For nearly 3,000 years, a pair of winged bulls stood at a gateway that once marked a principal entrance to the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh (situated outside the modern Iraqi city of Mosul). These giant stone colossi, known as “lamassu,” welcomed visitors to the city, but also served as its imposing guardians — with taut, muscular legs, elaborate, feathered wings and their impassive human faces.
A 19th century account by British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard describes certain aspects of the sculptures as “being designed with a spirit and truthfulness worthy of a Greek artist.”
The colossi were built during the rule of Sennacherib, the 7th century Assyrian king who made Nineveh his capital — and who, during his rule, worked to expand, beautify and fortify the city. It was in Nineveh, incidentally, where the tablets containing the “Epic of Gilgamesh” were discovered.
Sennacherib’s ancient winged bulls have now been partially destroyed by militants from the Islamic State (known in shorthand as ISIS). In images that have been broadcast around the world, men are seen smashing statues in the Mosul Museum and rubbing out the faces of the ancient lamassu at the gate of Nergal with power tools. (Here’s what the faces looked like before the attack.)
The Guardian and Hyperallergic have good overviews of what is said and done in the video. My colleague David Ng has a piece about UNESCO’s condemnation of this brutal act of iconoclasm. And the New York Observer has a statement issued by Metropolitan Museum of Art chief Thomas Campbell. “Such wanton brutality must stop,” he writes, “before all vestiges of the ancient world are obliterated.”
Particularly worthwhile is a report in the New York Times that includes statements from various archaeologists who have studied the footage and are trying to determine the extent of the damage — and which artifacts being destroyed are real and which ones are modern replicas.
The ancient stone lamassu at Nergal are certainly real. The militants would have had to have built a set worthy of Hollywood for it to be otherwise, since the video lingers on various aspects of the famed archaeological site.
The destruction makes my heart heavy (as does the group’s rancid violence against living, breathing human beings). But what I find most disturbing about the video is its Hollywood production values: the theme music, the slow motion, the reveling in violence. It’s as if ISIS is just a few quick cuts from producing its own videos for MTV. Perhaps not totally out of place with work such as M.I.A.'s cinematic “Born Free" (which is full of drama, nudity and graphic violence, in case you decide to view it on the Internet).
My colleague Jeffrey Fleishman has produced a must-read essay on this topic — on the so-called “cinematic caliphate,” and the ways in which ISIS has employed the tropes of movie-making in their videos — ones in which the violence is all too real.
“Recent execution videos released by Islamic State are slickly produced narratives of multiple camera angles, eerie tension and polished editing that suggest the filmmakers are versed in Hollywood aesthetics,” he writes. “Brutal and perverse, the clips, some infused with music and subtitles, carry a primeval message stylized for a world wired to social media and hypnotized by an endless pulse of competing images.”
Thankfully, other similar lamassu survive in institutions around the world — at the British Museum in London and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — which means ISIS was unable to completely eradicate their form from the planet. The lamassu are still with us.
Unfortunately, so is the slick video of their wanton destruction at Nergal.
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.