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What now for Iraq’s Mosul Museum, recently liberated from ISIS?


The only way into the Mosul Museum, as I discovered a few months ago, was to crawl through a hole in the wall, accessed from an alleyway that cuts between the museum and its former administrative buildings. At the end of the alley is an Iraqi Federal Police barricade; beyond that are the narrow streets of Mosul’s old town and the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave his infamous July 2014 sermon after the jihadist group conquered the city. In March, Iraqi forces retook the museum, and I was granted access to the site with two colleagues. The surrounding neighborhood was blackened, destroyed, still unsafe. We were told to watch out for ISIS snipers, and the sound of gunfire shook the stillness. Only Iraqi Federal Police were wandering about, though I could also hear birdsong coming from the museum’s garden, where rosebushes and fig and olive trees had been planted in homage to the gardens of ancient Nineveh, around which the modern city of Mosul arose.

Inside the museum, I found the floor of the Assyrian gallery carpeted with shards of stone inscribed with cuneiform, remnants of the tablets that told the stories of Mesopotamia. In the gallery devoted to the city of Hatra, capital of the first Arab kingdom, the plinths bore no pedestals or statuary. It was here that ISIS fighters in 2015 filmed themselves smashing objects with sledgehammers. Nearby is a gigantic hole where explosives tore through an Assyrian winged bull statue that was too large to destroy by hand. Below that hole, in the basement, the floor of the museum’s library was thick with ash. The walls were licked black with fire, and the air was hot and sweet with the smell of burnt paper and plastic. Some 25,000 books had been destroyed.

Because of the building’s height, ISIS used it as a sniper’s nest. When the museum was retaken in March, Iraq’s Federal Police found bodies of ISIS fighters among the rubble, said Wisam Fadil of the force’s Third Division as he trod around the ruins. He’s from Baghdad, but for him, these objects transcend region: they are remnants of a shared, ancient past.

Read entire article at The American Scholar