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Fears grow for safety of Iraq’s cultural heritage under ISIS

Iraq has a long and rich heritage, home for thousands of years to mighty empires – Assyria and Babylon, the Abbasid caliphate – that ruled the region once known as Mesopotamia, widely held as the cradle…

This Assyrian winged bull is safe in Chicago, if far from home. How much else is safe? Trjames, CC BY-SA

Iraq has a long and rich heritage, home for thousands of years to mighty empires – Assyria and Babylon, the Abbasid caliphate – that ruled the region once known as Mesopotamia, widely held as the cradle of western civilisation and as a major centre of classical Islam. The region is thick with history, and historical artefacts.

But when in June the extremist Sunni group ISIS took over swathes of northern Iraq, within a day or two of taking Mosul the group issued edicts which included orders to destroy Shiite graves and shrines and other ancient relics – orders which appear to have been carried out, with six sites destroyed. Rumour and fears over the possible fate of the region’s even more ancient cultural heritage under this heavy-handed new regime have filled the gap since.

And there is much to lose. In the desert 100km southwest of Mosul lies Hatra, an Arab city of the Roman period rather like its more famous sisters Palmyra, Petra and Baalbeck. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with fabulous stone temples and statues (the originals now mostly in the Iraq Museum).

Mosul was heartland of the Assyrian Empire, which ruled the Middle East in the first millennium BC. Huge ruin mounds of ancient cities such as Ashur, Nimrud, and Nineveh follow the course of the Tigris river from Qalaat Sherqat up to Mosul and beyond. Since the mid-19th century its palaces and temples have furnished museums worldwide with monumental stone carvings of winged bulls and lions, and scenes of military conquest. Tens of thousands of cuneiform clay tablets, the majority now in the British Museum in London or the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, provide unparallelled insight into the workings of empire nearly 3,000 years ago.

Hatra has survived 2,000 years, can it survive ISIS? Eleanor Robson, Author provided

The region is still dense with churches and monasteries from its time as a centre of Christian learning in the first millennium AD, which house important manuscript libraries as well as some of the last speakers of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and the disciples. Although the last remaining Jewish inhabitants left the region in the 1950s, the Jewish community had first settled there as deportees from Assyria in the 8th century BC.

Mosul remained important during the Islamic period too. It was a centre of resistance against the crusaders – Saladin ruled from here – and home to eminent poets, scientists and men of letters. Many medieval buildings, both secular and sacred, survive to this day.

But what do we know about these developments, what can we expect, and can and should the rest of the world do about it?

Shifting sands

It is almost impossible to get verifiable news out of Mosul at the moment. The province goes for long periods without electricity or suffers communications blackouts. It is difficult to get through to colleagues by phone or by email. ISIS itself, however, is very adept at exploiting social media. The internet is filled with claims and counterclaims which makes it almost impossible to document reliably what is really happening. However, websites such as Conflict Antiquities and Gates of Nineveh are both keeping track as best they can.

The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology has for three years documented the looting and destruction of cultural heritage in the occupied regions Iraq’s western neighbour, including a few isolated examples of iconoclastic smashing of ancient Assyrian statuary. It has been reported that sales of looted antiquities have helped to fund ISIS in Syria although, again, hard facts are hard to come by.

The understandable concern is that similar events will unfold in northern Iraq, although there is no evidence of it yet. While the experience in Syria suggests it is very likely, the historical evidence from within Iraq during the 1990s and 2000s reveals a different picture. During that time there were isolated instances of thefts from Assyrian archaeological sites for sale on the world market. Thanks to thorough archaeological documentation, however, it was possible to identify and repatriate stolen objects. Likewise, in the current situation, documented artefacts from museums and archaeological sites could all be potentially identified and recoverable if they were looted and smuggled out of the country.

But objects dug from as yet unexcavated sites are much harder to provenance. The tragedy is that however many thousands of artefacts are found attractive and durable enough for sale to make the pillaging worthwhile, many many more – and all of their archaeological context – will have been irreversibly destroyed in the process. The remoteness of desert sites in southern Iraq meant it was relatively straightforward to dig for Sumerian and Babylonian antiquities in the 1990s and 2000s. However, the Assyrian sites of northern Iraq have remained relatively untouched, so far.

Protect the past for the future

But 2014 is not 1991 or 2003, and ultimately it is impossible to predict what will happen. International treaties such the 1970 UNESCO convention against the illicit sale of cultural property,supported by national legislation, have drastically curtailed worldwide sales of Iraqi antiquities in the past ten years. But this has also driven the market underground, from where it is even harder to track stolen artefacts.

Why should we care about the fate of a few ancient statues and buildings? Is it not a first world indulgence to worry about preserving culture while people suffer and die? On the contrary, culture and people are inseparable: it is individuals and communities who create culture, culture that brings people together in meaningful, creative and constructive ways. Culture is the glue that holds societies together. It is a fundamental part of being human, living together.

We all have a duty to protect and celebrate Iraq’s multi-faceted cultural heritage, now and for future generations. It matters deeply to many Iraqis – and to many of the rest of us – and its fate cannot be separated from the human tragedy that is currently unfolding.

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13 Comments sorted by

  1. Thomas Goodey

    Researcher

    This situation (which could have been predicted decades ago) gives the eloquent reason why cultural objects, important for the entire human race (not just some arbitrary division of it) should be kept safe in civilized countries. The recent practice of returning them to their now-fleabitten countries of origin is to be utterly deprecated. Rather, the rest of them should be brought over, when possible.

    This argument applies eloquently to the Elgin Marbles.

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    1. Eleanor Robson

      Reader in Ancient Near Eastern History at University College London

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      So "we" should denude Iraq of the richness of its cultural heritage, which is so dear to the people who live there? That would save ISIS the bother, wouldn't it? Who are you—who is anybody—to decide who is "civilised" and who isn't?

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    2. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Eleanor Robson

      Yes, we were right to do a lot of denuding in the past, and it would be a good idea to do a lot more denuding. The idea that the cultural heritage is "dear" to the people who live there is laughable. The entire point of this article, which YOU wrote, is that the people who live there are quite probably going to trash the cultural heritage out for religious reasons (perhaps selling some of it on the black market, we may hope).

      The big difference from ISIS is that they wish to destroy the heritage; we wish to save it. Don't you get it?

      I am civilized - that's why I am one of those to decide who is civilized and who isn't.

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    3. Waaat About

      Student

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Maybe if the UK didn't betray Assyrians after WWI, there would be people to take care of these important items. Unfortunately, these objects were left in the hands of Muslim Arabs and Kurds who have no appreciation for these types of things since it's not their history(Iraq is a fake state after all, like much of the Middle East).

      I partially agree with you that these items should be brought over as well, since most Assyrians live in the West now(300,000 left in Iraq). Arabs and Kurds will just destroy them.

      Eleanor, it's not Iraq's history. Rather, it's the history of Assyrians(also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs), Mandeans, and the Jewish communities that used to live in Mesopotamia.

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    4. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Waaat About

      Maybe... and maybe not. Maybe if the Assyrians had not been betrayed (this is a counterfactual conditional, so essentially meaningless), they would have all remained in their homeland cherishing all their wonderful old cultural objects. Or maybe they would have flogged them off to the first bidder or destroyed them, as all the other peoples in that benighted part of the world do. We can't know.

      I disagree that all this stuff is "Iraq's history". It's everybody's history. Indeed Iraq didn't exist a century ago. An Iraqi person nowadays has no right to demand special consideration with respect to something that somebody in the same area made three thousand years ago, i.e. about a hundred and fifty generations ago (irrespective of whether that person was in fact his ancestor or not). In fact, if he did, he would be perfectly entitled to say "well, we'll smash it all" - just as you are entitled to buy an expensive vase from Harrods and destroy it, if you like.

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    5. Waaat About

      Student

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      You're stereotyping a whole region because of a few countries. As far as I'm aware, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and even Turkey(post Armenian/Assyrian/Greek Genocide) preserved their historical buildings/artifacts regardless if it was pagan, Christian, Zoroastrian, etc.

      If you knew anything about Assyrians, Coptic Egyptians, Lebanese Christians, and Armenians, you would know that all these groups are very proud of their pre-Christian contributions to the world. It's always Muslims(not all Muslims) that…

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    6. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Waaat About

      All those countries in the Middle East are Muslim-majority, so you have defeated your own argument.

      But the point goes much deeper than the good Muslim / bad Muslim dichotomy. We are talking preservation over the long term. You have no idea what's going to happen in the Middle Eastern countries during the next hundred years, except that you can be sure of one thing: they are not stable. A new Mahdi may arise; an entirely new lunatic religion or other belief system may arise. (It could be argued that one just has.) In any case, they are patently not responsible enough to be entrusted with important parts of the cultural heritage of all humanity, nor are they likely to be in the foreseeable future.

      As for Pakistan, it wasn't Pakistan that destroyed the Buddha-statues. It was the Taliban of Afghanistan.

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    7. Waaat About

      Student

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      I know they're Muslim. Thanks for enlightening me.

      They've had different situations.
      Turkey=mass secularization in the 20's.
      Iran= their history has shown that they have a predisposition to multiculturalism.
      Lebanon=majority Christian up until the invasion by Syria, Israel, and Iran. Their culture is reflective of how the country was founded.
      Syria(and previously Iraq)=Baathism focused on ethnicity and nationalism. Therefore, religion was not the most important issue for the people or even brought…

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    8. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Waaat About

      You are not grasping my point. I am not implying that anyone in the region will AUTOMATICALLY NOT care about their historical landmarks. I am implying that any particular group in the region MAY IN THE MEDIUM-TERM FUTURE not care about their historical landmarks. And I am pointing out that the current track record is not encouraging.

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    9. Waaat About

      Student

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      When you said, "Or maybe they would have flogged them off to the first bidder or destroyed them, as all the other peoples in that benighted part of the world do," you were making a crass generalization about a whole region and its peoples.

      Anyway, I get what you mean now. You can't just uproot these old buildings though. It's not possible to lift Hatra, the ruins of Nineveh, Mor Gabriel Monastery, etc. and bring them somewhere else with out some damage. Maybe if the UN actually did something(like give Assyrians autonomy/independence), we wouldn't be having this problem.

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    10. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Waaat About

      Yes, of course. Man is a generalizing animal.

      I agree that we can't very well move the buildings away. They just have to take their chance.

      It's not the job of the UN to give autonomy/independence to anybody. The function of the UN is quite different.

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    11. catriona macleod

      ms

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      yes what defines civilization?Not democracy. the uk for instance isn't ruled by democratic process - the house of lords is not a democratic institution, but a life peerage for political favours market. Britain subsidizes the royal family in strings of palaces while its working poor, unemployed,disabled and other targets are villified in presses owned by millionaires.Britain and other western countries invaded iraq to destroy weapons that weren't there,despite protests by 100s of thousands- there they murdered,tortured and raped iraqis.

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    12. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to catriona macleod

      The UK is a civilized country, and it is a reasonably democratic country, but it is not a democracy and it is not a republic - it is a constitutional monarchy with an unelected second chamber. I am sure you know all this really. Foreign adventures are beside the point.

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