Incident Report Feature: Tal Afar Citadel

New video footage shows the condition of the Tal Afar Citadel.

The Citadel of Tal Afar is an Ottoman-era fortification in the center of the largely Turkmen town of Tal Afar. The city may be a Late Assyrian Period foundation based on the similarity of Tal Afar to the toponym Thela'sar, which appears in the Bible (Kings 19:12 and Isaiah 37:12) [1]. According to the Oxford Archaeology Image Database, however, no excavations have yet been conducted at Tal Afar and this identification is uncertain. The current fortification largely dates to the Ottoman period.

According to Dr. Trevor Watkins, who led a rescue excavation at nearby Qermez Dere in the late 1980s, the citadel at that time was managed by the Directorate-General of Antiquities and housed a small museum which was not open to the public. The Directorate-General restored about half of the citadel ramparts in the 1970s and 80s, but modern construction had encroached on the rest of the site. The citadel was used as the headquarters of the Tal Afar municipal council and local police after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

ISIS militants captured Tal Afar a week after taking Mosul and Tikrit in June 2014, following a two-day battle with Iraqi security forces. ISIS began destroying cultural heritage sites in the town almost immediately. By July 4, 2016, ISIS militants had intentionally damaged or destroyed multiple Shia sites in the city (as confirmed by DigitalGlobe satellite imagery), including the Mosque of Imam Sa’ad ibn Aqil ibn Abi Talib, the Mosque of the Martyrs of Lashkar-e Mulla, the Mosque of Sheikh Mohammad Taqi al-Mawla, the Mosque of Mulla Mahmoud, an unidentified mosque, the Mosque of Hashim Antr, the Mosque of Imam al-Sadiq, the Mosque of al-Abbas, the Mosque of Ahl Beit, the Mosque of Sheikh Jawad al-Sadiq, and the Shrine of Khidr al-Elias (see see ASOR CHI Incident Reports IHI 15-001, IHI 15-002, IHI 15-003, IHI 15-004, IHI 15-006, IHI 15-008, IHI 15-009, IHI 15-010, IHI 15-011, IHI 15-013 in Weekly Report 30).


A video still from footage of the deliberate destruction of the Mosque of Imam Sa’ad ibn Aqil ibn Abi Talib, published by a now disabled ISIS Twitter account.

In December 2014, it was reported that the Tal Afar Citadel had been used as a prison for hundreds of kidnapped Yezidi and Christian women intended to be sold to ISIS militants since August 2014. Popular Mobilization Forces who retook the site in August 2017 reported seeing chains and other restraints likely used on these prisoners.

On December 31, 2014 it was reported that ISIS militants detonated explosives in the northern and western sections of the Tal Afar Citadel, causing significant damage to the site. It is unclear what prompted this destruction, but it may have been carried out in an attempt to find antiquities at the site. Photographs of the destruction dating to January 2015 (taken from a now disabled Twitter account) were published on the blog Gates of Nineveh. UNESCO published a statement strongly condemning the destruction of the site.

The northern Citadel walls are seen in a pre-damage photograph (Almada Press; June 16, 2014)

Severe damage to the northern Citadel walls following their intentional destruction by ISIS militants (Gates of Nineveh; February 10, 2015)

Though no new damage to the site was reported by the media, DigitalGlobe satellite imagery shows that the Citadel suffered further damage from February to April 2017.

Satellite imagery of the Citadel in early February 2017, prior to increased damage. (DigitalGlobe NextView License; February 6, 2017)

Increased damage to the western edge of the site in late February, likely from the use of heavy machinery. (DigitalGlobe NextView License; February 23, 2017)

Visible damage to the southwestern section of the site, possibly from airstrikes. A modern building on the edge of the site was also destroyed. (DigitalGlobe NextView License; April 15, 2017)

The Iraqi offensive to retake Tal Afar began on August 20, 2017 following a months-long aerial campaign in the Tal Afar area by Iraqi and Coalition forces. The Citadel neighborhood was retaken by Iraqi forces on August 26.

Reuters visited the Citadel after Iraq declared victory and reported that the site had been heavily damaged. A PMU fighter noted, “We tried to push out the militants without doing too much damage [to the site]. We only used light weaponry.

PMU fighters raise the Iraqi flag on the Citadel (France 24; August 28, 2017)

Partially detonated section of Citadel walls (The Daily Mail; August 28, 2017)

On October 4, 2017 al-Aan Arabic Television published extensive video footage of the Citadel. This includes new imagery of the lower western side of the hill, where ISIS militants reportedly bulldozed modern buildings and used earthmoving equipment in an attempt to loot the site. DigitalGlobe satellite images included above indicates that the damage from looting extends along much of the the northwestern slope of the Citadel.

Video still of southwestern section of Citadel, where ISIS militants looted the site using earthmoving equipment (Al-Aan Arabic Television; October 4, 2017)

Video still of damage to buildings around lower western section of Citadel, as well as piles of building material from destroyed structures formerly on top of the mound. (Al-Aan Arabic Television; October 4, 2017)

Video still of damage to buildings around the lower western section of the mound. (Al-Aan Arabic Television; October 4, 2017)

For the full Incident Report discussing the state of the Tal Afar Citadel, see the ASOR CHI October 2017 Monthly Report.



[1] Oates, D. (2005) Studies in the Ancient History of Northern Iraq. British School of Archaeology in Iraq. 55.

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