From the destruction of the Library of Alexandria in 391 AD, to the burning of Kabul libraries in 2002, to the the obliteration of the Library of Baghdad in 2003, oppressive regimes have historically targeted libraries.
In the latest example, on Sunday, in northern Iraq, Islamic State militants burned the Mosul public library, which housed more than 8,000 rare old books and manuscripts.
According to reports, ISIS militants rigged the entire building with explosives and carried out multiple detonations to raze the historical landmark and its contents. Among its lost collections, according to the Fiscal Times, were manuscripts from the 18th century, Syriac books printed in Iraq's first printing house in the 19th century, books from the Ottoman era, Iraqi newspapers from the early 20th century, and treasured antiques like an astrolabe and sand glass used by ancient Arabs.
According to UNESCO, the destruction of libraries and books in Mosul could very well be “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history.”
The targeting of the Mosul library was a shot at the symbolic heart of modern Iraq. The library was established in 1921, and was seen as a symbol of the birth of modern Iraq, which was established the same year, the paper reported.
And it's not the first time the library was targeted. During the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, mobs looted and destroyed the Mosul library. Fortunately, local residents managed to save or restore most of its collections.
Nor is it the first time ISIS has gone on book-burning rampages. Last December, ISIS burned Mosul University’s central library. And in Anbar province, ISIS has embarked on a book-burning campaign, destroying more than 100,000 titles, according to local officials.
Why do terrorists target books?
“Burning books is an attack on the culture, knowledge and memory, as we witnessed in Timbuktu recently,” Unesco Director-General Irina Bokova said in a statement Tuesday, referring to the destruction by al Qaeda-allied militants of libraries in Mali. “It adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people,” she said.
In other words, books represent a people's culture, history, and pride, and provide militants a concrete way to attempt to wipe clean a region's identity.
That is why UNESCO has called ISIS's book-burning campaign a sort of "cultural cleansing."
The pain felt by Iraqis at the destruction of a national treasure is palpable.
Added Rayan al-Hadidi, an activist and a blogger from Mosul, “Nine hundred years ago, the books of the Arab philosopher Averroes were collected before his eyes ... and burned. One of his students started crying while witnessing the burning. Averroes told him ... the ideas have wings... but I cry today over our situation."