Islamic State, upon seizing an area, often turns its extremist ideology towards the area’s ancient historical and religious monuments and buildings. They blow them up or tear them down, thus destroying centuries-old sites that are simply irreplaceable. They do this, I imagine, as a way of crushing all religious beliefs other than their own warped interpretation of Islam. It is often difficult for the outside world to verify the destruction wrought by Islamic State, but with the aid of modern satellite imagery, we occasionally get a glimpse of their senseless destruction.
This month, satellite images have shown that Islamic State have destroyed St Elijah’s monastery in Mosul, Iraq. The monastery was some 1,400 years old and was Iraq’s oldest Christian place of worship. It is thought to have been destroyed in 2014. In recent years it has been used by US troops as a place of worship and in centuries and even millennia past, “generations of monks tucked candles in the niches, prayed in the chapel and worshipped at the altar.” Despite missing its roof, it had been partially restored. It was constructed using 27,000 square-feet stones and had 26 rooms including a sanctuary and chapel. The satellite photos below show that “the stone walls have been literally pulverised.” This was said by Stephen Wood, chief executive of Allsource Analysis, who suggested that the destruction of the monastery took place between August and September 2014. He continued: “Bulldozers, heavy equipment, sledgehammers, possibly explosives turned those stone walls into this field of grey-white dust. They destroyed it completely.”
On its destruction, Catholic priest Father Paul Thabit Habib, speaking from Irbil in Iraq, said: “Our Christian history in Mosul is being barbarically levelled … We see it as an attempt to expel us from Iraq, eliminating and finishing our existence in this land.”
Islamic State consider such sites as heretical and destroy whatever they consider is contrary to their interpretation of Islam. It is now thought more than 100 religious historic sites have been looted and destroyed – including mosques, tombs, shrines and churches. “Ancient monuments in the cities of Nineveh, Palmrya dn Hatra lie in ruins. Museums and libraries have been pillaged, books burned, artwork crushed or trafficked.”
For Christians in Iraq the St Elijah monastery was an important symbol of their faith. It was built in the late 6th century. In 1743, around 150 monks there were massacred by a Persian general when they refused to convert to Islam – something which is still happening today when people refuse to convert to Islamic State’s view of Islam. The monastery was desecrated in 2003 by Iraqi troops who damaged it in battle and used it as a rubbish dump. The US troops were also disrespectful of the building when they took control. They painted over ancient murals and scrawled graffiti on the walls. Later attempts were made by the US forces to rectify their actions and initiate a preservation scheme for the monastery. A Roman Catholic US army chaplain, Jeffrey Whorton, who had used the monastery as a place of worship, said of its loss: “Why we treat each other like this is beyond me … Elijah the prophet must be weeping.”
Above: The monastery in the 1920s and in 2005, being used by locals and US troops.
I am an atheist but I despair at the loss of such historic buildings to the hands of Islamic State. Those wreaking this destruction clearly have no respect or appreciation of history, religion or architecture. Their belief that destroying such sites will strengthen their control of the areas they are in or control the population is a mistake. History has told us that such actions don’t stop people expressing their faith and their religion. St Elijah’s had stood for a millennia and a half as a symbol of Christianity in a predominantly Islamic nation. Christians are under attack in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. They often flee to safer areas or countries, but they don’t stop believing in their religion – even if they submit to the threats of Islamic State. The destruction of St Elijah’s monastery won’t stop them following their faith.
Elijah or Elias was a prophet and a “wonder-worker” in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Ahab in the 9th century BC – according to the biblical Book of Kings. According to the Book of Kings, Elijah defended the worship of Yahweh over that of the Canaanite idol Baal. God also performed many miracles through him, which included raising the dead, bringing down fire from the sky, and taking him up to heaven ”by a whirlwind.” In the Book of Malachi, Elijah’s return is prophesised ”before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord,” making him a harbinger of the Messiah and the eschaton in various faiths that revere the Hebrew Bible. References to Elijah appear in the New Testament, the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Qur’an.
In Judaism, Elijah’s name is invoked at the weekly Havdalah ritual that marks the end of Shabbat, and Elijah is invoked in other Jewish customs, among them the Passover seder and the Brit milah (ritual circumcision). He appears in numerous stories and references in the Haggadah and rabbinic literature, including the Babylonian Talmud.
The Christian New Testament (Matthew 16:14 and Mark 8:28) describes how Jesus was thought by some to be John the Baptist, other Elijah and still others Jeremiah or ”one of the prophets.” Jesus makes it clear that John the Baptist is ”the Elijah” (Matthew 11: 14 and Matthew 17:11-12) who was promised to come in Malachi 4:5. This is also explained in Luke 1:16-17. Elijah appears with Moses during the Transfiguration of Jesus. Elijah is also a figure in various Christian folk traditions, often identified with earlier pagan thunder or sky gods.
In the Qur’an and certain Islamic traditions, Elijah is described as a great and righteous man of God who powerfully preached against the worship of Baal.