It was a victory marked in rubble. Iraqi forces on Thursday retook from the Islamic State group one of the most beloved landmarks of the city of Mosul, the nearly 850-year-old al-Nuri Mosque. But it was in ruins, blown up by the militants last week. The mosque’s distinctive minaret, which once leaned like the Tower of Pisa, was reduced to a broken stump. The mosque’s arches and domes were shattered chunks of stone.
Why would a supposedly Sunni Muslim radical group blow up a mosque?
The Islamic State group has been on a rampage of destruction of monuments from across eras ever since it overran much of Iraq and Syria in 2014. The reasons boil down to the militants’ fervor to erase from history whatever doesn’t conform to their extremist vision.
Here’s a look at some of the sites they destroyed, and why:
Al-Nuri was a symbol of Mosul because of its minaret. For centuries, it was the tallest minaret in Iraq, nearly 60 meters (yards) high, cylindrical and decorated with elaborate interlaced brickwork. But what made it most unique and beloved was that it leaned precariously. That earned it the nickname “al-Hadba,” Arabic for “the Hunchback.”
The mosque was built in the 1170s by Nur Al-Deen Zengi, the ruler of a Turkic dynasty called the Zengids under the Seljuk Empire that stretched across the region.
The militants viewed that same minaret with suspicion.
They considered the civic pride that Mosul residents took in the symbolic landmark — almost a reverence — as improper and un-Islamic. IS fighters tried in the summer of 2014 to destroy the minaret, but residents protected it by forming a human chain around it.
Still, despite qualms over the minaret, the militants used the mosque as a key center during their rule. It was where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance, delivering a Friday sermon in July 2014 after the group declared its “caliphate” across much of Iraq and Syria. So the real reasons the group blew it up were likely one part spite — getting rid of the minaret on the way out — and two parts strategic.
It denied the Iraqi military a great photo op for a victory celebration, and it seeded future bitterness by claiming an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition destroyed the mosque. The U.S. denied any warplane struck it, and footage shows the mosque and minaret collapsing from a detonation beneath it, not from above. But some in the city could believe the propaganda, feeding a narrative that the West and Iraqi forces destroyed Mosul.
IS destroyed other Islamic sites in the name of its fanatical drive to purge anything that in its eyes smacked of idolatry and heresy, which included a wide range of Muslim traditions.
IS blew up and levelled with bulldozers a number of mosques and Islamic shrines because they contained the tombs — or purported tombs — of prominent figures in Islam or respected holy men. Muslims traditionally go and visit the tombs and sometimes pray at them, a practice the militants loathe as a form of polytheism, revering someone other than God.
Among the sites that IS destroyed were centuries-old mosques believed to hold the tombs of the Prophet Younis (Jonah in the Bible), Daniel (of lion’s den fame), Seth (one of Noah’s sons) and a prophet named Jirjis, as well as multiple other locally renowned holy men.
The Islamic State’s other main target were mosques connected to Shiites, whom the militants consider heretics. Almost all Shiite mosques in the city were destroyed.
IS heavily vandalized Christian churches across Nineveh province, where Mosul is located, tearing down crosses and other symbols, despite rules for the protection of Christians and churches in Islamic Shariah law. Some sites it outright destroyed, including at least two historic sites:
— ST. ELIJAH’S MONASTERY: A 1,400-year-old building on Mosul’s outskirts that survived assaults by nature and man for centuries. The Islamic State group razed it to the ground in August 2014. The monastery, called Dair Mar Elia, is named for the Assyrian Christian monk — St. Elijah — who built it between 582 and 590 A.C.
— ST. ELIAN MONASTERY: The 1,500-year-old monastery in the Homs province of central Syria was bulldozed by the Islamic State group in August 2015.
ERASING A PAGAN PAST
In a region that has seen successive civilizations for more than 5,000 years, IS was determined to erase any that preceded Islam. In its videos showing destruction of sites, it boasted of its campaign to wipe away “paganism,” tearing down and hacking away the statues of gods, goddesses and mythical beasts.
Behind the ideological fervor, it was also making a major profit in selling antiquities looted from sites. Among the treasures it destroyed:
— PALMYRA: One of the Middle East’s most spectacular archaeological sites, a Roman-era city in the deserts of central Syria. The militants destroyed its two most glorious temples, to the gods Bel and Baalshamin, dating back to the 1st century, and blew up a Roman Arch of Triumph. They damaged the Roman-era amphitheater and other monuments.
— NIMRUD: Nearly 3,000 years ago, this city in modern-day Iraq ruled the Middle East. Islamic State blew apart the remains of its palaces and temples. The statues of winged bulls that once guarded the site were hacked to bits and piled high. Its towering ziggurat, or step pyramid, was bulldozed in a final frenzy of destruction as Iraqi forces closed in last fall. Iraqi officials estimate it’s around 70 percent destroyed.
— HATRA: A circular, walled holy city in the Iraqi desert that 2,000 years ago was a center for pilgrims and traders drawn by its temples to the sun god and multiple other deities. Its walls fended off two invasions by the Roman army in the 2nd century, only to crumble under the explosives of the Islamic State group, which bulldozed its ruins.
— ASHUR: The first capital of the Assyrian Empire, between 14th to 9th centuries BC. The militants destroyed some of it of its ruins, but they didn’t release a video as they did elsewhere. The site is back in government hands, but archaeologists have not yet been able to enter to assess the damage.