Bombs Further Damage Holy Shiite Shrine

Alastair Northedge
Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture, University of Paris
Wednesday, June 13, 2007; 1:30 PM

Alastair Northedge, a professor of Islamic art and architecture at the University of Paris who has done considerable work in Iraq, was online Wednesday, June 13 at 1:30 p.m. ET to explain the significance of the Golden Mosque in Samarra and discuss the effect the destruction of its minarets could have.

Blasts Destroy Remnants of Samarra Shiite Shrine (Post, June 13)

The transcript follows.

Northedge is Professor of Islamic Art and Archaeology at the Universite de Paris 1. He has worked in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and conducted projects at Amman in Jordan and Ana in Iraq, in addition to Samarra. He is author of "Historical Topography of Samarra" and "Studies on Roman and Islamic Amman."


Alastair Northedge: Welcome everybody. I'm very pleased to be present, and I hope I'll be able to answer your questions.


Kalamazoo, Mich.: Did the current security crackdown against nongovernmental militias have any affect on the vulnerability of the Samarra's al-Askariya mosque given Ayatollah Sistani's push to have local militias protect shrines and religious sites in the wake of the Feb. 22, 2006 bombing? Also, do you foresee more attacks on shrines, such as those at Karbala and Najaf -- and if so, what is being done to protect them?

Alastair Northedge: To answer your second question first, I don't believe that it is necessarily the case that other Shia shrines (such as Karbala and Najaf) are at risk. Samarra is a very exceptional case, that of a Shiite shrine situated in Sunni territory. It always has been anomalous -- the Imams who are buried there were more or less under house arrest in the capital of the time (as Samarra was 836-892 AD). There is only a small Shia community, so the other shrines are not in danger.

I doubt myself that the crackdown on militias in Baghdad had much effect in Samarra. Samarra has a solid Sunni population who are notoriously difficult -- they had trouble with Saddam and now they are having trouble with the U.S. It is more or less a case of the Samarrans versus the rest of the world.


West Orange, N.J.: Were the existing Iraqi Shiite shrines built with Shiite funds only, or did the Ottomans, the pre-1958 kingdom, or recent Iraqi or Iranian governments contribute too? Is there any hope of discovering the perpetrators of the bombings, or do any well-intentioned Iraqi authorities immediately run up against a barrier of denials, threats, occultation of evidence, preference for conspiracy theories and a completely nonfunctioning police and judiciary? Is the "trail" for any investigator cold, deadly or futile from Day 1 on?

Alastair Northedge: The existing Shiite shrines were built with a mix of pious donations, yes -- Iraqi Shia and the Iranians under the Qajars in the 19th century. Even Indian Shia funded the Shrines. The Nawab of Awadh in the 1840s built a new city wall at Samarra (now disappeared).

I don't know whether there's any hope of discovering the perpetrators. It is really a question of political will. In my experience that is completely lacking on all sides.

What I would like to do is to go to Samarra and interview the local inhabitants, but it seems to me unlikely that one would be allowed to do that. Of course there is always the danger that one might not come back alive...


Princeton, N.J.: Is there anything that really can be done to protect the many religious sites in Iraq, or are they essentially at the mercy of those who will pick their targets whenever they want?

Alastair Northedge: In my humble opinion, very little can be done to protect cultural sites before the end of the war. Security has deteriorated so much that very little activity is possible, even at the risk of life. You cross your fingers and hope.

That of course is cultural sites -- archaeology etc. Religious sites are a slightly different category. Evidently the faithful are likely to be ready to stand guard in the case of a religious site. On the other hand, protection is not reliable. Could every church in the U.S. be protected against attack for four, five, six years?

The Director of Antiquities, Abbas al-Husaini, gave a speech in London last week, where he said there was a particular tendency now to attack religious shrines. I suppose it is part of the sectarian drift.


West Orange, N.J.: Why have the Shiite shrines been under the guard of Sunnis? After the first bombing, shouldn't the status quo have been patently unacceptable? Or did it turn out to be less a question of trust than extortion: leave the shrines to our "care" or we blow them up. What explains the fact that some of these shrines are in Sunni towns, as though the Mormon Tabernacle would be in Rome and St. Peter's in Salt Lake City.

Alastair Northedge: Actually the guard of the shrine at Samarra is indeed Shia; this is one of the puzzling aspects of the bombing. It seems to me fairly certain that they knew what was going on -- expertly laid bombs take some time to place. The two bombs neatly dropped the two minarets without apparently doing other damage, as far as I can see from the photos

As to why the shrine is located in a Sunni town: Between 836 and 892, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate was located at Samarra. It was a sort of Versailles on the Tigris. One of the Caliphs, al-Mutawakkil (847-861), wanted to keep the Imams under his eye at the court, so he had them brought from Medina in what is now Saudi Arabia, and they died in Samarra and were buried in their house. That is why the Shrine is there. However, the region of Samarra remained resolutely Sunni.

Samarra is the only Shia shrine in a Sunni city. That is why it was chosen to spark off the civil war.


West Orange, N.J.: During the Saddam era, who looked after the shrines and what access did pilgrims have? Roughly what share of past or recent pilgrims come from Iran or other countries?

Alastair Northedge: Under Saddam, as today today, it was the Shia who had control of the shrines. There was a problem for access by Iranians during the Iraq-Iran war; they were blocked for quite a long time.

_______________________ What is the history of the Golden Mosque? What makes it so important to Shiites? Also, a Samarra Sunni was quoted in The Post's story today saying that the Sunnis there always had respected the mosque, even though it's Shiite. Is that accurate?

Alastair Northedge: The "Golden Mosque" is not in fact a mosque, but a shrine over the tombs of the Two Imams, al-Askari and al-Hadi. There is a second adjacent turquoise dome over the place where the last (and 12th) imam, the son of al-Hadi, disappeared in 874. He is supposed to re-emerge at a future time.

The major Shia religious centers are all funerary shrines over the tombs of the Imams. The reason for this is that Shiism essentially proclaims the right of the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad to be the leader of the Islamic community -- therefore the tombs of those people are the principal centers of the rites.

"Also, a Samarra Sunni was quoted in The Post's story today saying that the Sunnis there always had respected the mosque, even though it's Shiite. Is that accurate?"

Yes, it is. It is a question of local pride. The local people are proud of their shrine, even though it is Shia and they are not. Before the present problems, in any case, there was no strong feeling of separation between Sunni and Shia. All are Iraqis, and that's what is important for them. That will be the case again when the present war is over.

This is quite an issue, and I suspect it is why the Samarra shrine was bombed today. Nationalism in Iraq (Arab Nationalism, I mean, not Kurdish) is on the way back, and there are interests who want to prevent it -- indeed, who would like to see Iraq split up. This was an anti-Nationalist bombing today -- intended to split Moqtada al-Sadr's Nationalist Shia from the Sunni Nationalists.

Whether they will succeed I don't know. Bombing Samarra a second time today doesn't have the same effect as bombing it last year. Indeed, I think it was a mistake on the part of the bombers.


Arlington, Va.: In your opinion, are the people blowing up religious structures religious zealots or political zealots or just thugs?

Alastair Northedge: Religio-political zealots, I think. Criminal thugs, no.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you know how the pre-Islamic sites (Ctesiphon, etc.) are faring? When I lived in Iraq in the 1980s, Saddam was bulldozing Babylon in order to rebuild it to somehow glorify himself. The Iraqis I talked to said the pre-Islamic art was pagan and thus worthless. I wonder if it is being ignored while the Sunnis and Shia fight it out.

Alastair Northedge: Ctesiphon is in danger, because the arch is likely to fall. Damaged by shock waves from bombs and aircraft?

It is true there is a wide divide in attitudes between Islamic and pre-Islamic art. I have been trying to close it. I fear that it is too complicated a subject to reply briefly.

Mesopotamian archaeological sites are not being ignored -- they are being looted.


West Orange, N.J.: Were many or most of the adornments of the destroyed Samarra shrine relatively "generic" (like neo-Gothic in the West) and possible to reconstruct? Or was some of the handiwork of an essentially irreplicable sort (like the inlays at Taj Mahal or Cordoba)?

Alastair Northedge: The decoration of the shrine was not that old, mainly 19th century or even early 20th. The shrine was founded in 944, but most of the structures recent, apart from a 13th century inscription commemorating the fissure where the last Imam disappeared. The decoration mainly was glazed tiles and mirror mosaics.

On the other hand it had not been thoroughly recorded, as most Western religious monuments are.

I would say that when they reconstruct, it will be an approximation of the old.


West Orange, N.J.: Were Western art historians able to visit Iraqi or Iranian religious sites in the 1980s and 1990s? How easy or difficult was it?

Alastair Northedge: Yes, it was. However Shia shrines were and are forbidden to non-Muslims. Visits were informal, pretending to be a Bosnian Muslim, who do not look different from Western Europeans.


Boulder, Colo.: Can you describe the significance of this Shrine to the Shia and also if it can be repaired at this point?

Alastair Northedge: Of the four Shiite shrines in Iraq, it was probably the last in importance, probably because it was placed in Sunni territory. Nevertheless these shrines in Iraq are the major shrines of the Shia -- the Holy Land, if you like.

It will be repaired, but the new version, as I said in reply to an earlier question, is likely to be an "approximation" of the original. In the end, it will be the religious value of the shrine that counts for the Shia, not the particular decorative details.


Alastair Northedge: Thank you very much, everybody. I much enjoyed this session.


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