Assyrian relief from Nineveh, depicting a soldier escorting captives and loot from a Babylonian city in central or southern Iraq. Early 7th century BC.

Early 7th century BC Assyrian relief from Nineveh: a soldier escorts captives and loot from a Babylonian city in southern Iraq (photo: Ashmolean Museum)

Two days ago I was looking at this Assyrian relief in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It’s one of several carved marble reliefs in the Ashmolean that came from the ruined palaces of Nineveh. Most, like this one, commemorate the achievements of their rulers – and their impact on neighbouring peoples and provinces. Here a soldier escorts captives and loot from a Babylonian city in southern Iraq.

The ruins of Ninevah lie near Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, seized this week by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) forces that now threaten Baghdad.  The Asmolean’s relief was a reminder that this week’s scenes of looting, destruction and columns of refugees fleeing the cities captured by ISIS have recurred for millennia in these lands.

Reporting from Baghdad in today’s Guardian, Martin Chulov writes of ‘the fragile ties that have bound together the ethnically diverse country since the fall of the Ottoman empire’ and of present-day grievances amplified by ‘historical unfinished business’ in a country divided along religious and ethnic fault lines that ‘are seriously testing the post-Ottoman borders’.

Also in the Guardian today, Michael Goldfarb – who covered the fall of Mosul in 2003 – writes that:

Mosul must have been magical once. Smothered in history, it is yet another place where the past never dies and isn’t even past. And that past goes back to the beginning of civilisation. This was the home of the Assyrian empire. The ruins of Nineveh are directly across the river Tigris from Mosul. All subsequent imperial traffic has left a mark here.

Goldfarb’s translator, Ahmad, was a Kurd married to an Arab, but also a Shabak – one of the many obscure sects including Yezidis and Mandeans ‘that have been born in this region over the millennia and still survive’.  He continues:

The mix of Christian denominations is ancient and mind-boggling: Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Assyrian.

That’s just religion. Ethnically, Mosul was home to Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, Armenians and Assyrians. All the groups mixed freely and fairly easily, although in the last decade of Saddam’s regime that had already started to change. Radical Islam was already making inroads in Mosul in the 1990s. Then came the war, and when Saddam was gone a different conflict began. In the bazaars and at night there were whispers and threats against Christians, Kurds, Turkmen and those who tried to make democracy work.

When Martin Chulov refers to ‘historical unfinished business’ in Iraq he means the way in which the region was carved up between the victorious imperial powers, France and Britain, at the end of the First World War. On 10 June, as Professor Toby Dodge, director of the LSE’s Middle East Centre, notes in another Guardian piece, Isis posted a photograph of their fighters demolishing barriers marking the dividing line between Syria and Iraq.

They were, they claimed, ‘smashing the Sykes-Picot border’. This was a reference to the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot who, in May 1916, concluded secret negotiations to divide the Middle East into French and British zones of imperial influence. Isis’s symbolic destruction of the border was an attempt to give credence to its claim to be sweeping away the false states created by the nefarious European powers, uniting all Muslims in one pious community.

This chimed with something else for me: I’m currently reading Peter Englund’s magnificent The Beauty and the Sorrow, in which he draws on the diaries and letters of twenty unknown individuals on both sides of the conflict, all around the world. It’s a brilliant book that serves to remind us that the war was not only fought in the trenches along Europe’s western front. One of the individuals whose experience of the war he narrates is Edward Mousley, a New Zealand artilleryman in the British Army.  In 1916 Mousley is one of 8,000 British and Indian soldiers beseiged by Ottoman forces in the town of Kut-al-Amara, 100 miles south of Baghdad. On Monday 10 April 1916, Mousley records in his journal how the encircled garrison are forced to slaughter their horses in order to survive.  This is how Englund tells it, drawing upon Mousley’s journal:

They have been slaughtering the draught animals and the mules for some time but they have consciously been sparing the riding animals. That is no longer possible. Another attempt to relieve them has run into the sand and orders have now been given that the last horses will have to be slaughtered in order to feed the besieged garrison, which will soon be starving.

Mousley tears up some fresh grass and goes to where the horses are lined up. His own horse Don Juan obviously recognises his owner and welcomes him eagerly in the way he has taught the horse to do. Mousley feeds him the grass.

Then the slaughter begins.

A non-commissioned officer shoots the horses. There is the crack of a gunshot and one by one the big, heavy animals crumple to the ground. The blood flows. At first Mousley watches, noting that the horses follow the proceedings, trembling as they wait their turn. Like the other horses Don Juan stamps uneasily but otherwise remains quite still. When it is almost Don Juan’s turn Mousley can watch no longer; he asks the man with the gun to take careful aim and to tell him when it is all over. Then he kisses the horse’s cheek and walks away. He can see how the horse turns and watches him go.

Then there is another crack from the gun.

His dinner that evening is Don Juan’s heart and kidneys. (These parts of the horse are always reserved for the owner – Mousley has also kept Don Juan’s black tail.) Admittedly it feels strange, but he does not think there is anything wrong about it. He writes in his diary: ‘I am sure he would have preferred that I, rather than another, should do so.’

On 29 April 1916 after a siege of 147 days, the British surrendered. 13,000 Allied soldiers were taken prisoner and then marched under Ottoman guard, first to Baghdad, then on to Samarra and Mosul before being forced to trek west across the desert to Constantinople. 70% of the British and 50% of the Indian troops died of hunger or disease or were killed their Ottoman guards during the long march. (However, the British General, Charles Townshend,  himself was taken by the Turks to the island of Halki on the Sea of Marmara, where he sat out the war in luxury.)

Drawing upon Mousley’s written record, Englund writes::

The march has been terrible … and they are leaving a trail of sick and dying men, collapsed mules and discarded equipment along the way. Corpses, dried and shrivelled by the burning sun, mark out the trail of those who preceded them. Meanwhile their progress is also being shadowed by armed Arabs, waiting to plunder and kill those who fall by the wayside. They have been tormented by sandstorm, heat, hunger and, worst of all, thirst. They have survived on figs, black bread, tea and, in particular, raisins – all bought at excessive prices in the places they have passed through. Like everyone else, Mousley has more or less lost all sense of time. ‘I knew two seasons only,’ he writes in his diary, ‘when we walked and when we did not.’ He is weak and feverish. He has lost almost two stone in weight, has severe stomach problems and his eyes are painful.

Toby Dodge, by the way, doesn’t give much credence to the argument that the source of Iraq’s present-day woes lies in ‘the false states created by the nefarious European powers’ at the end of WW1.  He argues that Isis’s expansion from Mosul into other towns and cities in northern Iraq ‘has much more to do with the profound failures of the Iraqi government and the legacy of invasion than the historical artificiality of the Iraqi state’:

Iraq’s present prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, first came to power in April 2006 in a deal brokered by the then British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and the American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. Maliki’s ascendancy was an Anglo-American attempt to create a facade of democracy in the midst of a vicious post-invasion civil war. After 2006 Maliki used his power to rule in an authoritarian way, deploying a compliant judiciary and a million-strong security force to break the opposition. […] It is this failure to build a sustainable and inclusive political system after regime change in 2003 and the authoritarianism of Maliki, America’s candidate for prime minister, that explains the rise of Isis and current crisis, not the state’s supposedly “false” creation.

Dodge concludes that:

The more drastic solution of breaking up the Iraqi state – an institution that has since 1920 become the focus of a robust nationalist identity for the vast majority of ordinary Iraqis – would also not deliver stability.

But gazing on the relief from Ninevah, carved nearly 3,000 years ago, one wonders whether we may be about to see just one more example of the relentless rise and fall of empires, states and spheres of influence in this part of the world.

What’s that fluttering in a breeze?
Its just a piece of cloth
that brings a nation to its knees.

What’s that unfurling from a pole?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that makes the guts of men grow bold.

What’s that rising over a tent?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that dares the coward to relent.

What’s that flying across a field?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that will outlive the blood you bleed.

How can I possess such a cloth?
Just ask for a flag my friend.
Then bind your conscience to the end.

– ‘Flag’ by John Agard

See also

2 thoughts on “From Nineveh to Mosul: what’s that fluttering in the breeze?

  1. Thanks for this. Important as this time to reflect on great and ancient civilizations as their territories are torn with conflict. Next time you’re in Oxford. it would be good to meet.

    1. A couple more posts relating to our 24 hour stopover in Oxford are imminent. I really liked the town, and all the cliches I’d heard (I’d never visited before) were in place – students on bikes, young people punting on the Cherwell, ancient quadrangles in the colleges, etc.

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