North Africa, West Asia

Iraq's vanishing heritage: risks and solutions

Despite the challenges involved in rescuing Iraq's endangered cultural and archaeological sites, a recent conference put forward concrete, long-term solutions.

Nazli Tarzi
2 May 2015

Steps to the Ziggurat of Ur. Everett Historical/Shutterstock. All rights reserved.

A conference held in April by the Association of Iraqi Academics, Iraqi Association, Iraqi Women League, and the British Institute for the Study of Iraq discussed challenges and solutions involved in the task of rescuing Iraq's endangered cultural and archaeological sites.

As cultural property crimes in Iraq reach new levels of depravity, the Association of Iraqi Academics congregated in London recently to explore ways of countering ISIL’s assault against Iraq's vibrant past.

A thick sense of mourning, melancholia, and anger filed the lecture theatre where an audience of approximately 150 listened to a disturbing review of their country's recent past.

Recurrent episodes of illegal digging, pillaging and reckless destruction have transformed Iraq's urban fabric so much that some of the country's historical chapters are lost beyond recovery.

The phenomenon, as one audience member recounted, has indeed been a recurrent theme, stretching as far back as the sacking of Baghdad in the year 1258 by Mongol ruler, Hulegu Khan.

Dr John Curtis emphasised that today's tragedies illuminate a story starkly different to that before 2003. Heritage preservation efforts prior to the first Gulf War were among the best in the region—not to mention the rich tradition of archaeological research led by highly staffed archaeologists, trained abroad and locally. This however changed, after the long drawn-out eight year Iraq-Iran war weakened the state's capacity to protect cultural heritage sites.

ISIL, and those before them, reanimate the tale of the Mongol conquest, not only by desecrating holy sites, but also by cultivating necessary conditions on which illicit trafficking in cultural heritage has flourished beyond the nation's borders.

The dilemma of protecting cultural property extended into the 1990s as unthinkable levels of desperation—stimulated beneath punitive sanctions—lured many into the underground trade of looted antiquities. “Lessons” from the past, Curtis commented, “were not learned”, as the lackadaisical management of occupational forces in 2003 led to a sharp increase in antiquity theft.

The recent battering Iraq's antiquities have suffered at the hands of ISIL marks not only a continuation of the past but a new era of visible destruction, as criminal gangs flaunt arrogance and boastfulness on social media platforms.

In September last year the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, described ISIL's efforts as a "crude attempt to erase the heritage of an ancient civilization will ultimately fail. No terrorist can rewrite history".

In Mosul, where the damage is distinctly apparent, some 250 historic buildings have been irreparably damaged or completely razed to the ground. The new-Assyrian North-West Palace of King Ashurnasirpal, "is nothing more than a heap of rubble," as Curtis described it.

As scarring are the circulating images of ISIL attacking limestone statues inside Mosul museum last month—an incident that will be deeply etched in the communal memory of Iraqis for decades to come.

The tomb of Jonah, Ibn al-Athir and al-Bint, as well as the shrines of Ahmed Al-Rifai, Fathi al-Ka'en, Imam Ou'wm, Imam al Dor, Sayyda Zainab and Yehya Ibn al Kassim are but a few of Mosul's cultural treasures forever lost.

Iraqi archaeologist, Lamia Al-Gailani, who spent the past few years cataloguing patterns of cultural property destruction, said that fairly contemporary Shi'a shrines were ISIL's initial target, then “little by little” Sufi shrines vanished from the urban landscape, and now ancient Christian monasteries have been transformed from places of worship into detention centres.

Audible gasps and tittering echoed loudly as the audience watched in horror photo evidence of the plundered sites where mud-brick metropolises once stood proudly.

Assyriologist, Professor Al-Rawi, speaking on how to best challenge ISIL's systematic campaign of destruction, said it is noteworthy to remember that:

"Iraqi civilisation flourished due to diversity, and its multi-layered archaeological landscape bears testimony to the intermingling of civilisations…These groups seek to in-dignify and deny the existence of these civilisations".

The fact that the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage has been subsumed under the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has only aggravated the situation, Dr Farouq warned ."So long as the responsibility of protecting sites of archaeological significance remains misplaced", the problem will remain irresolvable.

One of the solutions he proposed is the “excavation of unfound antiquities”. His vision involves local grassroots and international associations working jointly on excavation projects, where each new recovery represents a miniature triumph. This, Farouq asserted, "is how we defeat ISIL, since Iraq is a constant provider of abundant cultural treasures".  

While several hurdles remain, keynote speakers and attendees proposed solutions intended to halt ISIL in their path of destruction. These included:

- Applying renewed pressure on the Iraqi government to act responsively in its duty to protect cultural sites, and on the international community to widely condemn the terror organisation.

- Calling upon the Iraqi government to fund joint excavation initiatives and restoration efforts.

- Calling upon religious clerics and Marjaiyyat to prohibit antiquity theft and cultural heritage destruction.

- Calling upon those unknown parties providing logical and financial support to criminal gangs/looters to halt funding.

- Registering and documenting ancient sites, artefacts and new discoveries according to satellite images.

- Developing an education system teaching Iraqis about the importance of cultural heritage sites and antiquities.

- Lobbying the British government to prevent further entry of stolen items from Iraq into Britain.

The question Iraq faces, however, is whether its heritage can indeed be rescued amid lawlessness, violence, and widespread destitution. The challenge is both political and cultural. Above all else, it requires state backing and unwavering commitment.

Keynote speakers agreed that if political instability continues, foreseeable rescue missions can only occupy a position of insignificance on the state's itinerary, as other pressing concerns demand more immediate action.

But as Dr Gailani cautioned "there is no quick fix", it has to be "a longer spanning project" which needs to be consistently maintained.

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