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The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is a Salafi jihadist militant group that adheres to an Islamic fundamentalist, Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam. You know who they are. They used to be called ISIS, (sometimes ISIL, sometimes just Islamic State), but now (for reasons Greg Taylor so brilliantly summed up here) we call them Daesh. Isis, the Egyptian Mother of Life, the Crone of Death, the Goddess of Magic, worshipped more than three thousand years before the Prophet Mohammed was born, venerated by the Romans and Ancient Greeks alike (and still worshipped by some today), has had her name taken in vain for long enough.

It was 2014 when Daesh began a systematic campaign of destruction of cultural heritage sites and artefacts. Something the Taliban did before them, making headlines with the dynamiting of the 6th century Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. Daesh claims that the targets, bulldozed, bombed, and smashed out of existence, are being destroyed because they represent “an erroneous form of creativity, contradicting the basics of sharia”. [1] The videos they make of the destruction are also great propaganda tools, guaranteed to get airplay and media attention across the world. The BBC won’t show a beheading but it will show a temple exploding, a sledgehammer taken to an ancient idol. Even as we all grow numb and weary from the daily onslaught of horror we see on out televisions, computer, and phone screens, those images retain the power to shock.

People are being driven from their homes, enslaved, tortured, raped, murdered, and worse by Daesh every day. It is relentless, horrific beyond comprehension, so we cease to comprehend it. We cease to be able to process it all, to take the scale of the horror on board. The ultra vivid reds of the bloodshed, the blinding ballistic star-bursts; all the hyper-real HD livefeed horrors beamed directly onto our eyes merge like mixed Play Doh into a muddy brown mess which our mind tries daily to squish back into a too-small pot whose hastily scrawled, peeling label simply reads POST 9/11 TERROR. If we can even begin to imagine the horrors our fellow humans are being put through by Daesh, if we can put ourselves in their shoes, we can’t do it for long. Not all day, every day.

Somehow, moments like Daesh’s seizure of the Museum of Mosul in Iraq in February 2014, and destruction of artefacts therein, manage to cut through that dreadful, guilty, terror fatigue. We get a jolt – maybe it’s of anger, outrage, sadness, powerlessness, or of all of the above – because instead of simply “fear us”, all of a sudden Daesh seem to be looking directly down the camera and saying “fuck you”. Fuck who? The western infidel, naturally. Any who dare oppose them or their ideology, of course. Just about any innocent unfortunate who happens to be in their proximity, tragically. Yet also, they’re clearly delivering a big fat fuck you to a host of ancient deities. A poly-blasphemy. A campaign of desecration.

There’s a story in that. The kind of story my brain starts to tell itself whether I want it to or not. It starts at a randomised point, some seed of an idea which might form any part of the story, it falters, it restarts, it gets a little further, it falters, it restarts. It runs in the background like a disk defrag on a hard drive and I hardly even notice it. It’s not a story I’m going to write (at least, I don’t think so) but there are enough scraps to lay out here; bits and pieces of fact and associated ideas. None of it is original, I’m sure. There must be thousands of others who have made the same connections I have, unmysterious and obvious as most of them are.

The pop cultural associations are evident; few people can have seen the images of Deash destruction of historic archaeology amid the desert sands and not made a connection with the Northern Iraq dig scenes of William Friedkin’s 1973 classic The Exorcist. The statue of the dog-headed king of the demons of the wind, Pazuzu, stood defiantly on a crumbling pedestal among Babylonian ruins, sunlight blazing between his locust wings. In The Exorcist, Pazuzu is evil; the malevolent opposition to the Catholic priest Merrin, and the church as a whole, but things were not so black and white in 700 BC.

Although they are often classified as either evil or protective in modern scholarship, supernatural beings in ancient references seem to be presented as largely amoral. Their harmful or beneficial effects could be manipulated: they could be appeased with offerings and incantations, and even directed against each other by a skilled practitioner of magic. Pazuzu, as a powerful demon, was frequently set up as a shield against another supernatural terror: Lamashtu, a female demon with broad and far-ranging destructive powers, especially feared by pregnant women and those with newborns, who were her favoured (but not only) victims. [2]

Although the archaeological digs location is given only as “Northern Iraq” in the sequence, those parts of The Exorcist were actually filmed in the ancient city of Hatra, once known as al-Hadr in the ancient Persian province of Khvarvaran. Hatra was greatly restored under the former Iraqi president/dictator Saddam Hussain who saw the site’s Mesopotamian history as a symbol of Arab achievement, and spent a reported 80 million us dollars on the work. [3] Hatra was probably built in the 3rd or 2nd century BC by the Seleucid Empire. After its capture by the Parthian Empire, it flourished during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD as a religious and trading centre. [4] It’s unlikely that Pazuzu was ever invoked there prior to the 1970s, the wind demon having been all but forgotten for centuries when the first stone was laid. Many Gods were worshipped there, however. This from Wikipedia:

Hatra was the best preserved and most informative example of a Parthian city. It was encircled by inner and outer walls nearly 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) in diameter[6] and supported by more than 160 towers. A temenos (τέμενος) surrounded the principal sacred buildings in the city’s centre. The temples covered some 1.2 hectares and were dominated by the Great Temple, an enormous structure with vaults and columns that once rose to 30 metres. The city was famed for its fusion of Greek, Mesopotamian, Canaanite, Aramean and Arabian pantheons, known in Aramaic as Beiṯ Ĕlāhā (“House of God”). The city had temples to Nergal (AssyrianBabylonian and Akkadian), Hermes (Greek), Atargatis (Syro-Aramaean), Allat and Shamiyyah (Arabian) and Shamash (the Mesopotamian sun god).[4] Other deities mentioned in the Hatran Aramaic inscriptions were the Aramaean Ba’al Shamayn, and the female deity known as Ashurbel, which was perhaps the assimilation of the two deities the Assyrian god Ashur and the Babylonian Bel—despite their being individually masculine.

Note the past tense? On the 7th of March 2015, Kurdish sources reported that Daesh had begun the bulldozing of Hatra. [5] The destruction of the city was confirmed the following month when Daesh released footage of the temples and their statues being blasted with gunfire and shattered with sledgehammers. “Praise to God who enabled us and the soldiers of Islamic State to remove the signs of polytheism” says one militant in the video. [6] A dozen or more ancient Gods dishonoured in one fell swoop.

Pazuzu as drawn by Jamie Hewlett for his and Damon Albarn's Gorillaz

Despite the fact that Pazuzu had little or nothing to do with Hatra prior to the release of The Exorcist, it could be argued that in the 42 years since the film came out the two have become inextricably linked. Where his Mesopotamian contemporaries have faded into obscurity (with rare exceptions such as Humbaba, protector of the Cedar Forest in the Epic of Gilgamesh), Pazuzu has risen to the fore, ironically enough thanks to what many consider a piece of Catholic propaganda. The Exorcist consistently ranks high in Best Horror Movie polls and pieces to this day, many critics claiming it to actually be the best horror film ever made. [7] [8] [9] It is a must see film, a film referenced in, borrowed from, and parodied across all media since its release. Pazuzu has become a household name, a pop culture demon bigger than Mephistopheles, Gozer, and Etrigan combined, though perhaps not quite as big as Cthulhu.

Following the success of The Exorcist and Pazuzu’s rise to fame, the “Lord of all fevers and plagues” was retroactively written into H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos via his inclusion in the hoax grimoire known as the Simon Necronomicon, published in 1977. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon was a fictional grimoire, mentioned in many of his weird tales and subsequently in the weird tales of his friends, associates, and eventually just about anyone who wanted to name drop a frightening demonological text. The book is currently available commercially in roughly ten hoax “translations”, including the Simon Necronomicon. According to HPL’s his own 1927 History of the Necronomicon the book was

Composed by Abdul Alhazred, a mad poet of Sanaá, in Yemen, who is said to have flourished during the period of the Ommiade caliphs, circa 700 A.D. He visited the ruins of Babylon and the subterranean secrets of Memphis and spent ten years alone in the great southern desert of Arabia—the Roba el Khaliyeh or “Empty Space” of the ancients—and “Dahna” or “Crimson” desert of the modern Arabs, which is held to be inhabited by protective evil spirits and monsters of death. [10]

Abdul Alhazred is an entirely made up name but it’s possible that Lovecraft was alluding to the alchemist/scientist Ibn al-Haytham (also known now as Alhazen). Alhazen was no “mad Arab“, he was the genius, but he did feign madness for a decade. His reputation as a scientist, mathematician and great thinker lead to al-Haytham being called to Egypt by al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ruler of the Fatimid Caliphate, to regulate the flooding of the Nile, a task requiring the building of a dam at the present site of the Aswan Dam. After realising the task was doomed to fail, and fearing the ruler’s anger, al-Haytham pretended to have gone insane. He was kept under house arrest from 1011 AD until al-Hakim’s death in 1021 AD. During this “ten years alone” he wrote his influential seven-volume work Kitāb al-Manāẓir (the “Book of Optics“) which transformed the way in which light, colour and vision was understood, earning him the title the “father of modern optics“. Alhazen wrote as many as two hundred books, although only fifty-five have survived, and many of those have not yet been translated from Arabic. Some of his treatises on optics survived only through Latin translation (just like Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon). During the Middle Ages his books on cosmology were translated into Latin, Hebrew and other languages. Book of Optics in particular went on to influence the work of such luminaries as Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, and René Descartes. Although many modern biographies of Al-Haytham claim that he rejected his religious studies in favour of science, he was nevertheless a devout Muslim, and his theology influenced his outlook on science. He believed that God made the world difficult to understand and that skepticism and critical analysis were the only way to unravel and understand God’s creation. Today Al-Haytham is considered by some to be the “first true scientist” because of his pioneering work on what is now called scientific method.

Lovecraft didn’t include any of that stuff. His “mad Arab” was

an indifferent Moslem [sic], worshipping unknown entities whom he called Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu […] said by Ebn Khallikan (12th cent. biographer) to have been seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses. [11]

In the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft there is a pantheon of Old Gods who came to Earth from beyond the stars aeons ago. Though the worship of most of them died out in millennia past, the Gods are not gone, they only sleep (“dead but dreaming“), waiting for their time to come (“when the stars are right“) and the Apocalypse to begin.

Though you might not know it Daesh is an Apocalypse cult. They believe that the End Times have begun and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they have a starring role in the final act. In a piece entitled What ISIS Really Wants published in The Atlantic in March 2014, Graeme Wood wrote:

Of the Islamic State supporters I met, Musa Cerantonio, the Australian, expressed the deepest interest in the apocalypse and how the remaining days of the Islamic State—and the world—might look. Parts of that prediction are original to him, and do not yet have the status of doctrine. But other parts are based on mainstream Sunni sources and appear all over the Islamic State’s propaganda. These include the belief […] that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp.

[…]

After its battle in Dabiq, Cerantonio said, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. […] An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory. [12]

So, how might our own story play out? Does our pop-cultural demon Pazuzu act the Godzilla – the lesser of two evils – and rise from the depths, not of the ocean but of the desert sands, to defeat the monster that is Daesh? Repelling them as he once did his fellow demons.

Does a pantheon of desecrated Old Gods and monsters descend from on high? The Assyrian winged bull-men, the Lamassu, whose likeness Daesh destroyed at Nergal Gate with a jackhammer, and at the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II with a bulldozer. The Canaanite sky deity Ba’al Šamem, whose 1st century temple was dynamited in August 2015. The Arabian goddess trinity Al-lāt, Manāt and al-‘Uzzá. The Mesopotamian god trinity Bel, Aglibol, and Yarhibol. Isis herself. Every near forgotten deity Daesh tried to defame, disgrace and erase assembled in an Almighty army for the final battle in Dabiq.

It is perhaps worth noting at this point (as it may provide us with an alternate ending) that Daesh do not just destroy relics, they also steal them. Lots of them. In May 2015 Iraq’s United Nations ambassador, Mohamed Ali Alhakim, said the group earns as much as 100 million US dollars annually from antiquities trading. Although the origin of that figure is unclear, international police officials admit that the looting of antiquities in war-ravaged and unstable countries is a lucrative business. [13] In fact, the videos of destruction are not just impressive propaganda, they are also a very effective means of destroying evidence; making it impossible to tell what has been stolen and what has simply been smashed to bits.

During World War II the Nazis had a very similar policy of destroying cultural heritage. They tried not just to wipe out Jewish people, but also to destroy any evidence that they were ever equal, integrated, or even existed in Germany. They also stole a lot. An awful lot. They funded their war with “raubgold” (“stolen gold“) transferred to overseas banks. The regime executed a policy of looting the assets of its victims to finance the war, collecting the looted assets in central depositories. The occasional transfer of gold in return for currency took place in collusion with many individual collaborative institutions. The precise identities of those institutions, as well as the exact extent of the transactions, remain unclear. [15] In addition to precious metals and jewels the Nazis also stole artwork, books, and of course religious treasures. And, though actual historical evidence on the subject is rather sketchy, we all know from our films, books, and games (not to mention conspiracy theories) that the Nazis were very big on the occult. Hitler was after the “Heilige Lanze” (“Holy Lance“), or Spear of Destiny, which was used to pierce the side of Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross, because he believed it would grant him supernatural powers. Everyone knows that. It’s the same reason they went after the Arc of the Covenant in 1936… wait, did that actually happen?

In May 2014 Daesh beheaded 81-year-old Khaled al-Asaad, one of Syria’s most prominent antiquities scholars. His body was then taken to Palmyra’s archaeological site and hung from one of the Roman columns.

ISIS had tried to extract information from him about where some of the town’s treasures had been hidden to save them from the militants, the antiquities chief also said. SANA said al-Asaad had been in charge of Palmyra’s archaeological site for four decades until 2003, when he retired. [15]

Daesh will stop at nothing to get to these precious relics and antiquities. For every giant statue they blow up, they pocket a horde worth tens of thousands of US dollars on the Black Market. Just like the Nazis did. You know where I’m going with this. The arid rocky setting, the kidnapping of archaeologists, the pursuit of ancient Holy relics. It must have crossed your mind. So, maybe one day – in this story – Daesh just pick on the wrong archaeologist, or the wrong artefact, or both. Maybe they think themselves righteous and worthy, destined to wield some power and entitled to call upon it. And maybe they’re wrong. Instead of power and glory they get melted like a wax Nazi on Arc opening day. It’s a way to go. Pretty derivative in its raw state but then aren’t remakes and updates all the rage these days?

REFERENCES

[1] http://www.artnews.com/2015/11/07/isis-destruction-graphic/

[2] http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/assyria-to-iberia/blog/posts/pazuzu

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatra

[4] http://www.britannica.com/place/Hatra

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Destruction_of_cultural_heritage_by_ISIL

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/05/isis-video-confirms-destruction-at-unesco-world-heritage-site-on-hatra

[7] http://www.hitfix.com/news/horror-poll

[8] http://www.timeout.com/london/film/best-horror-films#tab_panel_10

[9] http://www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/top-10-horror-films-for-halloween-spooks.html/?a=viewall

[10] http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/hn.aspx

[11] http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/hn.aspx

[12] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

[13] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/29/world/middleeast/un-resolves-to-combat-plundering-of-antiquities-by-isis.html?_r=0

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_gold

[15] http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/isis-beheads-archaeology-pioneer-khaled-al-asaad-palmyra-n412196