February 25, 2015

8,000 rare books burned by ISIS militants in Mosul


Sunday night, the Mosul Public Library was bombed, another casualty in ISIS militants’ book-burning campaign. The explosive devices used here are described as “improvised” or even”crude,” as though reporters’ disgust with this story has infected their adjectives. Eight thousand rare books and manuscripts were destroyed.

We’ve written about attacks on this city before. Mosul is a city north of Baghdad with about a million residents. It’s known for a rich cultural history and its distinguished university, one of the largest educational and research centers in the Middle East.

Riyadh Mohammed of The Fiscal Times reports on the books lost this weekend:

Among its lost collections were manuscripts from the eighteenth century, Syriac books printed in Iraq’s first printing house in the nineteenth century, books from the Ottoman era, Iraqi newspapers from the early twentieth century and some old antiques like an astrolabe and sand glass used by ancient Arabs. The library had hosted the personal libraries of more than 100 notable families from Mosul over the last century.

The Mosul Public Library was established in 1921, an institution that seemed to symbolize “the rebirth of modern Iraq,” according to Johnlee Varghese at the International Business Times. It has had other hardships: in 2003, the library was looted. Locals recovered what they could, rich residents bought back editions that the looters tried to resell, and all worked together to rebuild the collection.

The library website is suspended indefinitely.

Hakim al-Zamili, head of the Parliament’s Security and Defense committee, is not the first to compare ISIS to the medieval Mongols who ransacked Baghdad in 1258. “The only difference is that the Mongols threw the books into the Tigris River, while now Daesh is burning them. Different method, but same mentality,” he told Sinan Salaheddin of The Boston Globe.

The Mosul Central Library was looted earlier this month. Hundreds of books on science and culture in the University of Mosul‘s library collection were rounded up and burned in December.

A history professor at the university (who was too afraid to give The Boston Globe his name) reported that a Sunni Muslim library, the Mosul Museum library, and a Latin Church and Monastery of the Dominican fathers that dates back 265 years have all been destroyed since December. Historic tombs in Mosul, such as the tomb of Jonah, have also been lost. An estimated 100,000 books have been burned or looted in this ISIS campaign.

There’s something to be said here for making digital archives available of the world’s libraries, before these pieces of our culture are lost. Mosul, or Mawsil, means linking point in Islamic, or junction city in Arabic. A city of intersecting cultures and ideas has been ransacked, symbolically and physically, in an organization’s mission to erase any cultural artifacts that contradict its own ideological belief system.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.