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Ancient Mayan Superhighways Found in the Guatemala Jungle

Ancient Mayan Superhighways Found in the Guatemala Jungle – Seeker
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An ancient network of roads that stretched over 150 miles has been discovered in the jungle of Guatemala, according to high-tech scanning carried out in the area.

Used by the Maya for travel and transporting goods, the causeways were identified in the Mirador Basin, which lies in the far northern Petén region of Guatemala, within the largest tract of virgin tropical forest remaining in Central America.

Also known as the Kan Kingdom, El Mirador is considered the cradle of Mayan civilization. Prior to its abandonment in 150 A.D., it was the largest city-state in the world both in size — 833 square miles — and population. It boasted the largest known pyramid in Central America, and was home to at least one million people.

Researchers have known about the presence of these roads since 1967, when British Mayanist Ian Graham published a map of Mirador showing causeways crossing the swamp regions. Now laser-based remote sensing has been used to map the area, providing new insights into the massive system of superhighways.

The Light Detection and Ranging tool, known as LiDAR, is capable of penetrating the thick jungle vegetation at a rate of 560,000 dots per second, producing detailed images that mimic a 3-D view of the scanned areas.

“LiDAR uses laser pulses that bounce from the Earth’s surface through leaves and back to a computer mounted in a plane,” said Arlen Chase, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who is working on the project. “While most people felt the technology would not be successful based on past experiments in Central America, we became convinced by 2006 that it could be used to determine what was on the ground in terms of Maya sites under the jungle canopy.”

Researchers with the Mirador Basin Project, which is led by archaeologist and anthropologist Richard D. Hansen of the University of Utah, have so far scanned and analyzed more than 430 square miles of the basin.

“The results were beyond our wildest expectations,” Chase said.

LiDAR-derived images accurately portrayed structures, agricultural terraces, pyramids, canals, corrals and a network of 17 roads.

Hansen, who has been excavating causeways since 1990, has found detailed evidence of the roads’ construction, destinations and locations.

“With the LiDAR technology, we have been able to investigate the incredible size and complexity of these causeways,” he said, revealing that the Maya rivaled the ancient Romans in road construction skills.

LiDAR was capable of penetrating thick jungle vegetation at the northern Guatemalan regions where the roads were detected. Credit: FARES 2016“These causeways are 130 feet wide, up to 20 feet high and in some cases they extend as far as 25 miles,” Hansen said.

The first building of the causeway between Mirador and Tindall and Mirador and Nakbe dates to 600 and 400 B.C., while other causeways date from 300 BC to 100 A.D.

“The creation of these causeways allowed unification of what appears to be the first state-level society in the Western Hemisphere,” Hansen added.

According to Hansen and colleagues, the sophisticated system of corrals, or animal pens, that was identified through the LIDAR scans may have been established first by the inhabitants of Mirador.

This would suggest that meat production in the Mirador Basin existed at an industrial level, with transportation relying on the superhighways.

“The causeways allowed transport of food, materials, tribute, rulers, armies and all the trappings of political, economic and social complexity,” Hansen explained. “The system is similar to the autobahn system in Germany, or the freeway system in the U.S., and allows unification, homogeneity of society and permits the administration of centralized government.”

LiDAR image showing features and causeways within the Guatemalan forest. Credit: FARES 2016.The discovery of the ancient network of roads will provide the Cuenca Mirador researchers with more Maya sites to investigate. Hansen and his colleagues believe the new findings may help to understand why the Mirador Basin civilization declined after 150 A.D.

The collapse is being investigated by a variety of researchers from 34 universities and institutions from around the world.

The Mirador Basin is currently being considered for protection by the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala as a wilderness area. The site lies in the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which is considered one of the environmental and cultural lungs of the Americas.

New Fossils Hint ‘Hobbit’ Humans Are Older Than Thought

Mysterious civilization of ‘Sea Peoples’ were wiped out by ‘world war zero’ 3,000 years ago

  • Theory proposes Luwian-speaking kingdoms joined to form a coalition
  • This coalition then attacked and destroyed the nearby Hittite civilization 
  • Researchers say Egyptian text describing ‘Sea Peoples’ is about Luwians
  • The Luwians were later destroyed in battle with Mycenaean kings at Troy 

More than 3,000 years ago, the flourishing Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean suddenly met their downfall.

The Trojan War erupted as one of the final events culminating an era of chaos which one archaeologist has named ‘World War Zero’, plunging the region into a Dark Age soon after.

And, it was all begun by a mysterious and powerful civilization which came to be known as the ‘Sea Peoples,’ a new theory suggests.

More than 3000 years ago, the flourishing Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean suddenly met their downfall. The Trojan War erupted as one of the final events culminating an era of chaos which one archaeologist has named 'World War Zero,' plunging the region into a Dark Age soon after

The new ideas presented by Luwian Studiespropose a scenario that could explain the fall of the Bronze Age around 1200 BC, and the events leading up to the Trojan War.

In the new scenario, it’s argued that the many Luwian-speaking petty kingdoms and western Asia Minor, a peninsula also called Anatolia, joined together in a coalition to attack the neighbouring Hittites.

As these Luwian kingdoms spoke a common language, they can be discussed as a single civilization, Eberhard Zangger, head of the Zurich-based non-profit, explained to New Scientist.

‘During the second millennium BCE people speaking a Luwian language lived throughout Asia Minor,’ Luwian Studies explains.

‘They were contemporaries, trading partners, and at times opponents of the well-known Minoan, Mycenaean, and Hittite cultures of Greece and Asia Minor.

When the Bronze Age drew to a close, the Greeks lost the art of writing for many centuries. But, the Luwians maintained this for roughly half a millennium, the researchers say.

Texts from the Luwians were discovered in the 19th century, before the Mycenaean, Minoan, and Hittite documents.

Hittite texts reveal that the Luwian coalitions occasionally grew powerful enough to attack the empire.

The new theory suggests the Luwians did so once more, roughly 3200 years ago, converging upon the capital Hattusa from both land and sea.

Later Egyptian texts describe raids on Cyprus and Syria by the ‘Sea Peoples,’ and the researchers suggest these mysterious attackers are actually the Luwians.

Attackers set fires to temples and palaces, and drove out the ruling class until the Hittite civilization ‘vanished into oblivion for three thousand years,’ according to the proposal.

The massive Luwian civilization then ruled a territory from Northern Greece to Lebanon, they say.

In the new scenario, it’s argued that the many Luwian-speaking petty kingdoms and western Asia Minor, a peninsula also called Anatolia, joined together in a coalition (red) to attack the neighbouring Hittites (green). The new theory suggests the coalition converged upon the Hittite capital Hattusa from land and sea

Shortly after, the Mycenaean kings in Greece banded together to destroy the Luwians, who could not defend their large territory. The Myceneans built a large fleet and attacked the port cities of Asia Minor, which were easily destroyed

Shortly after, the Mycenaean kings in Greece banded together to destroy the Luwians, who could not defend their large territory.

The Myceneans built a large fleet and attacked the port cities of Asia Minor, which were easily destroyed.

Then, the two armies gathered before Troy.

The subsequent battle – the infamous ‘Trojan War’ – ended in the complete destruction of the Luwian coalition, and the fall of Troy.

But, the victors were met with their own chaos in the years to follow.

Kings returned home from war to clash with the deputies who had since assumed their roles, and some didn’t return at all.

Few kings were able to resume their claim to the throne, and ‘traditional Mycenaean kingdoms existed next to areas of anarchy,’ the researchers explain.

Eventually, a civil war tore through the civilization, and the Mycenaean Era was brought to an end.

A Dark Age began soon after.

The researchers from Luwian Studies say this scenario could explain the sudden end of the Late Bronze Age, but not all archaeologists agree with the concept of a ‘lost’ Luwian civilization, New Scientist explains.

And, some debate the ‘World War Zero,’ narrative, and explain that that many archaeologists have become skeptical of the ancient narratives which describe ‘approximate historical truth,’ like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

‘Archaeologists will need to discover similar examples of monumental art and architecture across western Anatolia and ideally texts from the same sites to support Zangger’s claim of a civilization,’ Christoph Bachhuber, of the University of Oxford, told New Scientist.

Though it’s been met with some criticism, archaeologists say the research will bring the Late Bronze Age era of western Anatolia into the light for future studies.

By CHEYENNE MACDONALD FOR DAILYMAIL.COM

Plague Began Infecting Humans Much Earlier Than Thought

A human skull from the Bronze Age

This skull is from an individual of the Yamnaya people, a group that moved into Central Asia in early Bronze Age (c. 5000 years ago). The group belonged to a culture that is one of the Bronze Age groups carrying Y. pestis.

 

by Charles Q. Choi, Live Science Contributor

The germ that causes the plague began infecting humans thousands of years earlier than scientists had previously thought.

Researchers analyzed teeth from the remains of 101 individuals that were collected from a variety of museums and archaeological excavations. They found DNA of the bacterium that causes plague, called Yersinia pestis, in seven of these people. The earliest sample that had plague DNA was from Bronze Age Siberia, and dated back to 2794 B.C., and the latest specimen with plague, from early Iron Age Armenia, dated back to 951 B.C.

Previously, the oldest direct molecular evidence that this bacterium infected humans was only about 1,500 years old.

“We were able to find genuine Yersinia pestisDNA in our samples 3,000 years earlier than what had previously been shown,” said Simon Rasmussen, a lead author of the study and a bioinformatician at the Technical University of Denmark.

The finding suggests that plague might be responsible for mysterious epidemics that helped end the Classical period of ancient Greece and undermined the Imperial Roman army, the researchers said. [7 Devastating Infectious Diseases]

The new study also sheds light on how plague bacteria have evolved over time, and on how it and other diseases might evolve in the future, the investigators added.

Plague is a lethal disease so infamous that it has become synonymous with any dangerous, widespread contagion. It was one of the first known biological weapons — for instance, in 1346, Mongols catapulted plague victims into the Crimean city of Caffa, according to a 14th-century Italian memoir. The germ is carried and spread by fleas, as well as person-to-person contact.

Yersinia pestis has been linked with at least two of the most devastating pandemics in recorded history. One, the Great Plague, which lasted from the 14th to 17th centuries, included the notorious epidemic known as the Black Death, which may have killed up to half of Europe’s population at the time.

Another, the Modern Plague, began in China in the mid-1800s and spread to Africa, the Americas, Australia, Europe and parts of Asia. Moreover, the Justinianic Plague of the 6th to 8th centuries, which killed more than 100 million people, may have helped to finish off the Roman Empire.

 

Pandemics that struck hundreds of years before those plagues are sometimes blamed on Yersinia pestis as well. These include the Plague of Athens, which occurred nearly 2,500 years ago and was linked with the decline of Classical Greece, and the Antonine Plague of the second century, which devastated the Imperial Roman army. However, it remains unclear whether plague bacteriacould have indeed caused these ancient epidemics, because scientists have not seen any direct molecular evidence of this germ from skeletons older than 1,500 years.

In the new study, researchers looked at DNA sequences in tooth samples from Bronze Age people from Europe and Asia. The finding that people were infected with plague about 4,800 years ago suggests that the disease could have influenced human history much earlier than previously thought, the researchers said.

The scientists also found that plague has changed in its deadly ways over time. For instance, plague genomes from the Bronze Age, which began around 3000 B.C., lacked a gene called the ymt gene. This gene is involved in protecting the bacterium when it is inside the guts of fleas, thus helping the insects spread the plague to humans.

However, this gene was found in the plague bacteria in the sample from the Iron Age, which began almost 2,000 years later. This finding suggests that plague bacteria became transmissible by fleas sometime during or after the Bronze Age, conflicting with previous research suggesting that the ymt gene emerged early in the evolution of plague due to its importance in the germ’s life cycle.

The researchers also learned more about how plague has evolved to stealthily evade human defenses. In mammals, the immune system can recognize and mount offensives against a protein called flagellin, which is the key ingredient of the flagellum, the whiplike appendage that helps bacteria move around. All previously known plague strains had a mutation that prevented them from producing flagellin. The two oldest Bronze Age individuals lacked this mutation, but it was seen in the youngest Bronze Age individual.

“We are able to investigate the early evolutionary steps of what developed into one of the deadliest bacteria ever encountered by humans,” Rasmussen told Live Science.

Together, these findings suggest that plague did not fully emerge as a highly virulent flea-borne germ until about 3,000 years ago. The genetic changes that plague underwent may have not only helped give rise to infamous epidemics, but also driven large migrations and resettlements by people living in both Europe and Asia during the Bronze Age.

“Perhaps people were migrating to get away from epidemics or recolonizing new areas where epidemics had decimated the local populations,” Morten Allentoft, another lead author of the study and an evolutionary biologist at the University of Copenhagen, said in a statement.

The underlying mechanisms that helped plague evolve over time “are still present today, and learning from this will help us understand how future pathogens may arise or develop increased virulence,” Rasmussen said in a statement.

In the future, the researchers will look for evidence of plague and other germs in other places and times around the world to get a better grasp of the history of the diseases. [10 Deadly Diseases That Hopped Across Species]

“The underlying evolutionary mechanisms that facilitated the evolution of plague are still present today,” Rasmussen told Live Science. “By knowing which new genes and mutations lead to the development of plague, we may be better at predicting or identifying bacteria that could develop into new infectious diseases.

The researchers detailed their findings today (Oct. 22) in the journal Cell.

Unique Writings Found in Georgia May Change World History

Commuters on Georgia’s main highway could scarcely have imagined that they were driving past something that may change the history of scripts as we know it.
Today, archaeologists of Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (TSU) have discovered a one line inscription of as yet unknown Georgian writing, dating back 2700 years on the altar pedestal of the 7th century BC temple dedicated to a fertility goddess at the Grakliani Hill, in the eastern Kaspi region.
This new unique discovery suggests that the alphabet was used on the territory of Georgia 2700 years ago, far earlier than previously thought.
Scientists claimed that this is the oldest script to be discovered in the whole Caucasus region.
The archaeologists said the writing had nothing similar to it and it would become “an extremely fascinating piece” for foreign scientists.
Head of the Institute of Archaeology of Georgia’s State University Vakhtang Licheli said with this “significant discovery”, Georgia steps up among the elite civilizations that used their written languages thousands of years ago.
“The writings on the two altars of the temple are really well preserved. On the one altar several letters are carved in clay while the second altar’s pedestal is wholly covered with writings,” Licheli said.

This new unique discovery suggests that the alphabet was used on the territory of Georgia 2700 years ago, far earlier than previously thought.

The TSU professor believed that, “the inscription is so important, that goes beyond the limits of Georgian science and will be the subject of an international study. The new discovery will change the particular stage of the history of the world’s manuscripts.”
To share this unique discovery with the public, Georgia’s Minister of Culture and Monuments Protection Mikheil Giorgadze announced that this site will become an open air museum for visitors, to be able to enjoy multi-layer settlements from different periods in history.
Glakliani Hill is believed to be the only monument which revealed almost all of the layers of the human development, a non–stop 300,000 year chain from the Stone Age onward.
Ten layers of the site have been excavated, through which various ancient weapons, worshiping icons and pharmacological devices were exposed.
Grakliani Hill is located in Igoeti village, Kaspi region, on the top of a hill that’s situated on the bank of the River Lekhura, near the Tbilisi- Senaki-Leselidze highway.
Archaeologists and scientists of the Tbilisi State University (TSU) also uncovered ancient treasures when works were conducted at the highway in 2007.
Meanwhile excavations of the settlement on the eastern slope and the necropolis on the south-western part of the hill revealed that the site had been occupied between the Chalcolithic and the Late Hellenistic periods.
The most interesting remains of buildings belong to the second and first millennium BC.
An architectural complex consisting of three main rooms and three store-rooms, dating back to around 450-350 BC, was discovered in the western part of the hill’s lower terrace.
Therefore, burial grounds from the various periods in history were discovered in the western part of the hill’s southern slope. The earliest cemetery discovered dated back to the Early Bronze Age.

Tamar Svanidze

Ancient lakeside settlement older than the PYRAMIDS uncovered on new housing estate

An ancient lakeside settlement older than the Pyramids has been uncovered on a new housing estate.

Radiocarbon testing carried out on part of a wooden building set into the bed of what was once Monmouth’s prehistoric lake has concluded that it dates from as long ago as 2,917BC.

That is 2,000 years older than the only other lake settlement known in England and Wales.

The carbon dating exercise also puts the building at around 300 years older than the Pyramids in Egypt.

An artists impression of how the crannog would have looked

The timber, which was skilfully worked with a stone axe to form the bottom of a stilt supporting a structure in the lake, was unearthed during the digging of house foundations in Monmouth.

MORE: Prehistoric rock art discovered in Brecon Beacons

The date of the timber is 4,867 years before “the present”, as counted in archaeological terms from 1950.

That was during the Neolithic or New Stone Age, before the invention of metalworking, and when the Rockfield Estate, like most of Monmouth, was under a post-glacial lake which had formed at the end of the Ice Age, some 11,000 years ago.

An example of a crannog

The lake is thought to have survived until the first millennium BC, probably not long before the Romans arrived.

MORE: Ancient axes, a Bronze Age ring, silver coins and Roman pins unearthed by Welsh metal detector fans

The remains were so far out from the shore of the lake that the post has to be part of a building set on poles – called a crannog.

Crannogs are defended wooden structures found in Ireland and Scotland and date from the Stone Age onwards – the only one known in England and Wales previously is at Llangors, near Brecon.

An oak post from the ancient settlement

They are thought to have been a mark of power and status – the one at Llangors being claimed as a royal residence of the Dark Age King of Brycheiniog.

The timber was discovered by Martin Tuck of the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust.

This discovery is to feature in the latest edition of veteran archaeologist Stephen Clarke’s The Lost Lake.

An example of a crannog at Llangors

Mr Clarke, who founded Monmouth Archaeology and has dug in the area for more than half a century, said: “This is surely one of the most stunning of prehistoric discoveries.

MORE: Wales’ ancient woodlands are as ‘globally significant’ as tropical rainforests

“An exceptional feature is that the construction was based on three massive parallel ‘sleeper beams’ – timbers roughly hewn from complete trees set in the ground horizontally.

“One of these timbers is a metre wide and all of them seem to have been from full-grown trees.

An oak post from the excavation

“Most of the known long houses were based on posts.

“Another extraordinary aspect of the discovery is that it was built on top of a prehistoric ‘burnt mound’.

“This is a concentration of thousands of ‘pot boiler’ stones and pebbles which had been burned in a fire and used to boil water when dropped into a pot or water-filled clay pit.

The housing estate where the discovery was made

“There were four of these burnt mounds on different levels of the site, demonstrating that there were successive occupations here over hundreds or thousands of years,” he added.

Mr Clarke and his team say they established that a lake 4km long existed in the area, covering most of what is now the town of Monmouth.

Mr Clarke said: “We believe the people who built the boats would have had access to the sea, and that the boats they built would have enabled them to make long voyages, across the Channel and over to northern Europe.”

The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State

Map: Areas under IS control in Syria and Iraq.

By Christoph Reuter

From DER SPIEGEL

Aloof. Polite. Cajoling. Extremely attentive. Restrained. Dishonest. Inscrutable. Malicious. The rebels from northern Syria, remembering encounters with him months later, recall completely different facets of the man. But they agree on one thing: “We never knew exactly who we were sitting across from.”

In fact, not even those who shot and killed him after a brief firefight in the town of Tal Rifaat on a January morning in 2014 knew the true identity of the tall man in his late fifties. They were unaware that they had killed the strategic head of the group calling itself “Islamic State” (IS). The fact that this could have happened at all was the result of a rare but fatal miscalculation by the brilliant planner. The local rebels placed the body into a refrigerator, in which they intended to bury him. Only later, when they realized how important the man was, did they lift his body out again.

Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi was the real name of the Iraqi, whose bony features were softened by a white beard. But no one knew him by that name. Even his best-known pseudonym, Haji Bakr, wasn’t widely known. But that was precisely part of the plan. The former colonel in the intelligence service of Saddam Hussein’s air defense force had been secretly pulling the strings at IS for years. Former members of the group had repeatedly mentioned him as one of its leading figures. Still, it was never clear what exactly his role was.

But when the architect of the Islamic State died, he left something behind that he had intended to keep strictly confidential: the blueprint for this state. It is a folder full of handwritten organizational charts, lists and schedules, which describe how a country can be gradually subjugated. SPIEGEL has gained exclusive access to the 31 pages, some consisting of several pages pasted together. They reveal a multilayered composition and directives for action, some already tested and others newly devised for the anarchical situation in Syria’s rebel-held territories. In a sense, the documents are the source code of the most successful terrorist army in recent history.

Until now, much of the information about IS has come from fighters who had defected and data sets from the IS internal administration seized in Baghdad. But none of this offered an explanation for the group’s meteoric rise to prominence, before air strikes in the late summer of 2014 put a stop to its triumphal march.

For the first time, the Haji Bakr documents now make it possible to reach conclusions on how the IS leadership is organized and what role former officials in the government of ex-dictator Saddam Hussein play in it. Above all, however, they show how the takeover in northern Syria was planned, making the group’s later advances into Iraq possible in the first place. In addition, months of research undertaken by SPIEGEL in Syria, as well as other newly discovered records, exclusive to SPIEGEL, show that Haji Bakr’s instructions were carried out meticulously.

Bakr’s documents were long hidden in a tiny addition to a house in embattled northern Syria. Reports of their existence were first made by an eyewitness who had seen them in Haji Bakr’s house shortly after his death. In April 2014, a single page from the file was smuggled to Turkey, where SPIEGEL was able to examine it for the first time. It only became possible to reach Tal Rifaat to evaluate the entire set of handwritten papers in November 2014.

This document is Haji Bakr's sketch for the possible structure of the Islamic State administration. Zoom

This document is Haji Bakr’s sketch for the possible structure of the Islamic State administration.

“Our greatest concern was that these plans could fall into the wrong hands and would never have become known,” said the man who has been storing Haji Bakr’s notes after pulling them out from under a tall stack of boxes and blankets. The man, fearing the IS death squads, wishes to remain anonymous.

The Master Plan

The story of this collection of documents begins at a time when few had yet heard of the “Islamic State.” When Iraqi national Haji Bakr traveled to Syria as part of a tiny advance party in late 2012, he had a seemingly absurd plan: IS would capture as much territory as possible in Syria. Then, using Syria as a beachhead, it would invade Iraq.

Bakr took up residence in an inconspicuous house in Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo. The town was a good choice. In the 1980s, many of its residents had gone to work in the Gulf nations, especially Saudi Arabia. When they returned, some brought along radical convictions and contacts. In 2013, Tal Rifaat would become IS’ stronghold in Aleppo Province, with hundreds of fighters stationed there.

It was there that the “Lord of the Shadows,” as some called him, sketched out the structure of the Islamic State, all the way down to the local level, compiled lists relating to the gradual infiltration of villages and determined who would oversee whom. Using a ballpoint pen, he drew the chains of command in the security apparatus on stationery. Though presumably a coincidence, the stationery was from the Syrian Defense Ministry and bore the letterhead of the department in charge of accommodations and furniture.

What Bakr put on paper, page by page, with carefully outlined boxes for individual responsibilities, was nothing less than a blueprint for a takeover. It was not a manifesto of faith, but a technically precise plan for an “Islamic Intelligence State” — a caliphate run by an organization that resembled East Germany’s notorious Stasi domestic intelligence agency.

Graphic: A digital rendering of Haji Bakr's Islamic State organigram.Zoom

DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: A digital rendering of Haji Bakr’s Islamic State organigram.

This blueprint was implemented with astonishing accuracy in the ensuing months. The plan would always begin with the same detail: The group recruited followers under the pretense of opening a Dawah office, an Islamic missionary center. Of those who came to listen to lectures and attend courses on Islamic life, one or two men were selected and instructed to spy on their village and obtain a wide range of information. To that end, Haji Bakr compiled lists such as the following:

  • List the powerful families.
  • Name the powerful individuals in these families.
  • Find out their sources of income.
  • Name names and the sizes of (rebel) brigades in the village.
  • Find out the names of their leaders, who controls the brigades and their political orientation.
  • Find out their illegal activities (according to Sharia law), which could be used to blackmail them if necessary.

The spies were told to note such details as whether someone was a criminal or a homosexual, or was involved in a secret affair, so as to have ammunition for blackmailing later. “We will appoint the smartest ones as Sharia sheiks,” Bakr had noted. “We will train them for a while and then dispatch them.” As a postscript, he had added that several “brothers” would be selected in each town to marry the daughters of the most influential families, in order to “ensure penetration of these families without their knowledge.”

The spies were to find out as much as possible about the target towns: Who lived there, who was in charge, which families were religious, which Islamic school of religious jurisprudence they belonged to, how many mosques there were, who the imam was, how many wives and children he had and how old they were. Other details included what the imam’s sermons were like, whether he was more open to the Sufi, or mystical variant of Islam, whether he sided with the opposition or the regime, and what his position was on jihad. Bakr also wanted answers to questions like: Does the imam earn a salary? If so, who pays it? Who appoints him? Finally: How many people in the village are champions of democracy?

The agents were supposed to function as seismic signal waves, sent out to track down the tiniest cracks, as well as age-old faults within the deep layers of society — in short, any information that could be used to divide and subjugate the local population. The informants included former intelligence spies, but also regime opponents who had quarreled with one of the rebel groups. Some were also young men and adolescents who needed money or found the work exciting. Most of the men on Bakr’s list of informants, such as those from Tal Rifaat, were in their early twenties, but some were as young as 16 or 17.

The plans also include areas like finance, schools, daycare, the media and transportation. But there is a constantly recurring, core theme, which is meticulously addressed in organizational charts and lists of responsibilities and reporting requirements: surveillance, espionage, murder and kidnapping.

For each provincial council, Bakr had planned for an emir, or commander, to be in charge of murders, abductions, snipers, communication and encryption, as well as an emir to supervise the other emirs — “in case they don’t do their jobs well.” The nucleus of this godly state would be the demonic clockwork of a cell and commando structure designed to spread fear.

From the very beginning, the plan was to have the intelligence services operate in parallel, even at the provincial level. A general intelligence department reported to the “security emir” for a region, who was in charge of deputy-emirs for individual districts. A head of secret spy cells and an “intelligence service and information manager” for the district reported to each of these deputy-emirs. The spy cells at the local level reported to the district emir’s deputy. The goal was to have everyone keeping an eye on everyone else.

A handwritten chart shows Bakr's thoughts regarding the establishment of the Islamic State. Zoom

A handwritten chart shows Bakr’s thoughts regarding the establishment of the Islamic State.

Those in charge of training the “Sharia judges in intelligence gathering” also reported to the district emir, while a separate department of “security officers” was assigned to the regional emir.

Sharia, the courts, prescribed piety — all of this served a single goal: surveillance and control. Even the word that Bakr used for the conversion of true Muslims, takwin, is not a religious but a technical term that translates as “implementation,” a prosaic word otherwise used in geology or construction. Still, 1,200 years ago, the word followed a unique path to a brief moment of notoriety. Shiite alchemists used it to describe the creation of artificial life. In his ninth century “Book of Stones,” the Persian Jabir Ibn Hayyan wrote — using a secret script and codes — about the creation of a homunculus. “The goal is to deceive all, but those who love God.” That may also have been to the liking of Islamic State strategists, although the group views Shiites as apostates who shun true Islam. But for Haji Bakr, God and the 1,400-year-old faith in him was but one of many modules at his disposal to arrange as he liked for a higher purpose.

The Beginnings in Iraq

It seemed as if George Orwell had been the model for this spawn of paranoid surveillance. But it was much simpler than that. Bakr was merely modifying what he had learned in the past: Saddam Hussein’s omnipresent security apparatus, in which no one, not even generals in the intelligence service, could be certain they weren’t being spied on.

Expatriate Iraqi author Kanan Makiya described this “Republic of Fear” in a book as a country in which anyone could simply disappear and in which Saddam could seal his official inauguration in 1979 by exposing a bogus conspiracy.

There is a simple reason why there is no mention in Bakr’s writings of prophecies relating to the establishment of an Islamic State allegedly ordained by God: He believed that fanatical religious convictions alone were not enough to achieve victory. But he did believe that the faith of others could be exploited.

In 2010, Bakr and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir and later “caliph,” the official leader of the Islamic State. They reasoned that Baghdadi, an educated cleric, would give the group a religious face.

Bakr was “a nationalist, not an Islamist,” says Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi, as he recalls the former career officer, who was stationed with Hashimi’s cousin at the Habbaniya Air Base. “Colonel Samir,” as Hashimi calls him, “was highly intelligent, firm and an excellent logistician.” But when Paul Bremer, then head of the US occupational authority in Baghdad, “dissolved the army by decree in May 2003, he was bitter and unemployed.”

Thousands of well-trained Sunni officers were robbed of their livelihood with the stroke of a pen. In doing so, America created its most bitter and intelligent enemies. Bakr went underground and met Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Anbar Province in western Iraq. Zarqawi, a Jordanian by birth, had previously run a training camp for international terrorist pilgrims in Afghanistan. Starting in 2003, he gained global notoriety as the mastermind of attacks against the United Nations, US troops and Shiite Muslims. He was even too radical for former Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi died in a US air strike in 2006.

Although Iraq’s dominant Baath Party was secular, the two systems ultimately shared a conviction that control over the masses should lie in the hands of a small elite that should not be answerable to anyone — because it ruled in the name of a grand plan, legitimized by either God or the glory of Arab history. The secret of IS’ success lies in the combination of opposites, the fanatical beliefs of one group and the strategic calculations of the other.

Bakr gradually became one of the military leaders in Iraq, and he was held from 2006 to 2008 in the US military’s Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib Prison. He survived the waves of arrests and killings by American and Iraqi special units, which threatened the very existence of the IS precursor organization in 2010, Islamic State in Iraq.

For Bakr and a number of former high-ranking officers, this presented an opportunity to seize power in a significantly smaller circle of jihadists. They utilized the time they shared in Camp Bucca to establish a large network of contacts. But the top leaders had already known each other for a long time. Haji Bakr and an additional officer were part of the tiny secret-service unit attached to the anti-aircraft division. Two other IS leaders were from a small community of Sunni Turkmen in the town of Tal Afar. One of them was a high-ranking intelligence officer as well.

In 2010, the idea of trying to defeat Iraqi government forces militarily seemed futile. But a powerful underground organization took shape through acts of terror and protection rackets. When the uprising against the dictatorship of the Assad clan erupted in neighboring Syria, the organization’s leaders sensed an opportunity. By late 2012, particularly in the north, the formerly omnipotent government forces had largely been defeated and expelled. Instead, there were now hundreds of local councils and rebel brigades, part of an anarchic mix that no one could keep track of. It was a state of vulnerability that the tightly organized group of ex-officers sought to exploit.

Attempts to explain IS and its rapid rise to power vary depending on who is doing the explaining. Terrorism experts view IS as an al-Qaida offshoot and attribute the absence of spectacular attacks to date to what they view as a lack of organizational capacity. Criminologists see IS as a mafia-like holding company out to maximize profit. Scholars in the humanities point to the apocalyptic statements by the IS media department, its glorification of death and the belief that Islamic State is involved in a holy mission.

But apocalyptic visions alone are not enough to capture cities and take over countries. Terrorists don’t establish countries. And a criminal cartel is unlikely to generate enthusiasm among supporters around the world, who are willing to give up their lives to travel to the “Caliphate” and potentially their deaths.

IS has little in common with predecessors like al-Qaida aside from its jihadist label. There is essentially nothing religious in its actions, its strategic planning, its unscrupulous changing of alliances and its precisely implemented propaganda narratives. Faith, even in its most extreme form, is just one of many means to an end. Islamic State’s only constant maxim is the expansion of power at any price.

The Implementation of the Plan

The expansion of IS began so inconspicuously that, a year later, many Syrians had to think for a moment about when the jihadists had appeared in their midst. The Dawah offices that were opened in many towns in northern Syria in the spring of 2013 were innocent-looking missionary offices, not unlike the ones that Islamic charities have opened worldwide.

When a Dawah office opened in Raqqa, “all they said was that they were ‘brothers,’ and they never said a word about the ‘Islamic State’,” reports a doctor who fled from the city. A Dawah office was also opened in Manbij, a liberal city in Aleppo Province, in the spring of 2013. “I didn’t even notice it at first,” recalls a young civil rights activist. “Anyone was allowed to open what he wished. We would never have suspected that someone other than the regime could threaten us. It was only when the fighting erupted in January that we learned that Da’ish,” the Arab acronym for IS, “had already rented several apartments where it could store weapons and hide its men.”

The situation was similar in the towns of al-Bab, Atarib and Azaz. Dawah offices were also opened in neighboring Idlib Province in early 2013, in the towns of Sermada, Atmeh, Kafr Takharim, al-Dana and Salqin. As soon as it had identified enough “students” who could be recruited as spies, IS expanded its presence. In al-Dana, additional buildings were rented, black flags raised and streets blocked off. In towns where there was too much resistance or it was unable to secure enough supporters, IS chose to withdraw temporarily. At the beginning, its modus operandi was to expand without risking open resistance, and abduct or kill “hostile individuals,” while denying any involvement in these nefarious activities.

The fighters themselves also remained inconspicuous at first. Bakr and the advance guard had not brought them along from Iraq, which would have made sense. In fact, they had explicitly prohibited their Iraqi fighters from going to Syria. They also chose not to recruit very many Syrians. The IS leaders opted for the most complicated option instead: They decided to gather together all the foreign radicals who had been coming to the region since the summer of 2012. Students from Saudi Arabia, office workers from Tunisia and school dropouts from Europe with no military experience were to form an army with battle-tested Chechens and Uzbeks. It would be located in Syria under Iraqi command.

Already by the end of 2012, military camps had been erected in several places. Initially, no one knew what groups they belonged to. The camps were strictly organized and the men there came from numerous countries — and didn’t speak to journalists. Very few of them were from Iraq. Newcomers received two months of training and were drilled to be unconditionally obedient to the central command. The set-up was inconspicuous and also had another advantage: though necessarily chaotic at the beginning, what emerged were absolutely loyal troops. The foreigners knew nobody outside of their comrades, had no reason to show mercy and could be quickly deployed to many different places. This was in stark contrast to the Syrian rebels, who were mostly focused on defending their hometowns and had to look after their families and help out with the harvest. In fall 2013, IS books listed 2,650 foreign fighters in the Province of Aleppo alone. Tunisians represented a third of the total, followed by Saudi Arabians, Turks, Egyptians and, in smaller numbers, Chechens, Europeans and Indonesians.

Later too, the jihadist cadres were hopelessly outnumbered by the Syrian rebels. Although the rebels distrusted the jihadists, they didn’t join forces to challenge IS because they didn’t want to risk opening up a second front. Islamic State, though, increased its clout with a simple trick: The men always appeared wearing black masks, which not only made them look terrifying, but also meant that no one could know how many of them there actually were. When groups of 200 fighters appeared in five different places one after the other, did it mean that IS had 1,000 people? Or 500? Or just a little more than 200? In addition, spies also ensured that IS leadership was constantly informed of where the population was weak or divided or where there were local conflict, allowing IS to offer itself as a protective power in order to gain a foothold.

The Capture of Raqqa

Raqqa, a once sleepy provincial city on the Euphrates River, was to become the prototype of the complete IS conquest. The operation began subtly, gradually became more brutal and, in the end, IS prevailed over larger opponents without much of a fight. “We were never very political,” explained one doctor who had fled Raqqa for Turkey. “We also weren’t religious and didn’t pray much.”

When Raqqa fell to the rebels in March 2013, a city council was rapidly elected. Lawyers, doctors and journalists organized themselves. Women’s groups were established. The Free Youth Assembly was founded, as was the movement “For Our Rights” and dozens of other initiatives. Anything seemed possible in Raqqa. But in the view of some who fled the city, it also marked the start of its downfall.

True to Haji Bakr’s plan, the phase of infiltration was followed by the elimination of every person who might have been a potential leader or opponent. The first person hit was the head of the city council, who was kidnapped in mid-May 2013 by masked men. The next person to disappear was the brother of a prominent novelist. Two days later, the man who had led the group that painted a revolutionary flag on the city walls vanished.

“We had an idea who kidnapped him,” one of his friends explains, “but no one dared any longer to do anything.” The system of fear began to take hold. Starting in July, first dozens and then hundreds of people disappeared. Sometimes their bodies were found, but they usually disappeared without a trace. In August, the IS military leadership dispatched several cars driven by suicide bombers to the headquarters of the FSA brigade, the “Grandsons of the Prophet,” killing dozens of fighters and leading the rest to flee. The other rebels merely looked on. IS leadership had spun a web of secret deals with the brigades so that each thought it was only the others who might be the targets of IS attacks.

On Oct. 17, 2013, Islamic State called all civic leaders, clerics and lawyers in the city to a meeting. At the time, some thought it might be a gesture of conciliation. Of the 300 people who attended the meeting, only two spoke out against the ongoing takeover, the kidnappings and the murders committed by IS.

One of the two was Muhannad Habayebna, a civil rights activist and journalist well known in the city. He was found five days later tied up and executed with a gunshot wound to his head. Friends received an anonymous email with a photo of his body. The message included only one sentence: “Are you sad about your friend now?” Within hours around 20 leading members of the opposition fled to Turkey. The revolution in Raqqa had come to an end.

A short time later, the 14 chiefs of the largest clans gave an oath of allegiance to Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. There’s even a film of the ceremony. They were sheiks with the same clans that had sworn their steadfast loyalty to Syrian President Bashar Assad only two years earlier.

The Death of Haji Bakr

Until the end of 2013, everything was going according to Islamic State’s plan — or at least according to the plan of Haji Bakr. The caliphate was expanding village by village without being confronted by unified resistance from Syrian rebels. Indeed, the rebels seemed paralyzed in the face of IS’ sinister power.

But when IS henchmen brutally tortured a well-liked rebel leader and doctor to death in December 2013, something unexpected happened. Across the country, Syrian brigades — both secular and parts of the radical Nusra Front — joined together to do battle with Islamic State. By attacking IS everywhere at the same time, they were able to rob the Islamists of their tactical advantage — that of being able to rapidly move units to where they were most urgently needed.

Within weeks, IS was pushed out of large regions of northern Syria. Even Raqqa, the Islamic State capital, had almost fallen by the time 1,300 IS fighters arrived from Iraq. But they didn’t simply march into battle. Rather, they employed a trickier approach, recalls the doctor who fled. “In Raqqa, there were so many brigades on the move that nobody knew who exactly the others were. Suddenly, a group in rebel dress began to shoot at the other rebels. They all simply fled.”

A small, simple masquerade had helped IS fighters to victory: Just change out of black clothes into jeans and vests. They did the same thing in the border town of Jarablus. On several occasions, rebels in other locations took drivers from IS suicide vehicles into custody. The drivers asked in surprise: “You are Sunnis too? Our emir told me you were infidels from Assad’s army.”

Once complete, the picture begins to look absurd: God’s self-proclaimed enforcers on Earth head out to conquer a future worldly empire, but with what? With ninja outfits, cheap tricks and espionage cells camouflaged as missionary offices. But it worked. IS held on to Raqqa and was able to reconquer some of its lost territories. But it came too late for the great planner Haji Bakr.

Haji Bakr stayed behind in the small city of Tal Rifaat, where IS had long had the upper hand. But when rebels attacked at the end of January 2014, the city became divided within just a few hours. One half remained under IS control while the other was wrested away by one of the local brigades. Haji Bakr was stuck in the wrong half. Furthermore, in order to remain incognito he had refrained from moving into one of the heavily guarded IS military quarters. And so, the godfather of snitching was snitched on by a neighbor. “A Daish sheik lives next door!” the man called. A local commander named Abdelmalik Hadbe and his men drove over to Bakr’s house. A woman jerked open the door and said brusquely: “My husband isn’t here.”

But his car is parked out front, the rebels countered.

At that moment, Haji Bakr appeared at the door in his pajamas. Hadbe ordered him to come with them, whereupon Bakr protested that he wanted to get dressed. No, Hadbe repeated: “Come with us! Immediately!”

Surprisingly nimbly for his age, Bakr jumped back and kicked the door closed, according to two people who witnessed the scene. He then hid under the stairs and yelled: “I have a suicide belt! I’ll blow up all of us!” He then came out with a Kalashnikov and began shooting. Hadbe then fired his weapon and killed Bakr.

When the men later learned who they had killed, they searched the house, gathering up computers, passports, mobile phone SIM cards, a GPS device and, most importantly, papers. They didn’t find a Koran anywhere.

Haji Bakr was dead and the local rebels took his wife into custody. Later, the rebels exchanged her for Turkish IS hostages at the request of Ankara. Bakr’s valuable papers were initially hidden away in a chamber, where they spent several months.

A Second Cache of Documents

Haji Bakr’s state continued to work even without its creator. Just how precisely his plans were implemented — point by point — is confirmed by the discovery of another file. When IS was forced to rapidly abandon its headquarters in Aleppo in January 2014, they tried to burn their archive, but they ran into a problem similar to that confronted by the East German secret police 25 years earlier: They had too many files.

Some of them remained intact and ended up with the al-Tawhid Brigade, Aleppo’s largest rebel group at the time. After lengthy negotiations, the group agreed to make the papers available to SPIEGEL for exclusive publication rights — everything except a list of IS spies inside of al-Tawhid.

An examination of the hundreds of pages of documents reveals a highly complex system involving the infiltration and surveillance of all groups, including IS’ own people. The jihad archivists maintained long lists noting which informants they had installed in which rebel brigades and government militias. It was even noted who among the rebels was a spy for Assad’s intelligence service.

“They knew more than we did, much more,” said the documents’ custodian. Personnel files of the fighters were among them, including detailed letters of application from incoming foreigners, such as the Jordanian Nidal Abu Eysch. He sent along all of his terror references, including their telephone numbers, and the file number of a felony case against him. His hobbies were also listed: hunting, boxing, bomb building.

IS wanted to know everything, but at the same time, the group wanted to deceive everyone about its true aims. One multiple-page report, for example, carefully lists all of the pretexts IS could use to justify the seizure of the largest flour mill in northern Syria. It includes such excuses as alleged embezzlement as well as the ungodly behavior of the mill’s workers. The reality — that all strategically important facilities like industrial bakeries, grain silos and generators were to be seized and their equipment sent to the caliphate’s unofficial capital Raqqa — was to be kept under wraps.

Over and over again, the documents reveal corollaries with Haji Bakr’s plans for the establishment of IS — for example that marrying in to influential families should be pushed. The files from Aleppo also included a list of 34 fighters who wanted wives in addition to other domestic needs. Abu Luqman and Abu Yahya al-Tunis, for example, noted that they needed an apartment. Abu Suheib and Abu Ahmed Osama requested bedroom furniture. Abu al-Baraa al Dimaschqi asked for financial assistance in addition to a complete set of furniture, while Abu Azmi wanted a fully automatic washing machine.

Shifting Alliances

But in the first months of 2014, yet another legacy from Haji Bakr began playing a decisive role: His decade of contacts to Assad’s intelligence services.

In 2003, the Damascus regime was panicked that then-US President George W. Bush, after his victory over Saddam Hussein, would have his troops continue into Syria to topple Assad as well. Thus, in the ensuing years, Syrian intelligence officials organized the transfer of thousands of radicals from Libya, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia to al-Qaida in Iraq. Ninety percent of the suicide attackers entered Iraq via the Syrian route. A strange relationship developed between Syrian generals, international jihadists and former Iraqi officers who had been loyal to Saddam — a joint venture of deadly enemies, who met repeatedly to the west of Damascus.

At the time, the primary aim was to make the lives of the Americans in Iraq hell. Ten years later, Bashar Assad had a different motive to breathe new life into the alliance: He wanted to sell himself to the world as the lesser of several evils. Islamist terror, the more gruesome the better, was too important to leave it up to the terrorists. The regime’s relationship with Islamic State is — just as it was to its predecessor a decade prior — marked by a completely tactical pragmatism. Both sides are trying to use the other in the assumption that it will emerge as the stronger power, able to defeat the discrete collaborator of yesterday. Conversely, IS leaders had no problem receiving assistance from Assad’s air force, despite all of the group’s pledges to annihilate the apostate Shiites. Starting in January 2014, Syrian jets would regularly — and exclusively — bomb rebel positions and headquarters during battles between IS and rebel groups.

In battles between IS and rebels in January 2014, Assad’s jets regularly bombed only rebel positions, while the Islamic State emir ordered his fighters to refrain from shooting at the army. It was an arrangement that left many of the foreign fighters deeply disillusioned; they had imaged jihad differently.

IS threw its entire arsenal at the rebels, sending more suicide bombers into their ranks in just a few weeks than it deployed during the entire previous year against the Syrian army. Thanks in part to additional air strikes, IS was able to reconquer territory that it had briefly lost.

Nothing symbolizes the tactical shifting of alliances more than the fate of the Syrian army’s Division 17. The isolated base near Raqqa had been under rebel siege for more than a year. But then, IS units defeated the rebels there and Assad’s air force was once again able to use the base for supply flights without fear of attack.

But a half year later, after IS conquered Mosul and took control of a gigantic weapons depot there, the jihadists felt powerful enough to attack their erstwhile helpers. IS fighters overran Division 17 and slaughtered the soldiers, whom they had only recently protected.

What the Future May Hold

The setbacks suffered by IS in recent months — the defeat in the fight for Kurdish enclave Kobani and, more recently, the loss of the Iraqi city of Tikrit, have generated the impression that the end of Islamic State is nigh. As though it, in its megalomania, overreached itself, has lost its mystique, is in retreat and will soon disappear. But such forced optimism is likely premature. The IS may have lost many fighters, but it has continued expanding in Syria.

It is true that jihadist experiments in ruling a specific geographical area have failed in the past. Mostly, though, that was because of their lack of knowledge regarding how to administer a region, or even a state. That is exactly the weakness that IS strategists have long been aware of — and eliminated. Within the “Caliphate,” those in power have constructed a regime that is more stable and more flexible than it appears from the outside.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may be the officially named leader, but it remains unclear how much power he holds. In any case, when an emissary of al-Qaida head Ayman al-Zawahiri contacted the Islamic State, it was Haji Bakr and other intelligence officers, and not al-Baghdadi, whom he approached. Afterwards, the emissary bemoaned “these phony snakes who are betraying the real jihad.”

Within IS, there are state structures, bureaucracy and authorities. But there is also a parallel command structure: elite units next to normal troops; additional commanders alongside nominal military head Omar al-Shishani; power brokers who transfer or demote provincial and town emirs or even make them disappear at will. Furthermore, decisions are not, as a rule, made in Shura Councils, nominally the highest decision-making body. Instead, they are being made by the “people who loosen and bind” (ahl al-hall wa-l-aqd), a clandestine circle whose name is taken from the Islam of medieval times.

Islamic State is able to recognize all manner of internal revolts and stifle them. At the same time, the hermitic surveillance structure is also useful for the financial exploitation of its subjects.

The air strikes flown by the US-led coalition may have destroyed the oil wells and refineries. But nobody is preventing the Caliphate’s financial authorities from wringing money out of the millions of people who live in the regions under IS control — in the form of new taxes and fees, or simply by confiscating property. IS, after all, knows everything from its spies and from the data it plundered from banks, land-registry offices and money-changing offices. It knows who owns which homes and which fields; it knows who owns many sheep or has lots of money. The subjects may be unhappy, but there is minimal room for them to organize, arm themselves and rebel.

As the West’s attention is primarily focused on the possibility of terrorist attacks, a different scenario has been underestimated: the approaching intra-Muslim war between Shiites and Sunnis. Such a conflict would allow IS to graduate from being a hated terror organization to a central power.

Already today, the frontlines in Syria, Iraq and Yemen follow this confessional line, with Shiite Afghans fighting against Sunni Afghans in Syria and IS profiting in Iraq from the barbarism of brutal Shiite militias. Should this ancient Islam conflict continue to escalate, it could spill over into confessionally mixed states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Lebanon.

In such a case, IS propaganda about the approaching apocalypse could become a reality. In its slipstream, an absolutist dictatorship in the name of God could be established.

Analysis of the ISIS Destruction at the Mosul Museum

This is a cross-posting from the blog Gates of Nineveh. Part 1 and Part 2 of the original posts can be found there.

Last week ISIS released yet another propaganda video, showing what has been feared since the fall of Mosul last summer: the destruction of ancient artifacts of the Mosul Museum. By now most of the world has seen this video, which has been featured in all the world’s major news agencies. This post will attempt to identify what has been lost and assess the damage.

As in several of the group’s past videos, a spokesman for the group appears in the video to explain the rationale for the destruction. International Business Times has provided a translation:

These ruins that are behind me, they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. The so-called Assyrians and Akkadians and others looked to gods for war, agriculture and rain to whom they offered sacrifices…The Prophet Mohammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.

The video then shows a montage of ISIS fighters toppling sculptures, smashing them with sledgehammers and using jackhammers to pulverize the faces of some statues.

Most of the destroyed artifacts fall into two categories: Sculptures from the Roman period city of Hatra, situated in the desert to the south of Mosul, and Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh and surrounding sites such as Khorsabad and Balawat.

In some ways, it could have been worse. In 2003 around 1,500 smaller objects from the Mosul Museum were relocated to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad in order that they may be better protected. Nevertheless, many statues otherwise too large or delicate to be moved remained.

THE NERGAL GATE

The scene with the narrator was shot at the Nergal Gate, one of the gates on the north side of Nineveh. The entrance to the gate was flanked by two large winged human-headed bulls known as lamassu in Akkadian. The gate and its lamassuwere first excavated by Sir Austen Henry Layard in 1849 but then re-buried. The left lamassu (seen above behind the ISIS narrator) was uncovered again sometime before 1892, and a local man paid an Ottoman official for the top half of it, cut it off and broken down over a fire in order to extract lime. The right lamassu remained buried until 1941 when heavy rains eroded the soil around the gate and exposed the two statues. The gate was later reconstructed around them and they have remained on display ever since.[1]

The gate was built during Sennacherib’s expansion of Nineveh sometime between 704 and 690 BC.

The video stops at 2:26 to highlight the sign which states that “this gate is related to the god Nergal, the god of plague and the lower world.” The left lamassu, already missing its upper half, does not seem to have been targeted. The rightlamassu had its face chiseled off with a jackhammer, likely causing irreparable damage.428

There is no indication that the reconstructed gate itself was damaged. Inside the gate there are two additional lamassuwhich were less well preserved than the lamassu on the outside of the gate. Both were heavily cracked, and the one on the left was missing his head above the nose and the one on the right was missing everything except its head.

The lamassu on the left was broken apart with sledgehammers into large chunks. The head on the right was broken apart with a jackhammer.

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ASSYRIAN RELIEF SCULPTURES

At 1:19 a partially reconstructed relief identified by its sign as coming from Dur-Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad) can be seen. The city was constructed by Sargon II sometime after 716 BC and abandoned upon his death in 705. This sort of relief usually shows tribute-bearers seeking an audience with the king and in this case one of the supplicants is holding a model of a fortification.Palace relief from Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) in the Mosul Museum. Photo (c) Hubert Debbasch.

Relief from Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) in the Mosul Museum, 1:19 of ISIS video.

STATUE OF SARGON (?)

At the 1:44 mark the video showed a fallen, brokenstatue identified by a museum sign as a statue of Sargon II of Assyria (r. 722-705 BC):154

STATUES OF THE KINGS OF HATRA

Hatra was a wealthy trading city located in the desert south of Mosul, one of several such cities which sprung up in the space between Parthia and the Roman Empire. Hatra, Palmyra, Petra and Dura-Europos all made their fortune as intermediaries, trading stops between east and west. All of these cities were client states of either Rome or Parthia, with Hatra choosing Parthia.

This made Hatra a target for Rome, and Trajan besieged the city during his Mesopotamian campaign in 114 AD but failed to capture it. Septimius Severus launched several assaults on the city during his invasion of Parthia in 198 which also failed. The heat, the open plain which made it difficult to approach the walls undetected, and the lack of any water or food in the area around the city kept Hatra safe from protracted sieges. Hatra was destroyed in 240, not to Rome but to the forces of the Sassanid monarch Shapur I during his campaign against the last Parthian client states that stood between himself and renewed war with the Roman Empire.

Hatra’s unique position between east and west produced an outpouring of art unique in the Parthian empire. Influencesfrom east and west mixed to create a very naturalistic but still unmistakably eastern artistic style. Here gorgon heads adorned temples to Near Eastern gods alongside Aramaic inscriptions. Mesopotamian deities such as Shamash and Nergal were depicted alongside Greco-Roman deities such as Hercules. Classical nudes and statues adorned in ornate Parthian robes existed side by side. One statue of Apollo the Roman sun god even featured symbols of Shamash the Near Eastern sun god on his clothing.

The damage by ISIS to the artistic legacy of Hatra has been catastrophic.

008The beginning of the video (0:08) shows three men hitting two statues with a sledgehammer while failing to do much damage. They try to pull the statues over without success.

These statues represent kings of Hatra. The statue on the left is of an unidentified king of Hatra, dressed in a Parthian style and holding an acanthus leaf in his left hand and a piece of fruit in his right. Its museum number is MM5.

The statue on the right has been called “the finest of all the sculptures unearthed in Hatra.” An Aramaic inscription on the base of the statue reads “The Image of King Uthal, the merciful, noble-minded servant of God, blessed by God.” All other details about this king’s life, including the dates of his reign, remain obscure.[2]

At the 2:50 mark the statue of Uthal is shown being snapped at the base and toppled. Three men attack the statue with sledgehammers after it hits the ground. Both statues are seen broken into numerous pieces on the floor.

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At 2:53 a third statue can be seen being toppled. This is a statue of Sanatruq II, the last king of Parthia before the city was destroyed by Shapur I in 240.[3]

This statue was reconstructed from several fragments, so it shattered easily when it hit the floor.

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Another sculpture is seen being unwrapped at 0:38. This is a depiction of an unidentified Hatrene king holding an eagle symbolizing the ancient near eastern sun god Shamash.

The statue was toppled but it took a number of blows with a sledgehammer to dismember it.

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We have 27 known statues of kings of Hatra, so the destruction of four of them represents a loss of 15% of all statues of Hatrene kings in existence.[4]

OTHER LARGE HATRENE SCULPTURES

040The sculpture on the right is a statue of a Hatrene nobleman dressed in the Parthian style. This is one of the earlier Hatrene sculptures found and dates to the 1st century AD. Its catalog number is MM14.

The statue on the left is believed to be of a priest based on its clothing. It was missing its head when excavated.[5]

Statues seen at 0:40 and 2:43 of the video. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 19, pl. 199, pp. 75, 212.

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In another alcove at 3:16 a headless statue can be seen, clutching a sword in his hands and wearing long pleated trousers and a cape. An inscription identifies it as a depiction of a certain Makai ben Nashri.[6] This statue was toppled sideways off its base and snaps in half when it hits an architectural element along the wall. When it hits the floor the legs break into several more pieces.

Statue of Makai ben Nashri seen in 3:16 of video. Left photo by Diane Siebrandt, U.S. State Department, 2008. Right photo from Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, p. 78.

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GRECO-ROMAN INFLUENCED SCULPTURE

A headless statue of Hercules is seen being toppled. However, when it hits the ground it shatters into hundreds of pieces, revealing it to be a plaster cast with steel rebar inside. The original is kept in the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad.

248359Near the beginning of the video an ISIS fighter is shown unwrapping a nude female torso, believed to be a depiction of Venus/Aphrodite.[7] The camera cuts away before the statue is unwrapped and the sculpture is not seen again, however, it may be one of the broken objects in the background of the shot of the Hercules statue shown above at 3:59.

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Venus statue. Photo by Dr. Suzanne Bott, 2009.

Another statue shown smashed on the floor is one of many small statues of Nike uncovered at Hatra, not all of which have been published:

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Statue of Nike, Greek goddess of victory. Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 102 p. 125. This specific statue is kept in Baghdad.

OTHER HATRENE SCULPTURES

A statue of a seated goddess holding a sphere and a large mask-type sculpture of a face are both seen being shattered, however both appear to be replicas. The original of the seated goddess is kept in Baghdad and the mask is a cast of an architectural element from Hatra.

Early in the video one shot shows a number of plaques depicting Hatrene gods and goddesses:

From left to right: Barmaren, Marten, Maren. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 88, 89, 90, p. 113-115.

Clockwise from far right: Maren, Marten receiving a worshiper, the moon god Barmaren, Marten again.

Oddly, these reliefs appear undamaged at the end of the video:403A large eagle is seen being toppled over and shattered. This eagle was once also an architectural element from Hatra. It was partially reconstructed.

352

Mosul Museum eagle prior to reconstruction. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 133, p. 143.

Three small reliefs are shown being destroyed at 3:46. All are pulverized with sledgehammers and ripped out of the wall. All are from Hatra, the middle published by Safar and Mustafa, the right unpublished and the left is too blurry to be identified in the video but other pictures from inside the museum make it clear that it is a relief of a reclining woman.

349

Relief of a reclining woman. Photo by Diane Siebrandt, U.S. State Department, 2008.

Reliefs. Photo by Diane Siebrandt, U.S. State Department, 2008.

Relief sculpture of a military figure. From Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 92, p. 116.

In the background at the 0:32 mark a statue of a lion can be seen. Its final disposition is not seen in the video but it is likely one of the blurry piles of rubble seen towards the end:

032_2

Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 187, p. 198.

It is important to note that there are many more items from the Mosul Museum which were not shown in ISIS’ video. The Islamic art wing was not shown at all, and most of the Assyrian section does not appear in the video either. This does not mean that these artifacts have survived. Their destruction may have been cut from the video before release. Alternately, such items may have been smuggled out and sold on the antiquities market or may still be in the museum.

Regardless, from what we can see in this video the loss for the study the Roman and Parthian Near East is absolutely devastating.

Special thanks to Dr. Suzanne Bott for uploading many pre-destruction pictures of the Mosul Museum, Hubert Debbasch for providing photos from his travels, to Dr. Lamia al-Gailani Werr for information about replicas in the museum, and to Dr. Lucinda Dirven for more information about museum replicas and bibliographic information.

REFERENCES

[1] J.P.G. Finch, “The Winged Bulls at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh,” Iraq 10, No. 1 (Spring 1948): 9-18.

[2] Shinji Fukai, “The Artifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art,” East and West 11, No. 2/3 (June-September 1960): 142-144, pl. 2-3; Fu’ad Safar and Ali Muhammad Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God [Arabic title al-Ḥaḍr, madīnat al-shams] (Baghdad: Wizarat al-Iʻlām, Mudīrīyat al-Athār al-ʻĀmmah, 1974), 197-198, pl. 208-210.

[3] Fukai, “The Artifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art,” 144 pl. 4; Henri Stierlin, Cités du Désert: Pétra, Palmyre, Hatra(Fribourg: Seuil, 1987), 198, pl. 178; Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, 23, pl. 4.

[4] Michael Sommer, Hatra: Geschichte und Kultur einer Karawanenstadt im römisch-parthischen Mesopotamien
(Mainz: Zabern, 2003), 75, pl. 106; Lucinda Dirven, “Aspects of Hatrene Religion: A Note on the Statues of Kings and Nobles from Hatra,” 209-246 in The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods(Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2008), 220-221.

[5] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, 75, 212, pl. 187, 199.

[6] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 24, p. 78.

[7] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 84, p. 110.

[8] Safar and Mustafa, Hatra: The City of the Sun God, pl. 88, 89, 90, p. 113-115; Lucinda Dirven, “A Goddess with Dogs from Hatra,” in Animals, Gods and Men from East to West. Papers on archaeology and history in honour of Roberta Venco Ricciardi, A. Peruzzetto, F. Dorna-Metzger, L. Dirven (eds.), [BAR 2516] (Oxford 2013), p.147–160, pl. 8.

Article © Christopher Jones 2015. Republished with permission of the author.

ISIS’ destruction of biblical Iraq: A bitter irony of history

Nineveh has come full circle: After 2,700 years, the gleeful destroyer was itself destroyed. And now Hatra and Nimrud are gone too.A bas relief from ancient Nineveh: De Agostini / Getty Images

Within days, militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria destroyed three extraordinary cultural heritage sites in Iraq going back thousands of years: Nineveh, Hatra and Nimrud. For the ancient Assyrian capitals, their wanton destruction was a tragically ironic turn of events, given that their rulers, some 2,700 years ago, had been among the most brutal and destructive the region had known.

The destruction of cultural heritage by an occupier is nothing new. There is even a term for it: Urbicide, the destruction of an urban center in order to erase its memory for future generations.

The rulers of Nineveh, which fell first, then Nimrud and now, Hatra had done their share of destruction – records of which they proudly left behind, including in the form of wall art.

Though while ISIS seems to be following the Assyrians’ rule book, whether in ignorance, irony or specifically to mimic long-gone great rulers, they do not cavil at selling antiquities they loot. In fact this is apparently a major source of funding for the group.

Although reports that Nineveh’s citadel had been destroyed proved false, in its assault on Mosul, ISIS did blow up the purported Tomb of Jonah. Then, perhaps spurred to further war crimes, as the UN called its actions, by the ensuing coverage and outrage, ISIS went on to destroy the Mosul museum and statues of ancient Nineveh’s great rulers and cultic treasures, smashing, drilling and crushing these ancient monuments into pebbles with their typical cinematic flair. But they hadn’t exactly invented the wheel.

Erasing the memory of Ishtar

Nineveh had stood the test of time for thousands of years. Originally dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and ideally positioned between two rivers, the Tigris and Khosr, this once magnificent and extremely powerful city was capital of the Assyrian empire. It was brought to fame by Sennacherib (705–681 BCE), the same Assyrian king who famously conquered Judah – leaving behind a trail of destroyed cities that archaeologists are excavating to this day.

“Nineveh comes up very frequently in my teaching. It was after all the capital of the empire that defeated Israel and destroyed much of Judah,” says Jacob Wright, professor of Hebrew Bible at Atlanta, Georgia’s Emory University.

Sennacherib and the other Assyrian kings really liked keeping records of their accomplishments, including in wall reliefs. The images would have been displayed so all could see the conquests and not get any funny ideas.

The reliefs, says Wright, helped shape our understanding of “one of the most important, and brutal, political powers in world history.”

The Lachish Relief, Nineveh, dated ~700-692 BC: Among other things the relief shows Assyrian soldiers beheading and flaying enemy soldiers. Mike Peel, Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-19th century, while digging in Nineveh, archaeologists found the famous “Lachish Reliefs,” depicting the conquest and destruction of the great Judahite city of Lachish in 701 BC. The reliefs show the decapitation of the Judahite warriors, the destruction and abduction of Lachish’s cultic items, processions of captives, and more.

In yet another twist of irony, if the Lachish panels, and other irreplaceable archaeological finds, had not been taken by the original excavators they would probably now be rubble. But they were, and are now safely found in some of the greatest museums in the world, including the British Museum and the Pergamon.

Repeating history, for different reasons

In fact, ancient Mesopotamian records frequently describe gods waging war on one another. This actually meant that the cities, with those gods as their guardians, waged war against one another. The walls of Nimrud, also known as Kalhu, had contained scenes of great brutality.

Imagery of destruction also appears in other Assyrian reliefs. Wright points to a scene found on a relief in Khorsabad, an Assyrian city near Nineveh and Nimrud, of Assyrian soldiers smashing statues in a temple. It is starkly reminiscent of the ISIS terrorists doing the very same thing. But Wright argues they are not the same thing at all.

“These two images are separated by a few kilometers, 2,700 years of history and very different mentalities. One is iconoclasm,” says Wright – meaning the destruction of religious or political icons and monuments for religious or political motives. “The other is a post-battle ritual in which soldiers dismembered images of the enemy.”

That said, their performances are very similar, he adds. “If you watch the videos of the Mosul event, you will see how they begin by decapitating the heads in the same way that we witness in ancient Near Eastern punitive actions. As a scholar I am fascinated by what’s unfolding, even as I find these perpetrators utterly abhorrent.”

Destroying Jonah once and for all

Jonah is associated with the Assyrian city in the bible: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). It was the prophet’s reluctance to visit the city and lecture it for its brutish ways that peeved the Lord and led to Jonah’s ingestion by the “great fish”. Jonah begged for forgiveness, and in the third chapter of the biblical story, he does finally go to Nineveh, to warn its king and inhabitants of the Lord’s wrath. They repent, atone and fast, and the city is saved.

“Every year on Yom Kippur, the story of Jonah is read and studied. It depicts the prophet being very distraught when he learns that God was not going to destroy Nineveh despite its long history of imperial aggression,” says Wright.

Nineveh then, and ISIS now, had similar ambitions: imperial domination and world conquest, ambitions that the Hebrew Bible frowns upon.

Nor was ISIS first in the modern era to wreak destruction intended to eradicate a proud history and memory. The Taliban, the very same organization which reportedly is chilly to ISIS for being too extremist, itself destroyed two extraordinary ancient monuments in 2001: the Bamiyan Buddhas, 53 and 35 meters tall. They had stood for 1,500 years until being blown to smithereens, in another act of iconoclasm.

ISIS deliberately targeted monumental urban architecture, such as municipal walls and statues of rulers, says Wright, a practice that has a long history in the Middle East. “From that perspective, it’s really quite fascinating,” he says. “But for those of us who love history and are convinced we have a moral obligation to the past, the destruction of this monumental architecture is very painful to behold.”

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