Iraqi forces battling so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters this week made a grim discovery in a Mosul neighborhood, confirming reports from 2014 that the group had leveled the shrine that is said to have housed the tomb of the prophet Jonah, a key figure in the Judaic, Christian and Islamic religions.
“Counterterrorism forces liberated Nabi Yunis neighborhood and the tomb of Prophet Jonah and raised the Iraqi flag over the shrine after inflicting a great loss of life and equipment on the enemy,” Lieutenant General Abdul Amir Rasheed Aarallah, the head of Iraqi Joint Operations’ media cell, said on Monday.
The Iraqi forces said IS razed what was reputed to be the burial site of the prophet and a shrine that hosted thousands of visitors from around the world.
“IS has not only demolished this valuable shrine, but it has also dug several tunnels under it in search for artifacts,” Zuhair al-Jbouri, the speaker of National mobilization Forces, told VOA.
“They have stolen every artifact they could transport out of Iraq to make some (money) and have destroyed whatever they couldn’t take,” he said.
The shrine is considered one of the most prominent archeological sites in Mosul.
Before its destruction, the site included an Assyrian temple that is believed to have been built around 1300 B.C. It also hosted a mosque that was built about four centuries ago during the Ottoman Empire.
Sermed Alwan, an Iraqi archeologist and president of Mesopotamia Heritage Association, the graveyard site attributed to Prophet Jonah was built six centuries ago, although it has been disputed whether the tomb belongs to the storied figure.
Nevertheless, “the site inspired hundreds of Muslims and Christians to annually pilgrim and pray under the same roof,” Alwan said.
On July 24, 2014, two weeks after overrunning Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, IS militants rigged the shrine with explosives and blew it up, sparking global outrage.
IS militants “first stopped people from praying in it, they fixed explosive charges around and inside it, and then blew it up in front of a large gathering of people,” a witness who did not wish to give his name told the French news agency in 2014.
The militants justified the demolition by declaring that “the mosque had become a place for apostasy, not prayer.”
Over the past two and half years, the group has destroyed several other historic sites it considered part of heretical rituals and practices of Muslims, Christians and Yazidis in Mosul and elsewhere.
Similar to some other strains of Salafi movement, IS considers worshiping in religious shrines, including Sunni Muslim shrines, against the Islamic faith and a form of “shirk” or idolatry.
"The demolition of structures erected above graves is a matter of great religious clarity," the jihadist group said in a statement posted on one of its main websites. "Our pious predecessors have done so. ... There is no debate on the legitimacy of demolishing or removing those graves and shrines."
Alwan, of the Mesopotamia Heritage Association, said the shrine can be rebuilt, but its archeological significance is likely lost, depending on the level of damage that was done. The site hasn't yet bee evaluated by experts.
“It hopefully will be rebuilt in the future, but its archeological value is vanished forever and Iraq has lost yet another treasure,” Alwan told VOA. “If you want to destroy a nation, destroy its history; and this is what IS did.”