World watches in horror images of destruction of priceless artefacts in Iraq’s second oldest museum in Mosul.
Last Saturday, news began to spread that the Mosul Central Library had likely been bombed. It was followed on Thursday by video that showed the methodical destruction of the Mosul Museum and news that bookshops on Al-Nujaifi Street in downtown Mosul may have been burned.
Although the apparent library bombing took place a week ago, it’s still unclear exactly what happened in Iraq’s second-largest city. That’s because Mosul has been largely cut off from the rest of the world since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took control of the area in June. Instead of reliable news reports, we have brief phone calls, amateur ISIL documentaries, camera photos of burning books, and intermittent tweets that both illuminate and confuse what’s going on.
It is difficult to say how many people have been tortured, killed, or forced to flee their Mosul homes in the last six months. At the same time, UNESCO estimates that ISIL-controlled areas are undergoing a massive cultural destruction, which may be “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history”.
Improvised incendiary devices
According to mostly anonymous reports coming out of Mosul, last Saturday, improvised incendiary devices were placed around the city’s central library. Elaph news reported that city residents asked ISIL fighters to reconsider, but bombs were set off, igniting fires that destroyed an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 books and manuscripts.
Novelist Mahmoud Saeed, a native of Mosul who now lives in Chicago, said he reached a friend who said the central library had not yet been destroyed, although many smaller libraries and bookshops certainly had been.
The Mosul Central Library, founded in 1921, came to be known as one of the richest libraries in Iraq, second only to the central library in Baghdad. If it has been destroyed, Saeed said: “It will be a great loss to the people of Mosul, but also to the Iraqi people as a whole.”
The Mosul library, Saeed said, is what “made me a writer. It was located in the most beautiful place at that time, in the 40s and 50s, on the right bank of the Tigris, near the King Ghazi iron bridge. The building overlooked the river”.
The public library didn’t just hold government-owned books. Wealthy families also kept personal books in special rooms, and these privately owned books were accessible to all city residents who wanted to read.
This meant, Saeed said, that the Mosul library was a particularly special place. Some of the family-sponsored rooms contained books that were otherwise banned in Iraq.
“For example, any books about communism, socialism, or sex were forbidden from trade in Iraq. But the [family-sponsored] reservoirs contained a lot of these books.”
The Mosul library is what made me a writer. It was located in the most beautiful place at that time, in the 40s and 50s, on the right bank of the Tigris, near the King Ghazi iron bridge. The building overlooked the river.
Among the library’s irreplaceable holdings were 18th-century manuscripts, books from the Ottoman era, early 20th century Iraqi newspapers, as well as antique items such as astrolabes.
Book collection in danger
The Central Library doesn’t have the only book collection in danger. Over the past weeks, several other libraries have reportedly been destroyed in the nearby Anbar province. Elaph news site quoted a member of the Board of Anbar province, Adel al-Fahdawi, who estimated that, during a single week in February, ISIL had wrecked more than 100,000 books. Other sources had ISIL removing manuscripts from monasteries, piling them up, and burning them.
Nor are books the only target in this cultural warfare. An ISIL-produced video, posted to Twitter on Thursday, shows fighters taking sledgehammers to ancient statues at the Mosul Museum. The amateur, documentary-like film even has a commentator who explains that the prophet orders us to destroy idols.
The video also showed a brief shot of burning books.
The University of Mosul, meanwhile, has been undergoing a slower destruction. Over the last several months, large parts of the university have been shut down, taken over, and turned into barracks and storage for fighters. At least one of the libraries remained intact, although a source said squatters have moved onto the campus with their farm animals. She feared that books and furniture might be used as firewood.
‘Books were only paper’
Poet and publisher Faiza Sultan, who graduated from the University of Mosul in 1994, said that the university’s central library had one of the best collections in the region.
“I spent five years visiting this library on a daily basis,” she said. “It was my sanctuary.”
Nonetheless, Baghdadi poet Sabreen Kadm said that some Mosulis have welcomed ISIL. After the US invasion in 2003, sectarian divisions were heightened and fostered. During former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki’s rule, Sunnis were repressed, and some were happy to see ISIL fighters enter the Nineveh governorate.
Kadm watched the images of the burning books in Mosul on her computer, but like many Iraqis, was less moved by them than by images of human loss.
In the end, Kadm said, books were only paper, and “they have killed the people in very horrible ways”.
Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail, now living in Detroit, said many Iraqis had been evoking a popular saying about the loss of non-human objects: “May the books be a sacrifice for the people.”
Marcia Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature and literary translation for a number of publications. She blogs daily at www.arablit.org.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.