To the casual browser, The Idols of ISIS first appears to be a difficult read about the titular notorious Islamic extremist group. However, despite the title, Aaron Tugendhaft dedicates this monograph not to ISIS, but to a thorough discussion of images, weaving a story about the power of political images, including their destruction and manipulation, in a tale that truly brings Assyria to the internet. The Idols of ISIS comes to us at a timely moment, as scholars are sounding the alarm about how the internet delivers certain images to our lives, and as the scholarly and museum worlds begin to reckon more fully with their colonial pasts. As a historian of ancient Iraq, I found myself enamoured with the contrasts and comparisons Tugendhaft so expertly draws between the Iraq that ISIS wants you to see and the ancient Iraq that the world is so eager to claim as its own glorious past.
The prologue opens with a fitting anecdote. We find Tugendhaft at a lecture by the Iraqi art historian, Zainab Bahrani, at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. It is during this lecture that Tugendhaft becomes aware for the first time of the video of ISIS militants destroying ancient Assyrian statuary in Iraq’s Mosul Museum. To highlight this moment is appropriate considering Bahrani’s scholarly background in bringing attention to the stark contrast between the still-standing images of the ancient world and the symbols of modern conflict. She ends her omnibus work Art of Mesopotamia with the striking photo of an American helicopter hovering over the ziggurat of Babylon. In invoking Bahrani in his introduction, Tugendhaft sets us up for a fascinating and compelling comparison between ancient and modern destruction.
The destruction of specific imagery and statues is a particular kind of violence, and advertising it through video makes the violence that much more painful and present for many. Tugendhaft is quick to point out that the ISIS video serves as a kind of meta moment, showing how the militants wielding hammers are more like those whom they aim to destroy than they realise. In a relief from Sargon II’s (722–705 BCE) palace at Khorsabad in northern Iraq, Tugendhaftt shows us another relief of three Assyrian soldiers smashing the sculpture of an enemy king. The question he poses is: why advertise this destruction? Just as ISIS does with their video of destruction, the Assyrian King Sargon II is using images to affect political feelings for those who see it: fear for those opposed, renewed enthusiasm from those who support. In these two images, separated by more than 2,500 years, Tugendhaft shows us that not only is there inherent power in the images we display, but also that in ISIS’s decision to film the destruction of the Mosul Museum, they continue along the same thread of behaviour that connects them more deeply to the same reliefs they destroy.