The Old Testament prophet Jonah went safely to his eternal reward long ago, but Muslim extremists say they’ve destroyed his tomb in the Iraqi province of Ninevah – as they continue to demolish churches, tombs, ancient shrines and anything else that offends them in Iraq and Syria.
Furthermore, they say they intend to march to Mecca and destroy Islam’s most sacred shrine – visited by millions of Muslim pilgrims each year.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has distributed videos to news media such as Britain’s Daily Mail showing ISIS militants smashing what they claim to be Jonah’s tomb. The prophet, whose story is told in the Bible's Book of Jonah, is best known for being swallowed by a whale, then repenting of his rebellion and obeying God’s command to preach to wicked Ninevah.
So, have the extremists tossed his bones out into the street?
Probably not, says Columbia University historian Christopher Jones, who specializes in the ancient Near East.
“Yesterday the Daily Mail made waves when it reported that ISIS militants in Iraq have smashed the Tomb of the Prophet Jonah (Nebi Yunus in Arabic) in Mosul,” writes Jones. “A video claiming to show the destruction is included in the article, which shows a black-hooded man taking a sledgehammer to a row of green-painted concrete tombs.
“The claim appeared in several places on social media in the past week before the Daily Mail picked it up. However,” writes Jones, “the scene in the video looks absolutely nothing like the interior of the Tomb of Jonah seen in other pictures. Some sources claimed that the Tomb of Seth was also destroyed, but it doesn’t look like that either. So the video is either fake, or shows ISIS destroying something else.
“For now, the Tomb of Jonah appears to be safe.”
Don’t be so certain, cautions Judit Neurink, writing for Germany’s Deutsche Welle. She says the ISIS militants’ motives are much more than religious. Before they desecrate, then bulldoze offensive shrines, mosques, churches and memorials, they loot them – and are making millions off of the antiquities they’ve stolen.
“Dozens of pictures of the destruction of Shi’ite and Sufi mosques and shrines by ISIS forces have recently been posted on the Internet, taken in and around Mosul, and turned into a media event,” Neurink writes. A key ISIS motive is to strike fear and anger into the hearts of ISIS’s opponents – which include millions of Shi’ite and Sufi Muslims worldwide. ISIS adheres to an extremely fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam.
ISIS’s destruction of Christian, Shi’ite, Sufi and even Sunni sites may be just the beginning, predicts Simone Muehl on the Facebook page “Endangered Heritage Sites in Iraq.”
She’s a German archaeologist who has worked in Iraq for years. She says ISIS started its destruction in Mosul about a week after conquering the city, bulldozing statues of poets and historians, obeying a decree by ISIS leadership that all idols be destroyed. Shrines and Christian cathedrals soon followed.
“The main fear of archaeologists is that ISIS will repeat what it has done in Syria. For propaganda reasons, they destroyed some of the priceless remains of the ancient Assyrian rule in the area,” warns Muehl. "When they destroy something, they make it into a media event."
However, they don’t always destroy offensive items. According to the British newspaper the Guardian, ISIS made $36 million just from the Al-Nabuk area in the Qalamoun Mountains west of Damascus. Some of the antiquities sold on the black market were up to 8,000 years old.
The United Nations agency UNESCO confirms reports ISIS has profited enormously from selling antiquities. After taking over the city of Raqqa, it looted the local museum. Some of the valuable pieces surfaced in Turkey and Lebanon. But most of the loot disappeared, sold for a good price to private collectors.
“Just how much has gone across borders unseen and how much money ISIS has made became clear when one of their operatives was captured in Mosul by Iraqi security forces,” writes Neurink. “Alongside the income generated from the oil fields ISIS had captured in Syria, the sale of artifacts made up a large part of the total of $875 million the group had in cash and assets.”
According to other reports, ISIS members are selling rare manuscripts from Mosul's central library – some over 800 years old. Archaeologists say that an ancient Koran from Mosul was intercepted in neighboring Turkey when it was offered for sale on the black market.
Meanwhile, Conflict Antiquities agrees with Jones’ skepticism about whether the tomb destroyed in the videos is Jonah’s. Intact or not, it’s far from safe, writes Sarah Cascone for ArtNet News.
“ISIS and its operatives have posted multiple photos of religious buildings being demolished, including the Shia Saad bin Aqeel Husseiniya shrine in Tal Afar and Mosul’s al-Qubba Husseiniya mosque,” she reports. “The group is also occupying the Chaldean cathedral and the Syrian Orthodox cathedral, both in Mosul, and has replaced crosses on the building spires with the Islamic State’s black flag.”
The group’s strictly conservative interpretation of Islam prohibits any kind of shrine or memorial.
“Several Sunni mosques in Nineveh have been destroyed due to purported instances of idolatry,” writes Cascone.
And, yes, ISIS has announced it will march on Mecca, the obligatory pilgrimage site for Muslims. The holy city is home to the Al-Masjid al-Haram mosque, held by most Muslims to be the most sacred place in the world.
That mosque includes a granite and marble building called the Kaaba, believed to contain a footprint from Abraham and a cornerstone laid by Muhammad himself.
ISIS says they plan to destroy the site because it has become an idol.
“If Allah wills,” said ISIS member Abu Turab Al Mugaddasi in reports on the Azerbaijan website APA. “We will kill those who worship stones in Mecca and destroy the Kaaba. People go to Mecca to touch the stones, not for Allah.”
Publication date: July 14, 2014