Nazli Ihsan Adil Tarzi
Last updated: 22 April, 2015

How to save Iraq’s vanishing heritage

A conference held on Saturday by the Association of Iraqi Academics – and attended by 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 on Saturday 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 beyond recognition.

UNPARALLELED artefacts and entire ancient cities have been expunged from history, and some of the most important chapters in Iraqi history have been 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.

“A thick sense of mourning, melancholia, and anger filed the lecture theatre”

Dr John Curtis emphasised that today’s tragedies illuminate a story starkly different to that in Iraq 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.

Since the group proclaiming to be a ‘Caliphate’ stormed the northern province of Mosul in June 2014, the British institute for the study of Iraq has been unable to continue working with the University of Mosul on the Ashurbanipal Library project.

“The creation of a new museum in Basra is being sponsored by a UK-based charity known as The Friends of Basra Museum. This charity is working together with the Department of Antiquities of Iraq and the Director of Basra Museum (Mr Qahtan Alabeed) to bring this project to fruition. The museum is in a former palace of Saddam Hussein, on the banks of Shatt al-Arab River” Dr. John Curtis said.

Yet ISIL, and those before them, reanimate the tale of 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 extended well into the 1990s. Unthinkable levels of desperation stimulated beneath putative sanctions lured many into the underground trade of looted antiquities. ‘Lessons’ from the past, John Curtis commented, ‘were not learned’, as 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 also a new era of visible destruction, as criminal gangs flaunt arrogance and boastfulness on social media platforms.

In September last year US secretary of state, John Kerry, described ISIL’s efforts as a “crude attempt to erase the heritage of an ancient civilization (that) will ultimately fail. No terrorist can rewrite history”.

In Mosul – where the damage is distinctively apparent – some 250 of its historic buildings have been irreparably damaged or completely razed to the ground. The site where the North-West neo-Assyrian palace of Ashurnasirpal II stood is nothing more than a heap of rubble.

Loud shrieking could be heard as images of ISIL attacking limestone statues inside of the Mosul museum from last month swooped across the interactive screen.

“The incident will remain deeply etched in the communal memory of Iraqis for decades to come”, one Iraqi confided to me.  

The tomb of Jonah, Ibn al-Athir and al-bint, as well as the shrines of Ahmed Al-Rifai, Fathi alKa’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 has spent the past few years cataloguing patterns of cultural property destruction, said that fairly contemporary Shi’i 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 photo evidence of plundered sites where mud-brick metropolises once stood proudly, confronted audience members.  

“Lackadaisical management of occupational forces in 2003 led to a sharp increase in antiquity theft”

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 multilayered archaeological landscape bears testimony to the intermingling of civilisations”.

“These groups seek to indignify 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, Farouq warned.”So long as the responsibility of protecting sites of archaeological significance remain misplaced”, the problem will remain irresolvable, he said.

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

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

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.

Key note speakers agreed that if political instability continues unabated, 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 to keep alive the memories of Iraq’s kaleidoscopic past.