In the nearly two decades that I’ve worked as an archaeologist and a journalist, I’ve been fortunate to experience and report on some really incredible discoveries. But I also have the responsibility to report on the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage, and unfortunately the willful destruction of ancient monuments by the Islamic State group has been in the news all too frequently.
Archaeologists and cultural heritage experts struggle with how to respond to this destruction: should these monuments be rebuilt? Left as they are, as a testament to the dangers of fundamentalism? Should we even highlight the actions of the Islamic State, since we would simply be providing them with the publicity they crave? And most importantly, why do we wring our hands over the fate of old buildings while the human beings that live around them are suffering unspeakable atrocities?
I continue to struggle with these questions, and I don’t have pat answers, but a terrible event that occurred a little more than two weeks ago may illuminate why we focus attention and resources on protecting our built heritage.
The Islamic State blew up the al-Hadba’ minaret in Mosul on June 21. In the hours after it was destroyed, word began to trickle out on Twitter, via the handful of resourceful Mosulis who could maintain an internet connection in the besieged city. When I saw the news, my heart sank, but I was not surprised. And neither were any of the experts that I spoke to, dedicated scholars who spend their days monitoring Islamic State propaganda and poring over satellite photos to get a handle on the breadth of destruction across Iraq, Syria and Libya.
Why no surprise? Because al-Hadba’ had symbolized Mosul for nearly 900 years. It was a crooked brick minaret that Mosulis had lovingly nicknamed al-Hadba (“the Hunchback”) for its quirky tilt (some 8 feet off the perpendicular) at least as far back as the 14th century. Like the elegant Eiffel Tower or Seattle’s forward-looking Space Needle, Mosul’s al-Hadba’ minaret not only commanded the city’s skyline, but also captured the spirit of its residents: unique, resilient, dignified in its deep history. It was the imperfect, beloved embodiment of Mosul to all residents of a remarkably diverse city, which included Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans, Circassians and Kurds.
“The Hunchback” had survived centuries of war and invasion, only to succumb to an elaborate web of explosives that the Islamic State had methodically installed in the minaret and adjoining al-Nuri mosque over the course of weeks or possibly months.
Yet while al-Hadba’ was part of an Islamic religious complex, its destruction was in no way a religious statement. It was a gut punch, a final blow to the identity of the residents of Mosul as the Islamic State retreated from the city and slunk toward their remaining haven in Raqqa.
After the Islamic State took Mosul in June 2014, it began a campaign of destroying the ancient legacy of the city and its surroundings, including Nineveh, Nimrud and the tomb of the prophet Jonah. The terrorists also attempted to destroy al-Hadba’ in July of that year, but backed off after local residents formed a human chain around the city’s icon.
“If you blow up the minaret, you’ll have to kill us, too,” defiant Mosulis are reported to have told Islamic State forces at the time. The invaders did the math, figured out that harming the monument would inflame — not cow — the entire city, and backed off.
Now, as the battle for Mosul continues, its residents mourn the loss of their Hunchback.
“For the first time in 900 years, Mosul sleeps without our old lady, Hadbaa,” read a forlorn tweet from the besieged city the day after the destruction.
That’s the power of a monument. It’s more than a pile of old bricks or stones. It is a physical manifestation of how a city, a nation, a society, sees itself. What values it cherishes, how it wants the world to understand it, how it understands its place in the world.
The Islamic State understood that, and it took it away.
Kristin Romey covers archaeology and paleontology for National Geographic magazine and National Geographic News. She is the former executive editor of Archaeology magazine and a Fellow of the Explorers Club.