Back in 2004, I got to visit a monastery and orphanage for boys that was in Al Qosh, a town about 31 miles northeast of Mosul, the modern Iraqi city that is across the Tigris from what was once Nineveh. The chapel, the old stone walks, a lovely fountain inside an enclosed courtyard; the whole place was a serene, beautiful spot. The tomb of the Old Testament prophet Nahum was nearby.
It was just one of several irreplaceable monasteries and holy spots in an area that goes back more than 25 centuries to the days of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. Recent years have brought true catastrophe in the form of the conquering hordes of ISIS that, among other violations, destroyed the tomb of Jonah in Mosul in 2014. So maybe it should not be a huge surprise that some time in the past 18 months, ISIS destroyed Iraq’s oldest monastery. As the Associated Press describes it:
IRBIL, Iraq -- The oldest Christian monastery in Iraq has been reduced to a field of rubble, yet another victim of the Islamic State group’s relentless destruction of ancient cultural sites.
For 1,400 years, the compound survived assaults by nature and man, standing as a place of worship recently for US troops. In earlier centuries, generations of monks tucked candles in the niches and prayed in the cool chapel. The Greek letters chi and rho, representing the first two letters of Christ’s name, were carved near the entrance.
Now satellite photos obtained exclusively by The Associated Press confirm the worst fears of church authorities and preservationists -- St. Elijah’s Monastery of Mosul has been completely wiped out. …Those who knew the monastery wondered about its fate after the extremists swept through in June 2014 and largely cut communications to the area.
Now, St. Elijah’s has joined a growing list of more than 100 demolished religious and historic sites, including mosques, tombs, shrines, and churches in Syria and Iraq. The extremists have defaced or ruined ancient monuments in Nineveh, Palmyra, and Hatra. Museums and libraries have been looted, books burned, artwork crushed — or trafficked.
The article quotes a Catholic priest in Irbil, a Chaldean Catholic pastor in Michigan, a Vatican spokesman in Rome, a cultural adviser to the U.S. State Department who helped restore the monastery, an Army reserve colonel who served Communion at the site as a Catholic lay minister; in short, a huge variety of personalities in several countries who knew something about the site.
The U.S. military had sunk a lot of funds into preserving the site, the article notes, and plenty of media covered its renaissance. One of the reporters who dropped by was James Foley, who would be killed by ISIS militants six years later.
It’s an impressive recital and a real coup for the AP, which got word of the destruction and hired a satellite imagery firm to spy out what happened to the place. I spotted the piece in on the site of Crux, which has added the article to its growing arsenal of pieces on worldwide anti-Christian persecution. Let me note that one of the three reporters for the piece is a woman I once worked with at the Washington Times.
I looked around for how other media were covering this. Most were running with the AP’s text, as it’s impossible to get near Mosul at present to visit the site. BBC ran sidebars explaining why ISIS destroys ancient sites and why these sites signify more than just collections of ancient stones. This is a topic that my GetReligion colleague Ira Rifkin has written about, as has tmatt on the collateral damage of a bunch of Christians getting massacred along with monasteries and tombs being destroyed.
Certainly, journalists can't do enough to explain what's up with this orgy of monument desecration that ISIS and Al Qaeda enjoy doing. But there's a deeper issue here and that is the desire of many Muslims in the Middle East to rewrite the past.
Anyone following the destruction of Jewish antiquities on the Temple Mount over the past two decades should be aware of this. Is what ISIS is doing just an attempt to destroy what they consider to be idols? Or is there a deeper reason that most journalists are not exploring; that is, the attempt to destroy all other religions' claims to legitimacy by destroying their historical sites and substituting a narrative of pre-existent Islam?
Journalists: Never forget the truly ancient, priceless libraries that were housed in some of these monasteries (not to mention the art and iconography). Is anyone reporting the details of what has been lost? Want to change history? Destroy original documents.
If you read the Quran, you'll see certain stories that originally appeared in the Old Testament were changed in the Islamic text, starting with the story of Adam and Eve. Sadly, the St. Elijah monastery will not be the last holy place to have its history supplanted by the new caliphate. As more reporters research these stories, I'm hoping they can ask more the "why" of this destruction than just the "what."