Social Media and the Fight to Save Iraq’s Past—and Future

On July 10, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proclaimed victory in the bloody struggle to free Mosul from the brutal grip of Islamic State. The nearly nine-month battle for Iraq’s second-largest city cost 7,000 civilian lives and wounded 20,000. Almost 1 million more fled from their homes to outlying refugee camps. The climactic final month of the struggle reduced much of the old western quarter of Mosul to rubble. Its narrow ancient streets were devastated by wave after wave of Islamic State bombs, Iraqi artillery shells, and hundreds of coalition airstrikes. Besides leveling nearly 500 buildings in the old quarter, the fighting inflicted damage on dozens of historic mosques, churches, shrines, and cemeteries.

Dozens of buildings burn in the Old City of Mosul on July 3, 2017.

The Battle of Mosul was the final bitter endgame of three years’ occupation of the city by Islamic State militants. “During their first 16 months here,” says Ali al-Jaboori, an archaeologist at the University of Mosul, “Islamic State destroyed a total of over 245 archaeological sites, Islamic mosques, Christian churches, and other religious shrines. These were places where the people of the city had visited and worshipped for centuries—an essential part of their daily lives and culture.”

The most notorious attacks, recorded in videos that triggered worldwide shock and outrage in 2015, showed I.S. operatives sledgehammering 2,000-year-old statues and reliefs in the Mosul Museum and blowing up and bulldozing the ancient Mesopotamian palace of Nimrud south of the city. With its YouTube videos, I.S. turned their attacks into spectacles that won them global publicity and acted as powerful tools to recruit would-be jihadists from around the world.

Today, social and online media are vital for tracking the continuing loss of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria—whether through deliberate demolition or looting, battle damage, or hasty rebuilding of devastated neighborhoods. Reliable information is hard to come by. The government in Baghdad imposes frequent media blackouts, while access to many areas is still impossible or risky for outside journalists and heritage workers. In this humanitarian emergency, beset by political chaos and uncertainty, information posted online by local, on-the-ground observers has become a crucial source for tracking the ongoing toll of destruction.

Members of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service gather outside the destroyed gate of the Al-Nuri Mosque while others inspect the interiors, in the Old City of Mosul on July 2, 2017.

Social media is also playing a positive role as the people of Mosul return to piece together their lives amidst the rubble. In the devastated villages surrounding the city, refugee families are already banding together to rebuild historic shrines and ancient places of worship, in some cases even before basic services such as running water and electricity are restored. Proudly recorded in Facebook and Twitter posts, these volunteer rebuilding projects are reasserting the presence and identity of ethnic minorities persecuted and enslaved by I.S.

Eyes in Space, Bloggers on the Ground

The fate of the region’s rich legacy from the past is not simply a matter of academic concern for outside archaeologists and historians. While western media has focused on the destruction of high-profile sites like Palmyra and Nimrud, I.S. has mainly targeted more recent religious structures, from medieval to modern. In Mosul, the vast majority of the sites they destroyed were places of active worship by today’s faith communities—the Sunni, Shiite, and Sufi Muslims, Orthodox, Catholic, and Assyrian Christians, Jews, and Yazidis, who have shared this multi-ethnic city for more than eight centuries. I.S. singled out Mosul landmarks widely beloved by many communities and creeds, such as the tomb of the prophet Jonah whose story appears in both the Koran and the Bible, and the famous “leaning” al-Hadba Minaret, blown up as a spiteful gesture in the final days of the battle. “What I.S. carried out in Mosul was systematic cultural cleansing,” says archaeologist Michael Danti. “In their relentless targeting of heritage sites and places of worship, they set out to manipulate and destroy the cultural identity and diversity of the city’s population.”

ISIS destroyed this cemetery in the town of Qayyarah, about 35 miles south of Mosul. This photograph was taken on November 10, 2016.

Danti is principal director of American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives—or ASOR CHI, a small team of archaeologists and image specialists based at Boston University supported by the U.S. State Department. Since August 2014, ASOR has carried out intensive monitoring and reporting on the status of ancient sites in Syria and Iraq, as well as providing training and logistical support for heritage workers in these embattled countries. For its monthly reports, the team draws mainly on high-resolution satellite photography of the Middle East provided by the commercial operator DigitalGlobe. In addition, ASOR’s efforts have been aided by an online crowd-sourced platform known as TerraWatchers, developed at UC San Diego under a special grant from the university. Based on Google Earth, the initiative trains student volunteers in analyzing satellite imagery and has so far recorded nearly 7,000 incidents of damage to Iraq’s ancient sites. Overall, ASOR CHI has reported a minimum of 1,300 such incidents since its work began in August 2014.

Satellite eyes in space offer a crucial advantage, according to ASOR satellite image specialist Susan Penacho. “On aerial photos, the pattern of blast damage is revealing,” she says. “It’s usually evident whether the damage has been inflicted by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes or by explosives set off by I.S. inside a building.”

Take the case of Mosul’s iconic leaning minaret. Built in 1172, the al-Hadba Minaret’s historical connections made it highly significant to jihadists. It was from the adjoining mosque that I.S. first proclaimed the creation of a new “caliphate,” the Islamic State, in July 2014, a few weeks after seizing Mosul. Facing defeat in June 2017, with Iraqi commandos closing in to within 50 yards of the mosque, I.S. set off explosives that obliterated the site. Then I.S. released a video blaming its destruction on a coalition airstrike. “It was out of character for them not to take credit and boast about the destruction of a major ancient site,” Danti says. “But their real motive in this case was surely to prevent this highly symbolic place from being used to announce the liberation of the city and the defeat of I.S.”  Within 24 hours, satellite imagery was released showing a pattern of blast damage that could only have been caused by bombs planted inside the ancient structure.

The leaning al-Hadba Minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, seen here in 2013 before ISIS destroyed it.

Yet the view from space has limitations. Satellite photography fails to capture damage to the walls or interiors of buildings, while cloud cover and smoke from fires, sometimes deliberately set by I.S. to obscure imagery, pose additional problems. All these factors make local social media postings and blogs, often compiled by journalists and activists in Iraq and Syria at considerable risk, increasingly vital to ASOR’s efforts.

“It’s become a huge task. When we first started,” Danti says, “it was fairly easy. One person could get through all this online material in about three or four hours each day. Today, besides a full-time research assistant, we have two or three part-time researchers as well as a handful volunteers, all of them going through Twitter and Facebook feeds, online news sites, and particularly bloggers in the conflict zone. The challenge is to drill down to find reliable primary sources among all the copying of posts, false reports, and deliberate fabrications.”

One of the toughest “fake news” stories to refute, Danti says, concerned the objects destroyed by I.S. during its 2015 rampage in the Mosul Museum. These were said to have been copies and not the original objects, which had been safely removed to storage. Who first started the story is hard to pin down but, perhaps to save face, officials in Baghdad confirmed that the objects had indeed been safely evacuated. ASOR CHI soon heard from its contacts in Mosul that nearly all the objects were, in fact, the original exhibits; while a few of the smashed sculptures visible in the video show modern plaster and iron reinforcements, these were repairs made to genuine antiquities. But, by then, it was too late to debunk the story before it spread.

“Reports like this often start as tweets or blog posts, get picked up by online news sites in Baghdad or Damascus that are typically in a hurry and don’t verify content, until, before you know it, they’re appearing on CNN and BBC. This story spread like wildfire through the online universe because it was what people wanted to hear. It made them feel better to think that I.S. had been duped. But in reality, this was a war crime that destroyed the patrimony of the people of Mosul.”

Minorities Under Threat

A current special focus for ASOR CHI’s team is a vast region surrounding Mosul known as the Nineveh Plains. Here, Iraq’s two main Christian groups, the Assyrians and Yazidis, have worshipped for centuries in dozens of small village churches and temples. Elements of Yazidi faith incorporate pre-Christian rites and beliefs. A major Yazidi shrine at Lalish incorporates a 4,000-year-old Sumerian temple, and here, in 1162 AD, a tomb was built for the “Peacock Angel,” a venerated holy being to whom God is said to have entrusted the world after creation. Their unorthodox beliefs have long made the Yazidis a target for persecution. I.S. brands them as “devil worshippers,” and after capturing Mosul in 2014, I.S. forces advanced across the Nineveh Plains and launched ferocious attacks against Yazidi and Assyrian villages.  According to the U.N., at least 5,000 Yazidis were murdered, some beheaded or burned alive, and 5,000-7,000 women and children were abducted and sold as slaves. Many thousands more fled to refugee camps in northern Iraq.

A girl, displaced by fighting in Mosul, steps out of a refugee tent in Iraq's Zelikan camp.

“Few of the historic village churches and temples in the Nineveh Plains have ever been properly photographed or catalogued,” says Marina Gabriel, program coordinator of ASOR CHI, “but the identity of Christian communities is deeply tied to these structures.” Scanning online news and Twitter posts, Gabriel and her colleagues are tracking the return of handfuls of families to their devastated villages, where they are starting to rebuild their shattered cultural heritage. “They have help from Christian aid organizations, but there’s no government money,” Gabriel says, “so families pool their own funds and labor to patch up churches or rebuild shrines. It’s a crucial way for them to reassert their presence in this region that’s seen so much division and conflict.” By this summer, for instance, about 200 families had returned from refugee camps to the neighboring villages of Ba’shiqa and Bahzani, 19 miles east of Mosul. Most of the streets are still unpaved, electricity is sporadic, and there’s no running water. Dozens of I.S. booby traps and unexploded U.S. ordnance have yet to be cleared from wrecked streets and buildings. But by late June, local volunteers had already rebuilt five Yazidi shrines in Bahzani and were constructing or restoring 16 more in the two villages.

Restoring the Past, Reclaiming the Shrines

Despite Mosul’s liberation, the future of northern Iraq’s religious minorities and their historic shrines and monuments looks shaky. I.S. was expelled from Mosul by a temporary coalition of Shia and Sunni Iraqi security forces, Kurdish troops, and both Shia and Christian militias, which now control different neighborhoods in and around the city. With I.S. gone, fears run high of continuing sectarian killings and attacks on shrines and churches. These tensions are inflamed by social media in Iraq, where a dramatic recent surge in divisive rumors and fake news has been noted. But responsible bloggers and reporters are fighting back: in May, a diverse group of 30 Mosul journalists met to discuss the setting up of a local media network dedicated to independent reporting. Personal blogs such as Mosul Eye and 2020 Mosul, together with online news sites such as Niqash, Al Shahid, and Iraqi News, also aim to investigate false claims and report even-handedly.

Meanwhile, with nearly 1 million of Mosul’s population still displaced and around 200,000 homeless, the cost of cleaning up and rebuilding Mosul has been estimated at upward of $100 billion. “In devastated cities like Mosul and Aleppo,” ASOR’s Danti says, “where the toll of destruction is so staggering, the biggest threat posed to heritage now is development: the drive to rebuild hastily and simply bulldoze historic sites that should be restored.”

As NOVA Next reported last year, 3D digital imaging offers a promising new tool for restoring major monuments and World Heritage sites that were well-photographed and documented before their destruction. Allison Cuneo, ASOR CHI’s Program Manager for Iraq, predicts that “there will be a big focus on rebuilding ‘celebrity’ sites like Palmyra or the Al-Hadba Minaret, where the act of restoration will carry important symbolism for Iraqi authorities as they try to reestablish normality.” University of Mosul archaeologist Al-Jaboori agrees that digital technology and the completeness of excavation records will enable sites like the palace of Nimrud to be restored. But he believes that the resulting copy will never carry the same meaning for the people of Mosul. “The special materials, the special construction methods can never be fully replicated,” he says. “It will be fake. You will feel it’s not the original.” Beyond the handful of ‘celebrity’ sites, the fate of the hundreds of destroyed mosques, churches, and shrines in Iraq and Syria and the intact monuments that survive remains an open question.

Yet, against the odds, some communities are already finding ways to reclaim the past. On June 16, the #bahzani Twitter feed posted striking photos of Yazidis climbing to the top of the sixth temple they have restored in the village among the many demolished by I.S. They proudly hoist a gilded star to the top of the dome, standing for the “banner of the sun shining without support,” a gleaming symbol of hope and renewal for a people who have suffered so much.