What can you do? Sharing knowledge about Iraq’s vanishing cultural heritage

Alex NagelArticle, Report8 Comments

al-Qubba-Husseiniya-Mosul

A public panel, “The Implications of the Current Fighting for Iraq’s Cultural Heritage” was held on Friday evening, July 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. The panel was organized by the Iraqi Cultural Center (ICC), the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq (TAARII). The following is a report of the presentations.

The goal of this panel was to focus on the current situation in Iraq, particularly on the cultural impact of the fighting which broke out in the beginning of 2014. From the beginning it was clear that the implications for the future of Iraq’s cultural heritage are a major concern. In a packed room of approximately 80 people, Jabbar Jaffar (ICC) moderated the panel discussion.

The first speaker was Abdulameer Al-Dafar al-Hamdani, a member of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. ISIS has been gaining control over much of the north-western and western parts of Iraq, an area that includes approximately 4,000 important cultural heritage sites that are in immediate danger of being lost. In the Nineveh province these include the important sites of Ashur and Nimrud, Nineveh in Mosul, and the Mosul Museum. According to his information, because of security concerns and lack of guards, staff cannot check in on the sites, leaving many of the sites and institutions open for looters. We should be deeply concerned about Hatra, because of its isolation, and because the area has been used as a camp for ISIS training.

ISIS destroyed shrines

5 Beautiful Historic Shrines Destroyed Forever by Militants in Iraq (AP)

The al-Askari shrine in Samarra, which was attacked in 2006, has become a target again. Among the shrines and tombs that have been destroyed (partly by bulldozers), are the tomb of the Mosul scholar and historian al-Jazari (1160-1233), the Tomb of Jonah on the Eastern side of Mosul, the shrine of Sheikh Fathi, the golden dome of the Shiite’s Saad bin Aqeel Husseiniya shrine, and the shrine of Imam Sultan bin Asim Abdullah ibn Umar, southeast of Mosul. Yesterday, two shrines in the Basheer village, some 15km south of Kirkuk were destroyed. Destruction is not limited to sites of Sunnite or Shiite worship.

Modern statues that have been targeted or destroyed include the statue of the poet Abu Tamman (c. 788-845) and the statue of the 19th century composer Othman al-Mousuli. Among other places of worship already destroyed are the Al-Jawad Husseiniya mosque in Tal Afar and the Al-Qubba Husseiniya mosque in Mosul, both important sites for Shiites. Eleven sites of Christian worship have been destroyed including the Chaldean archdiocese. A statue of the Virgin Mary in a church in Mosul was also destroyed. There are expectations that more is to come. Among the libraries lost is the Diyala Province Library where some 1,500 books were burned.

Mr. al-Hamdani ended his presentation with a call for cooperation from the international community. There are many legal frameworks and international protocols that prevent stolen artefacts from leaving the country. Iraq needs support from the surrounding countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, but it also needs the help of dealers, collectors, and museums .They must pay particular attention to stopping the illicit trade in materials. We all must work together, as protecting Iraqi cultural heritage– the memory of humankind– is a global issue. On Wednesday, an official Iraq delegation asked UNESCO for immediate help.

The second speaker was Dr. Katharyn Hanson, Program Director for the Archaeological Site Preservation Program at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil, Iraq. In her work, Dr. Hanson combines archaeology, remote sensing, and cultural heritage policy. Throughout her presentation, Dr. Hanson stressed the role of satellite images in documenting the ongoing looting of sites.  Dr. Hanson focused on the risks of (1) unregulated building activities, (2) damage caused by armed conflict, (3) targeted destruction and intentional damage, and (4) looting. Unregulated building activities were witnessed at Nineveh in 2005 and in Syria’s Dead Cities, which became a refugee crisis camp. Dr. Hanson spoke of other sites in Syria, including Palmyra, the crusader castle of Crac de Chevaliers in the western part of the nation, and Aleppo where damage was witnessed on a weekly basis in March 2013. Via the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) it is possible to assess images of the destruction. She addressed the situation at Tel Jifar, east of Apamea in Syria, which is now topped with a military garrison and where images show looting holes on the site.

In her report on looting, Dr. Hanson began with the looting of the Iraq Museum on April 10, 2003 and introduced the site of Umma, where some 18,000 looting pits have been identified via satellite imagery since 2003. Turning again to Syria, Dr. Hanson spoke about Apamea, where more than 15,000 looting pits have been identified. At this point, Dr. Hanson referred to the important role of the public media, which can help connect the links between looting and terrorism. The International Business Times and The Guardian reported on “How an arrest in Iraq revealed ISIS’s $2billion network.” Dr. Hanson stressed that the media has the power to reveal the fact that stolen artifacts are used to raise money for terrorist organizations.

The vast amount of money that can be raised through selling antiquities was illustrated by the case of the notorious Elamite lion goddess, which sold for $57.2 million at Sotheby’s auction house in December 2007.

Dr. Hanson then asked “What can we do?” Much of the looted material is still hidden at this point, but collections, dealers, and museums will eventually acquire these objects.

ISIS destroying mosques

Destruction of places of worship across northern Iraq, in areas recently taken over by extremist militants.(AP)

Therefore, Dr. Hanson stated, “Go to museums and private collectors, and ask – if the label does not say so—where an object is from! We need to decrease the demand in museums.”

Finally, Dr. Hanson stressed the role of the Blue Shield Organization, and mentioned current initiatives directed by the Penn Cultural Heritage Centre and the Smithsonian Institution, working in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other institutions. She also mentioned the effectiveness of the implementation of the UN Resolution 1483. Regarding Iraq’s antiquities laws, in 1926, it passed one of the best laws safeguarding antiquities (No. 40), and more recently in 2001, it added Law No. 55. The 1954 Hague convention addresses the protection of cultural, scientific, and artistic works during warfare. Iraq became a signatory in 1967. There are also US laws that specifically ban the import of such works.

The final speaker was Brian Michael Lione, Executive Director of University of Delaware Programs at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH) in Erbil, Iraq which was first funded by the U.S. government and officially opened in 2010. Mr. Lione introduced the IICAH and provided a brief history of its activities. He focused on the collaboration of people and networks  and asked the audience to spread information about the Institute. The students at the Iraqi Institute at Erbil are diverse and represent all of Iraq. Typically, there are about 10 students per class. The first classes took place before the official opening in 2009. Approximately 200 students have attended the program since its opening. Courses focus on (1) archaeological site protection, (2) architectural site preservation and conservation of built heritage, and (3) collections care and conservation. Students also have the chance to study English. Outreach and expansion are major components, and several international institutions have become partners. A new course “Skills for Heritage Preservation” is planned for the fall 2014.

The panel presentations were followed by a Q&A session. Mr. Jaffar opened with questions to the panelists. “What have you as subject matter experts done to help?” Dr. Hanson was quick in replying. “Not enough!” The global scholarly community needs to be involved. Mr. Jaffar then asked, “With the military might of international community, why didn’t you stop ISIS before it started?” Questions from the audience addressed the role of the media and provided suggestions on how these reports of destruction might reach the press more easily as conflicts involving the protection of cultural heritage are still only marginally covered in international media.

One member of the audience asked about the particular role of the media in boosting ISIS. Recent reports have expressed doubt about the true extent of destruction. Mr. al-Hamdani said that he is in touch with colleagues in Mosul on a daily basis. Another audience member referred to the inspirational role of the “Monuments Men”. Dr. Hanson noted that while she understands the aesthetic appeal of many of the objects that are being looted, it is the context that we need to care about first, as looting destroys the only information we have about the origin of these works. According to Mr. al-Hamdani, it is clear that those who demand these artifacts share equal blame with ISIS which profits from their sale. Mr. al-Hamdani therefore asked Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey– the countries surrounding Iraq– to help with the problems, and noted the responsibility of the international community, particular dealers, collectors and museums.

The evening panel was a reminder for all of us to think about how we as individuals can help. The main task is to increase public awareness of the situation. The Iraqi State Board of Antiquities is in a difficult situation and needs your help spreading the word out about a growing disaster. Time is crucial as there is new damage every day. Our world cultural heritage is at stake.


Note: Please also view the discussion on twitter: #ICHP and 2009 report on the Mosul Museum

The following two tabs change content below.

Alex Nagel

Alex Nagel is a Research Associate in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. From 2010 to 2013, he was Assistant Curator of Ancient Near East in the Smithsonian's Freer|Sackler Gallery. He has been involved in field work in Germany, Greece and Iran. His interests include engaging the public in understanding the complexity of the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the Mediterranean, Egypt, Arabia and the Middle East.

8 Comments on “What can you do? Sharing knowledge about Iraq’s vanishing cultural heritage”

  1. Keri Douglas

    Great article! Thank you for sharing. Really appreciate the note about context over aesthetics.

    “Dr. Hanson noted that while she understands the aesthetic appeal of many of the objects that are being looted, it is the context that we need to care about first, as looting destroys the only information we have about the origin of these works.”

    Context will ensure knowledge is shared in the future and, hopefully, a more peaceful future.

  2. Gary Poyssick

    I am just curious, but how many Christian sites were being tracked and are now destroyed – along with the ancient peoples occupying the areas since long before the prophet Mohammed was born? There seems to be a lot of interest in Islamic sites – both as targets of destruction at the hands of religious fanatics and as the most important ancient sites.

    They are not the only sites and the destruction of Christian sites – far older and still populated by believers in their faith. Until the religion of peace decided they needed to destroy their heritage, convert to Islam, pay the tax, or die.

    What is happening to our heritage is islam. It is a cancer eating our heritage and hungry for our future. The laws preventing looting and collection will result in nobody ever seeing them again. I hope we took pictures.

    gary poyssick

  3. Tsoni Tsonev

    There is little to be done because militant religious groups are hostile towards Cultural Heritage of any kind. Only after settling down the conflict much efforts would be needed to save what has been left…These are grim realities.

  4. Saba

    As a matter of fact,it is impossible to bring life to a lifeless body, any operation or effort will be in vain.Iraq is no longer exist. Unfortunately Iraq has died together with all of its history and the details of its civilization.Mesopotamia has gone!

    1. Jane Moon

      Bodies can die, but not the soul. Many fine monuments are lost, it is true. But history is information, and that cannot die unless we allow it to. Iraq’s history, its place in the birth of civilization, none of that is dead, and we can keep spreading information about that and educating people. Properly educated people do not do the things ISIS is doing.
      We can also do we my team is doing, which is to go on excavating and researching in areas where this is possible at the moment, and discovering new artefacts and new information, and telling everyone about it. Read about work near the amazing city of Ur at http://www.urarchaeology.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *