ERBIL — As Iraqi forces fight to retake the northern city of Mosul from ISIS, an artist in nearby Erbil is chiseling at clay in a tiny, unheated studio to recreate historic Assyrian monuments destroyed by the group.
Ninos Thabet, an 18-year-old Christian who studied art at Mosul University, is creating miniature replicas of statues the jihadists destroyed when they overran the 3,000-year-old Assyrian city of Nimrud, south of Mosul, more than two years ago.
Once the capital of an empire stretching across the ancient Middle East, Nimrud is one of several historic sites that ISIS forces looted and ransacked when they seized large swathes of Iraq and neighboring Syria in 2014.
The statues included winged bulls with human faces, known as Lamassu, and a bronze head of King Sargon of Akkad.
“Seeing the antiquities of your country, a civilization that is thousands of years old, destroyed within minutes is very painful,” Thabet told Reuters during a visit to his studio. “It was difficult seeing such a setback to our culture and history.”
ISIS, whose ultra-hardline doctrine deems pre-Islamic religious heritage idolatrous, released video footage last year showing its fighters bulldozing, drilling and blowing up murals and statues at Nimrud.
“I wanted to send a message to the world saying, ‘We … want to rebuild our civilization and to continue to grow artistically,'” Thabet said.
Over the weekend, Iraqi forces pushing through eastern Mosul took control of Mosul University— once a premier institution in the Middle East that became a strategic site for the militants— as part of a three-month, U.S.-led offensive to recapture the entire city, ISIS’s last major stronghold in the country. Western Mosul remains under ISIS control.
Thabet fled with his family from the Christian town of Qaraqosh, east of Mosul, to the Kurdish capital Erbil when ISIS took over. He said art brought him comfort while he was away from his home and friends.
Since leaving his home, Thabet has created more than 50 statues and figures. Some of them have been displayed in exhibits and museums, and others he sold to collectors.
Iraqi troops pushed ISIS from Nimrud in November, giving officials a clearer idea of the scale of the damage.