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ISIS Destroys Objects That Record Region's History Of Cultural Diversity

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to a disturbing video that came to light this past week allegedly showing ISIS militants demolishing ancient artifacts in the Mosul museum in northern Iraq. They used sledgehammers and drills to destroy statues and other pieces of art that may date back to the seventh century BC in a part of the world that has been home to some of the greatest empires in human history. Axel Plathe is director of UNESCO's office in Iraq.

ACEL PLATHE: It is probably the second most important museum in Iraq.

MARTIN: The museum had been closed since the U.S. invasion in Iraq in 2003. But it had recently been renovated and held over 150 major statues. In the video, we can see these works of art pushed onto the floor where they shatter. Men with jackhammers pound them into even smaller fragments. ISIS has been on a kind of tour of cultural obliteration. They have sold some antiquities to finance their operations. Even so, Plathe says he was shocked by this latest video.

PLATHE: I wanted to stop it and not to watch further. But then I thought that it's very important to see what is really going on. And obviously, it's annihilation - a wish to destroy an entire reference to a culture that has made up together with others, of course, the cultural diversity of Iraq.

MARTIN: That cultural diversity is famously deep. It includes pre-Islamic cultures and a variety of ethnic groups - Jews, Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen.

PLATHE: You see across Iraq a great variety of cultures that have succeeded each other and have, of course, left traces of their culture. And all these traces are targeted by ISIS.

MARTIN: Historians aren't exactly sure just what was lost in the attack. Many of the most valuable pieces were moved from the museum in 2003 to protect them from getting damaged in the war. Several hundred miles south of the front lines, though, there is some room for optimism. The National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad has opened its doors again for the first time since 2003.

PLATHE: The national authorities decided to open it, which I believe is an extremely strong symbol saying we persist in safeguarding our heritage. We do not shy away from attacks that may happen. We proudly present our collections and make them known to the world and, again, accessible to the world.

MARTIN: That was Axel Plathe, director of UNESCO's office in Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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