The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After leveling Iraq’s Tomb of Jonah, the Islamic State could destroy ‘anything in the Bible’

Video of the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah, also known as the Mosque of Jonah, by the Islamic State. 

Jonah’s main appearance in the Old Testament is short, but none too sweet.

As recounted in the Book of Jonah, God asked Jonah to preach. Not thinking himself cut out for the evangelizing game, Jonah ran away to sea.

But then Yahweh sent a great storm. When Jonah’s shipmates found out he was running from the Man Upstairs, they regretfully threw him overboard. Rather than let Jonah drown, God sent a great fish (or a whale, depending on the translation) to swallow him and — yuck — vomit him on dry land. Once saved, Jonah did preach to the people — but then got angry with God when He spared the wicked.

The end.

But as reluctant a prophet as Jonah was, his purported tomb in Mosul, Iraq, is a holy site for Muslims — even though it’s not likely the final resting place of a man purported to live in a fish’s tummy for three days. Instead, wrote Columbia University Near Eastern history PhD student Christopher Jones, the tomb is a sacred place “to meditate on the questions raised by the story of Jonah: questions of justice, obedience, providence, fairness and divine mercy.”

Until this month, when it was destroyed by the Islamic State.

Agence France-Presse confirmed rumors of the tomb’s fate with an Iraqi official. The official said Islamic State forces closed the mosque and took an hour wiring it with explosive charges. Then:


Jonah’s tomb “has been turned to dust,” the official said.

The Islamic State isn’t new to this. As it establishes a caliphate to spread its ultraconservative faith, it’s destroyed cultural artifacts including Sunni, Shia and Sufi sites, according to Newsweek, and replaced the crosses on Mosul’s Syrian Orthodox cathedral with black flags.


“It indicates they are going for total eradication not just of their enemies but even of the possibility of people living together under their rule,” Sam Hardy, a professor at the American University of Rome and author of the blog Conflict Antiquities, told The Washington Post in a phone interview.

“Sometimes the practitioners of a new religion feel compelled to recognize a place as sacred, and develop their own reasons to continue to venerate it,” Jones wrote. “Other times, they choose to demonstrate the superiority of their own religion over other belief systems by destroying their sacred spaces and building their own in their place.”

Of course, governments and religions have destroyed antiquities since, well, antiquity. Romans destroyed Jerusalem’s Second Temple not long after Christ. During the Crusades, Christians destroyed mosques. The Nazis destroyed degenerate art. And the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.

The problem: In Iraq, the Islamic State is advancing. If it’s willing to destroy anything other religions — even other Muslims — hold sacred, what’s next?

“Basically pretty much anything in the Bible,” Hardy said.

What can be done?

“If we didn’t intervene when they were killing people, it would be kind of grotesque to intervene over a building,” Hardy said.

Perhaps the Islamic State will stop on its own?

“You think tactically they’d avoid provoking enemies,” Hardy said, but Islamic State forces “seem happy to do that. Possibly they are doing stuff to get media attention.”

Mission accomplished.