Huda Majeed and Tony Gamal-Gabriel

Extensive excavations by Islamic State militants under Mosul’s ancient Mosque of Jonah show they took care to preserve artefacts for loot, a local archaeologist said, in sharp contrast to their public desecration of antiquities.

The militants seized the mosque when they stormed through northern Iraq three years ago, bulldozing and dynamiting ancient sites and smashing statues and sculptures, declaring them all idolatrous.

Jonah’s mosque was blown up in July 2014, but experts surveying the damage after it was recaptured in January by a US-backed Iraqi campaign found a network of tunnels dug by the militants, leading down to a 7th century BC Assyrian palace.

The careful way the tunnels were dug show the militants wanted to keep the treasures intact, said archaeologist Musab Mohammed Jassim, from the Nineveh Antiquities and Heritage Department.

“They used simple tools and chisels to dig the tunnels, in order not to damage the artefacts,” he said, standing near the tunnel network which leads from the mosque ruins above ground to the much older subterranean palace.

The digging “was carried out according to a plan and a knowledge of the palace,” he added.

The efforts to avoid damaging the antiquities contrast with the destruction of ancient sites across Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, from the desert city of Palmyra to the Assyrian capital of Nimrud, south of Mosul.

The desecration was recorded on video and widely published by Islamic State supporters, who portrayed it as part of their campaign to erase any cultural history which contravenes their own extreme interpretation of Islam.

However the United States has said looting and smuggling of artefacts has been a significant source of income for the militants. In July 2015 the US handed Iraq a hoard of antiquities it said it had seized from Islamic State in Syria.


While Islamic State’s 30-month occupation of the Mosque of Jonah left a legacy of damage and theft, it has also opened up fresh opportunities for archaeologists.

Excavations which were launched in 2004, the year after the US-led invasion of Iraq, revealed an entrance to the palace of Assyrian king Esarhaddon, guarded by large lamassus - human-headed winged bulls carved from stone.

But work halted shortly after because it threatened the foundations of the mosque, built over the reputed burial site of Prophet Yunis (AS).

“The whole palace remained untouched by the experts and foreign excavation,” Jassim said as he toured the tunnels, still lined with broken bits of pottery as well as sections of stone panel with carved figures and cuneiform text. “So this site, the Esarhaddon Palace, maintained all its features...It contains large collections of sculptures of different sizes and shapes and valuable artefacts”. Esarhaddon, who ruled ancient Assyria for 12 years in the early 7th century BC, was the son of Sennacherib whose military campaigns against Babylon and the kingdom of Judah are recorded in the bible.

A US-backed Iraqi campaign dislodged Islamic State from most Iraqi cities captured in 2014 and 2015. The militant group is now fighting in its last major urban stronghold, in the western part of Mosul. Iraqi forces earlier this week captured the ransacked main museum of Mosul, where the militants filmed themselves destroying priceless statues.

Mosul church turned into IS religious police base

The elegant columns of a west Mosul church stand plastered with Islamic State group propaganda after the militants’ infamous religious police took over the Christian place of worship.

The sign above the door of Um al-Mauna (Our Mother of Perpetual Help) in Iraq’s second city reads “Chaldean Catholic church”, but its militant occupants had other ideas.

“No entry, by order of the Islamic State Hesba Division (the religious police), they wrote on the building’s outside wall.

Five militants lie dead outside, their bodies twisted and one with the top of his skull blown off, after Iraqi forces retook the neighbourhood from IS this week.

The church “was an important office for the authorities tasked with making sure (Mosul) residents had a beard, wore short robes and followed their extremist convictions,” says Lieutenant Colonel Abdulamir al-Mohammedawi of the elite Rapid Response Division.

Iraqi forces are pushing an offensive to retake the whole of Mosul, the militant group’s last major urban bastion in the country, after retaking its eastern side in January. IS fighters took control of the city in 2014, imposing their own interpretation of Islamic law on its inhabitants.

Above the door of the ochre-coloured church, IS members have damaged a stone cross. Not far away, they seem to have tried to rip another from a metal door off its hinges.

Not a single crucifix, or statue of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary has survived in the building’s nave, from which all mark of Christianity has been methodically removed.

Only the grey marble altar remains. In the church’s empty alcoves lies the base of a statue that was probably also destroyed, decorated with red and yellow flowers.

The posters on the church’s marble columns give an indication of what life was like under IS.

Chilling illustrations

One shows religious invocations to repeat in the mornings and evenings, while another explains the benefits of praying in a mosque. A “town document” lists the 14 rules of life in Mosul under militant rule: “The trade and consumption of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes is banned.”

Women should wear modest attire and only appear in public “when necessary”, it says. A pamphlet on the rubble-covered ground explains the different forms of corporal punishment prescribed for theft, alcohol consumption, adultery and homosexuality. It comes complete with chilling illustrations. Militants have scribbled their noms de guerre on the church’s walls, and a large chandelier has been dumped in the yard.\ In the church’s small side rooms, artificial flower garlands are draped near posters explaining how to use a Kalashnikov rifle.–Reuters/AFP

Chaldeans make up the majority of Iraq’s Christians. But a community that numbered more than a million before the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein has since dwindled to less than 350,000 in the face of recurring violence.

In June 2014, militant fighters led by IS seized control of Mosul and ordered the city’s Christian community to convert to Islam, pay a special tax, leave or face execution.

Weeks later, the militants swept through Qaraqosh and the rest of the Nineveh Plain east of Mosul, where an estimated 120,000 Christians lived, prompting them all to flee.

But the Um al-Mauna Church is in a better condition than most of the rest of the Al-Dawasa neighbourhood, which has been ravaged by the fighting.

On one of its empty trading streets, once flashy shop facades have been reduced to contorted iron and shredded concrete.