The world watched in horror last week as the Islamic State crushed ancient culture under its boot. In a video posted on YouTube, Islamic State militants tore apart the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq, sending ancient Assyrian and Akkadian sculptures crashing to the floor, and took a power drill to one of the remarkable winged guardians of the Nergal gates at the nearby archeological site of Nineveh. A narrator explained these are idolatrous images that the ancients worshipped and that Allah commands them to destroy. International commentators all expressed their outrage at the destruction of cultural heritage, but the art world immediately began debating how many of the statues were real.
If you watch the video – which is, of course, what the Islamic State wants you to do – you'll notice that several of the pieces disintegrate into a cloud of white powder as they hit the ground. That is plaster not stone, the experts say: Those statues are modern replicas. At one point, you can also see metal rods sticking up through the broken legs of a standing figure, another clue that piece is modern.
Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Mosul exiled since the city fell to the Islamic State in June, was quoted by the Kurdish media service Rudaw saying the real works were hidden at the National Museum in Baghdad in 2003. He said that with a few exceptions – most notably the winged bull with a man's head, or lamassu, from Nineveh – the damage was confined to replicas. He also alleged that at least seven pieces that could not be seen on the video were stolen by the Islamic State before it set its followers loose on the remainder, and UNESCO has been alerted. (Terrorists in Iraq and Syria are known to be funding operations partly through the illegal sale of plundered antiquities.) The following day he even went so far, in a report on the Saudi news service Al Arabiya, to say three of the perpetrators had been identified from the video as locals and would be pursued.
How much of this can we believe? Can most of Mosul's treasures really be safely hidden in the National Museum, which itself was subject to heavy looting after the American invasion in 2003? Western museums are being much more cautious in identifying the sculptures and bas-reliefs as replicas, saying it's hard to tell from the video, while archeologists cannot agree on what they see. One disputes that the metal rods are the sign of a replica, arguing they are probably a modern repair to an original statue that broke along an old fault line as it fell. Another points out that ancient limestone would collapse in the same white cloud as new plaster. Some say that one bas-relief is clearly a replica of a piece that is in the British Museum; the British Museum has issued a statement saying none of the pieces in the video are replicas of anything in its collection.
The information is cloudy, and so are the motives. Is al-Nujaifi just trying to calm and reassure the citizens of Mosul that their culture is safe even if their lives are not? Is the art world worried that Westerners will dismiss the threat to cultural heritage if they think the statues weren't real? Or that the Islamic State will go hunting for more ancient artifacts if people dismiss the first video as less than appalling?
If these motives are murky, those of the vandals are painfully clear. Iconoclasts should not really care if a graven image was made 3,000 years ago or last week, but the truth is events at the Mosul Museum have a lot more to do with propaganda than with a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam's rejection of human imagery in art. Most commentators stress that that the loss of these artifacts does not compare to the horrible human suffering caused by the Islamic State. UNESCO has called for a war crimes investigation into the cultural plundering but the vandalism seems like a drop in the bucket compared with the rapes and murders.
Perhaps the best way to evaluate the loss of the artifacts is simply to say it is a different loss from that of human life, and that the two should not be compared or ordered. The Islamic State is releasing two different kinds of propaganda here that achieve two different kinds of terror; the videos of beheadings and the slaughter of populations make people fear for their lives, both in Iraq and in the West. The destruction at the Mosul Museum and at Nineveh, meanwhile, is a show of power that demoralizes Iraqis by degrading their culture while poking the West in the eye. Sometimes it's as important to frustrate your enemy as it is to scare him. The best retort to date was Saturday's reopening of the National Museum. Officials have estimated that one-third of the artifacts looted have been returned while Baghdad's example of the weird and wonderful winged lamassu never left.