The Plight Of Mosul's Museum: Iraqi Antiquities At Risk Of Ruin

Christopher Dickey, foreign editor for the Daily Beast, speaks to Melissa Block about the dangers facing antiquities in a museum and other archaeological sites in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. As Sunni insurgents have swept through Iraq seizing cities, they've also begun destroying ancient artifacts. Shrines, tombs and statues that the group ISIS believes are against Islam. Present day Iraq was once Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and considered the cradle of civilization. Now there's great concern that antiquities and archaeological sites will be wiped out. As Christopher Dickey writes in the Daily Beast, it's a virtual certainty that irreplaceable history will be annihilated or sold into the netherworld of corrupt and cynical collectors. Mr. Dickey joins me not from Paris. Thanks for being with us.

CHRISTOPHER DICKEY: Sure thing Melissa.

BLOCK: And you write of particular concern about the province of Nineveh and the city of Mosul, in particular the Mosul Museum. Describe what's there and the significance of these artifacts.

DICKEY: Well, what's at risk are some beautiful monumental sculptures, these winged figures, lions and bulls, with the faces of bearded men - Kings, that clearly were idols in the time of the Assyrians. But that are now part and parcel of the history of Western civilization and biblical history especially. And then we've also got gorgeous gold jewelry which certainly will go onto the black market and all kinds of smaller pieces of sculpture, earthenware, the kinds of things that give you the texture as well as the beauty of life in that period. So it's a rich museum but all of that collection is now in the hands of ISIS.

BLOCK: So when you say in the hands of ISIS, does that mean that Isis is actually occupying the museum, has taken over?

DICKEY: Yes, after they took over Mosul a month ago, they very quickly visited the museum and told the staff that the statues there were against Islam, but then they left. Then last week they came back, they broke the locks on storerooms that hold all of these treasures and they occupied the museum and said they were waiting for instructions on when to destroy the contents.

BLOCK: And as far as we know have those instructions come?

DICKEY: No, no they haven't as far as we know. I interviewed the head of the Iraqi National Museum, who's in touch with his staff in Mousl, and at that point, last Friday, they had not actually carried out those threats. But they will. Just today videos surface of some of these same people destroying graves in Mosul, one of which was alleged to belong to the prophet Jonah known as Yunus in the Quran.

BLOCK: There have been decades of war in Iraq before this of course, how much of the antiquities and the artifacts and the cultural history of the country has already been destroyed or lost to the black market?

DICKEY: Well, after the American invasion in 2003, of course a number of notorious things happened, including the pillaging right under the eyes of the American troops of the Baghdad National Museum. Some of those items have been recovered but a lot of them have not. But meanwhile, the digging that's gone on throughout Iraq, illegal digging, has been a bad problem that the government has tried to get some kind of handle on. But right now the government's fighting for its survival, so that makes all the sites in Iraq much more vulnerable and of course, the part of the country that is under the control of the new self-declared Caliph Ibrahim, is particularly vulnerable because he not only wants to sell this to increase the size of his war chest, he wants to destroy a lot of it to make a point that he's against idolatry.

BLOCK: I did see a cautionary note from the head of the Council of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, this was in a report and she said that as far as she's been able to determine the sites are all still intact. She warns about rumor mongering and says that the fears of what ISIS might do are overpowering what they have actually done. Is that a fair point? I mean, is it hard to get reliable information about what's actually happening?

DICKEY: Well, it's difficult to get reliable information and there was false information that was put out initial. What is in the Museum in Mosul has not been destroyed, not yet. But the people who are occupying the museum were very explicit and said we are just waiting for the orders when to do it.

BLOCK: That's Christopher Dickey, the foreign editor for the Daily Beast. He spoke with us from Paris. Mr. Dickey thanks so much.

DICKEY: Thank you.

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