within its modern city limits.

But now the Islamic State (IS) has arrived.

The Sunni extremists of the IS, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have been working to erase evidence of that diverse history since they seized the ancient city on June 10. (Related: "Iraq: 1,200 Years of Turbulent History in Five Maps.")

By some estimates 60,000 Christians lived in Mosul a decade ago, a number that may have been halved over the past decade of turmoil but could now be close to zero following an order by the IS to convert, leave, or die. This month reportedly marks the first time in 1,600 years in Mosul that no Sunday Mass has been held. (Related: "Iraq Crisis: 'Ancient Hatreds Turning Into Modern Realities.'")

The IS is also trying to eradicate visual evidence of belief systems that don't follow its strict interpretation of Islam. The Sunni extremist fighters have removed or destroyed more than a dozen tombs, statues, mosques, and shrines—including shrines that hold meaning for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike—such as the site believed to be the tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah, which was wired with explosives and detonated last week. The shrine of Prophet Seth, considered to be the third son of Adam and Eve, has also been demolished.

Archaeologists, historians, and many in the local populace are distraught. Iraqi-British archaeologist Lamia Al-Gailani Werr is an honorary senior research associate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and a senior researcher with the Department of the Languages and Culture of Near and Middle East at the University of London. Born in Baghdad and educated in Britain, Al-Gailani Werr has worked extensively in Iraq, previously serving as a consultant to Iraq's Ministry of Culture for Baghdad's Iraq Museum.

She spoke with National Geographic about the physical and spiritual heritage being lost in Mosul today.

Were you at the Baghdad museum when it was looted in 2003, and are there similarities between then and what is happening now in Mosul?

I went to Baghdad in June of 2003, after the looting. There is a difference between what happened then in Baghdad and now in Mosul—no standing building was destroyed in 2003. Back then it was the looting of antiquities from the Iraq Museum and the illegal looting of ancient sites. In Mosul, it is standing and mostly religious buildings that are the targets, and many of are of great archaeological heritage value.

Mosul is one of the oldest cities in Iraq. Ninevah is now part of the city; it used to be just outside Mosul. During the 9th century onward, Mosul was the seat for all the Christian religious movements and studies. Just outside the city is one of perhaps the oldest monasteries in the world—Mar Mattai, or St. Matthews.

A photo of the Syrian Orthodox Mar Mattai monastery.
Mar Mattai, one of the oldest monasteries in the world, is in danger from the Islamic State's systematic attack on religious sites.
Photograph by Michael Runkel, imageBROKER via Corbis

Is that monastery safe so far?

I have not heard anything about Mar Mattai, so it could be still safe. Some say it dates back earlier than the fourth century, to the second century.

The Assyrian Empire dates to the first millennium B.C., but there are a lot of sites within the area that go back 10,000 years. Mosul is absolutely rich with archaeological sites. Rich with people too: The people there count themselves as being in the center of the world. The people of Mosul are very proud of their city. For Christianity, the Eastern Church in Mosul was really the church that spread Christianity to the east. Islam was also there from the beginning, when it came through Iraq in the seventh century.

Did Mosul change significantly after the U.S. intervention in Iraq?

Mosul was always diverse. There are several sects living there, different offshoots of Islam or Christianity. One is called Shabak, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam; they've been living there quite freely, quite peacefully together. But in 2003 the fundamentalists did start having a foot in Mosul.

I remember when I was in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004, I heard there were streets in Mosul that people called Kandahar [the religious and political base of the Taliban in Afghanistan] because there were all these people who were fundamentalists and were dressing in that Islamic style.

A photo of elderly men leaving the Al-Noori Al-Kabeer mosque in Mosul.
Iraqi elderly men leave Mosul's Al-Noori Al-Kabeer mosque on July 9. The leader of the IS purportedly delivered a sermon there on July 4.
Photograph by EPA

Have you visited the sites that have been destroyed?

I went to visit the archaeological sites in 2001. We saw Nabi Yunus [the tomb of Jonah], which has a mosque that has been renewed again and again. The minaret of Nabi Yunus was only from 1924 because the old one fell down. Nabi Yunus has been renewed quite often—during Saddam's time they did a lot of renovations. Mosul has a number of these shrines that go back to the 9th, 10th century, especially 12th and 13th century.

The shrine of Jonah, isn't that something of value not just to Jews and Christians but also to Muslims?

Yes, it has—or it had—a mosque over it. It's difficult to say when it was built, but Nabi Yunus stands on top of a mound that was probably an Assyrian temple. After the Assyrians it became a Zoroastrian temple. Then it became a church, and afterwards it became a mosque. In the 1990s, the State Board of Antiquity and Heritage did excavate at the bottom of this mound and they found the gates from an Assyrian palace.

Why is the IS destroying places that are also important to Islam?

They are shrines. The IS, or the fundamentalist Salafist people, don't think that it is right to go and worship a dead person. They are absolutely against that. So what they've been doing literally is destroying any shrine. Not mosques, but shrines. They did destroy mosques or smaller mosques that belong to the Shiites, but they consider the Shiites as not religious, as not Islamic.

The Shiite mosques are called husseiniya. The IS has been destroying them systematically, not only in Mosul but also other places. But then the minute they got to Mosul, they demolished a shrine which is from the 12th century. It was that of Ali ibn al-Athir, a historian and writer from that period who was accused even then of being an apostate.

Aren't they also, like the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, attacking relics that depict a human face or form?

We don't have that in these sort of shrines in Iraq, these human forms. That's mostly in Christian places. But they could destroy these in Christian places if they get to them.

The extremists also tried—and so far have failed—to destroy the crooked minaret of Mosul, which is said to be 840 years old.

Yes, it is still standing. Next to it there's another shrine, and they presumably were intending to destroy it. I heard that they put all these explosives around it and asked the people who live around it to evacuate their houses.

But the local people have shown complete opposition to them, and there's another militia that came in and surrounded the place so the IS people left. So it's been spared for the time being. We don't know what will happen next. This is the most frightening thing, that minaret.

A photo of people walking on the rubble of the destroyed Prophet Jonah Mosque.
People walk on the rubble of Nabi Yunus, or tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah, which was destroyed by the IS on July 24.
Photograph by AP

Why is that so frightening?

Because it really is more iconic to Mosul than even the tomb of Jonah. It's like the leaning tower of Pisa. All the Iraqis and the people of Mosul are so proud of it. It's a beautiful minaret. The Hadba Minaret is built of brick, which is all intricately decorated and is from about the 12th-13th century.

Why is the minaret crooked?

It is something to do with the geological ground—a structural fault. Most minarets in Iraq, and especially in Mosul, tend with time to lean slightly. That is one reason why minarets are always being replaced. However, the Hadba is still standing after so many centuries and has become the icon of Mosul.

What is the cultural value of these minarets and shrines?

They are very important. If we're talking about Islamic shrines, quite a number of them have very distinctive architectural domes. Because most of the domes in Iraq are built with brick, not many of them have survived. In Mosul, however, there are quite a number of them and they're being destroyed. From an architectural point of view, it's a great pity.

Has there been any other time in Mosul's history where its diversity has been so threatened?

Never like now where there is an evacuation of all of them [the Christians]. That was the lovely thing about Iraq—we lived all of us together, and it is politics that has interfered. This time it is fundamentalist Islam. I'm very angry about this. The Jews were in Iraq from Babylonian captivity. And then politics let them leave from the 1950s onwards, and now the Christians are going. I remember as a child my father had three childhood friends. One was a Jew, one was a Christian, one was a Muslim. That gives you a symbol of what it was like. (Related: "What Does It Mean to Be Iraqi Anymore?")

I also have an English friend in Mosul whose husband has lived in Mosul for over 20 years. He says he's had tea and coffee and Coca-Colas with every single Christian sect in the world. Because they were all there. This is how it was. I honestly can't believe that its going like this. It is a great pity.

41 comments
D M
D M

Article says: All us Iraqis, Muslim and Christian alike, hate this IS destroying our culture! We like our mixed culture and oppose their rule.

Comments say: Dang all those barbarian Muslims with no culture or civilization. They must all agree with this IS thing, considering they're all extremists and have never shown opposition.

Do people even read these articles before they comment?

hi ho
hi ho

it is a scandal that Western people do not understand better the radical or extremist Islamic mind for they are their enemies.


Islam believes in achieving world domination and converting all to Islam and to give one's life to that goal will give one access to the next world.


IS, Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Quida are just some of the many forms of this mentality. They are very dangerous as they have much support by the indigenous Muslim population that are educated in Muslim only values.


Christians especially are victims in lands ruled by extremists since they are looked upon as idolators by Muslims and subject to being forced to convert, to become a slave or chattel, or be killed.

Jillian Galloway
Jillian Galloway

I would have thought - if God was real - that He would have been able to defend these places from the IS. I guess I was wrong.

John C.
John C.

Is there any part of foreign policy that is not worse after 5 1/2 years of Obama/Clinton?

Natasya Ali
Natasya Ali

used to read Badlands by Tony Wheeler , i love the minarets and man, this is really bad. reminds me of bamiyan temple issue!

robert brooke
robert brooke

It seems that Jahaliyya would encourage an attitude of contempt for the pre-Islamic past.If the past before Islam is considered a time of ignorance,it seems only natural that  pre=Islamic structures would be targets of destruction.

Joseph Armstrong
Joseph Armstrong

Well I guess it's about time we had ourselves a good old fashion war on religion. That's right, get rid of all of them, anything that has a god in it has to go. Just look at the history of humans on planet earth and you will quickly ascertain that no good has ever come from any god. We have been killing each other ever since we invented the god word. How childish? My god is better than your god.

If there was some sort of god it certainly would not need a religion, think about that.

Religions are nothing short of political control structures designed to keep humans ignorant and under the tutelage of other human beings.

Why is the Vatican it's own country with it's own standing army guarding more wealth than you can imagine? Just what are the Jews chosen for?, to be persecuted till the end of time? because that's what it looks like to me. The sooner we all realize that we are basically stuck here on this little planet and ain't leaving anytime soon, the sooner we can adopt the Rodney King line of can't we all just get along? And get along without some authority figure telling us what to do. I know I shouldn't murder,rape,rob and  so I don't. Is this too difficult to figure out for the vast majority of the worlds population? Is this why the universe periodically provides some sort of catastrophe to all but wipe out humanity? Maybe, if the planet is lucky, the next catastrophe will be a complete success and there will be no more human beings left to kill each other over some father figure god that they invented to ease their unfounded fear of the bogey man under the bed.

I am a human being, I believe that human beings can co-exist with each other quite well without any type of god word causing cultural differences that cause killing each other over. Lets banish all religion from the planet and live in peace.

Any one want in?

Mark Meyer
Mark Meyer

"The global war on terrorism" has backfired splendidly to harbour ever more war and terror. Wow well done there US government.

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

Fundamentalism on both sides of the Atlantic--what's to like?  We are as much or more to blame for all the unrest in the Middle East and in South America.  We set up the Rightwing Death Squads all over South America and we have set up the same death murder groups in the Middle East.  The fruit of these endeavors are coming home to roost--for the entire planet! 


We, Americans, must clean up our Rightwwing problem before telling the world what to do--start with Ollie North and work your way SOUTH.

Neil  Ross
Neil Ross

Mohammed himself had no problem with these religious monuments. Hence, this is not a strict interpretation of Islamic law, but an attempt by a few power hungry men to rewrite history to maintain power.

Allan Flippin
Allan Flippin

  This is the face of fundamentalism.  It's by no means exclusive to Sunni Muslims.  When fundamentalist factions take control of governments, they get crazy like this.

Richard  Erickson
Richard Erickson

Where are the D.Bonhoeffers and Reinhold Niehbours.....the Hubert Humphrys, Bob Doles, and George McGoverns....of Today?  This tragic news is lost in middle pages of our news.

Paul Burnett
Paul Burnett

The civilized world must wake up and act against such barbarism.

Forrest Trimby
Forrest Trimby

@Jillian Galloway Free will distinguishes us from animals. Those who do wrong will eventually pay. Take away our free will and we are animals only.

Susan Love
Susan Love

@John C. For Pete's sake. Every incidence of any import is deemed to be President Obama's responsibility. Small minds-small ideas.

Marcus Stone
Marcus Stone

@John C. Your statement is a non-sequitur in regards to the article.  Perhaps you meant to post it on the Fox News website.

John Franson
John Franson

We're trying to get rid of religion. It's not that easy. Do you have any specific new ideas? I mean, ones that don't involve mass killing, which you decry?

Stephen Keating
Stephen Keating

@Joseph Armstrong Hi Joseph, I agree with the living in peace part. I also have issues with the Vatican holding on to vast amounts of wealth whilst millions are suffering on the planet.

However I have an issue with the blaming of religion and the suggestion that the elimination of religion is the solution. Have a look at this: ... http://www.ukapologetics.net/secularism.htm


John C.
John C.

Well done, Barack Obama, he's been in charge for 5 1/2 years.

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

@Shawn Reitman You talking Muslim or Southern Baptists?  Calm down, we all have our crazy faction and we all need to deal with them and move on.

Joseph Armstrong
Joseph Armstrong

@Paul Burnett just as soon as you find this civilized world let us know so we can get off of this uncivilized one.

Think I'm joking?, just pick up your local newspaper and see what's happening in your own neighborhood, murder, rape, child abuse, etc. is right in your own backyard. These people are just doing what a president or a prime minister wishes he could get away with.

Your on to something regarding the "Wake Up", but, what humans need to wake up to is more than most of them could psychologically handle.

Bob Janus
Bob Janus

You're right! We should invade Iraq with a multinational combat force and wrest the populace from these pathetic religious extremists. Oh wait.....

Ernest Long
Ernest Long

@Forrest Trimby  - Current research may disprove free will. Also, an omnipotent, benevolent god surely would not let innocent children die due to the "free will" of evil adults. Would such a god not intervene?

John C.
John C.

@Marcus Stone 


Non-sequitur?


Do you think that Obama/Clinton's bumbling foreign policy has anything to do with the fact that ISIL is now on a rampage, Iraq is disintegrating and Obama's poll numbers on foreign affairs are the worst of his presidency?

John Franson
John Franson

Not to mention that it's incredibly stupid.

Joseph Armstrong
Joseph Armstrong

@John Franson Yes it is that easy. You accepted the brainwashing to believe in it, so I propose we simply re-brainwash you. Again, it's called EDUCATION.

Exposing religion for the control system that it really is will dry up it's money supply by removing it's followers. What happens to governing entities that go bankrupt? The assets are sold off and the entity ceases to be? Take away a politicians bankroll and watch how long is campaign lasts. When all humans know that the gods have left the planet and ain't coming back and therefore participation in their religions is but a fruitless waste of energy, maybe the churches/synagogs/mosques can be used to house the homeless, feed the hungry, actually perform some useful purpose. As of right now they are a terrible waste of real estate.

Joseph Armstrong
Joseph Armstrong

@Stephen Keating @Joseph Armstrong Yes, nice pro-christian article you are wanting to send people to. Apologize? Do nothing for which an apology is required. Your article sorta defeats the point I am putting forth, by apologizing you are acknowledging that it's OK and you will accept it, after the fact. Rid the planet of ALL religions. Raise ALL children on respect and equality for their fellow human beings. Submit to no power hungry ego as the people in all your articles examples did. Look to no priest or rabbi but seek only your self. I am not blaming religion, I am blaming all you weak willed human beings for giving away your power to the religions. Oh daddy/god do it for me for I am just a weak willed human that needs you to take care of me < isn't this about a spot on explanation for refusing to accept who you really are, for refusing to be responsible for your own actions. If you need the invisible man in the sky or have to follow the teachings of some long ago dead guy then it is you that is choosing to give away your power to govern your own life, in other words, it is you that is choosing to live a life of voluntary enslavement, it is you that is choosing to live in fear, it is you that is perpetuating the problem. You can choose to be the solution or you can choose to be a follower. Ever notice that it is not the ones at the top that are doing all the mass killing?, but it is their followers. Would any sane self empowered human being ever choose to go to war and kill their fellow human beings?, no, but  a good follower would, and religions create followers, religions only exist due to followers. Get rid of religion, allow all human beings to be self empowered, peace and harmony will prevail. As long as we have religions we will have human beings(followers) killing other human beings(followers) in the name of some non-existing god.

Please do not post links to external articles, if you can't say it your self, than you are just proving my point about you being a weak willed follower.

John Franson
John Franson

Yeah, Bush kept us safe! Except for that very minor incident involving terrorists crashing jetliners into skyscrapers. And throwing tens of thousands of heavily armed, highly trained Iraqi soldiers out of work and out on the streets. And enraging the Muslim world by sanctioning the torture and abuse of scores of Muslims. Other than that, Bush kept us safe!

M D
M D

@John C. You really do think America is the centre of the earth and everything is about America, don't you?

Josh Fincher
Josh Fincher

@Joseph Armstrong @John Franson

@Joseph Armstrong Mr. Armstrong, the real problem is that you're misrepresenting the origin of these conflicts. You say that the "god" element in the equation is what the problem is and focus on religion as the problem, but there are plenty of non theistic worldviews that have caused heinous suffering that have little or nothing to do with theistic religion. Communism, nationalism, politics, varying philosophical schools, economics, colonialism, cultural and ethnic tradition, even science. All these could and have easily existed without a divine figure and have caused plenty of suffering and pain. Religion is merely a theistic subset of the constellation of "worldviews" or a set of assumptions that inform belief about the world whether these are methodological, ontological, theistic, atheistic, or cultural. They all make assumptions about truth value and the methods that produce truth; all people have criteria for how they view their existence and define their selves and determine what is true. A religious person merely uses the divine along with other factors (ethnicity, politics, philosophy) to construct a worldview. Non-religious people do not include this factor but include others. These worldviews have always been in competition as people by nature are competitive and we have a natural need to defend our individual view of self. If religion were not so historically significant, we would easily see the same level of suffering in the world. The problem is not constructions of god, it is competition and the concept of "truth", especially a universal truth, a concept which you seem to believe does exist. All these systems, whether theistic or not, are power structures that both seek to regulate human behavior as well as benefit people by giving them a self-definition that they can adopt and providing them with a way of understanding the world and their place.


What you propose would not be accomplished by a destruction of religious culture. The other differing factors would remain. Some people might define and justify rape, killing, and theft differently than you. There is no universal definition about what murders are just or not or what is true and right and beneficial or not. The only way you could create the world you envision is the homogenization of all worldviews on the planet and the adoption of one universal code of ethics. This would have to entail the destruction of all variances between these other factors that make up human worldviews, culture, politics, nationalism, philosophy, would have to be completely destroyed and everyone would have to agree to one system of self definition and ethical conduct so that everyone could agree "this murder was wrong" or "that theft is not punishable by imprisonment" or "these are the rights everyone's entitled to". It seems to me, with your own culturally informed worldview, that you think this is the standard all should adopt. What you think is true and right, how you define murder and rape, that that should be what everybody thinks. In this you are just like the religious competing with other worldviews because you believe you have the true way of looking at things and think others should adopt your system rather than keeping their own, that your values are universally true when they are not. This is a highly colonialist point of view , the same attitude of those who colonized Africa and the Middle East in the past, whose aim is the destruction of human diversity and the conversion of all to your universally beneficial cultural concept. Your system is certainly not one I could ever get behind because I value the diversity on earth, I value the differences of thought and worldviews. That more than anything characterizes humanity. Yes, it causes suffering, but I for one think that that suffering in the world is preferable to the destruction of diversity that is so vital to humanity.

Shannon Swanton
Shannon Swanton

@Joseph Armstrong @Stephen Keating I disagree with the statement about peace and harmony prevailing.  I believe that the followers you speak of are already out there that don't follow god but governments.  These soldiers are followers just the same as any.  However they are following the orders of men sitting in a room deciding our fates.  I have done my homework and have studied religion of many kinds and I don't believe God is the problem... Man is... twisting scripture into something unrecognizable to its original intent. 

What country are you from?? what propaganda do you hear everyday?? We are ALL victims of having someone's beliefs shoved down our throat from proper behavior to work ethic.  Please stop blaming God for the actions of men. 

 For them it is a means to make people do their will as they are not actually doing or following anything religiously based.  Giving yourself over to something that represents love an forgiveness doesn't sound like such a bad thing. Man is flawed always has been always will be.  As the world gets worse so will our behavior its a guarantee.

John Franson
John Franson

You oppose mass killing. How do you propose to rid the world of all religion?

John C.
John C.

@M D @John C. 


As the lone superpower we do have quite a bit of say in world events. Particularly in the Middle East. Particularly when a bungling, naïve foreign policy has made the region worse off than before Obama took office, as the majority of Americans polled agree.  

David Davis
David Davis

@John C. Are you stupid enough to think US intervention in Syria could have prevented this mess. Just what are you suggesting Obama should have done differently? He wanted to leave a small US presence in Iraq but Maliki wouldn't go along. What's your brilliant solution?

Bud Kalush
Bud Kalush

@John C. ya but it was bush's fault for wanting to finish his daddys work and kill off Hussain, if Hussain was still in power I highly doubt ISIS would have a hold in Iraq today

John C.
John C.

@David Davis @John C. 


It's not that every foreign policy problem is insolvable, any more than they have been for the last century or longer. It's that we have an incompetent as president. And the majority of Americans polled agree. 

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