War & Conflict

Archeologists and lawyers are urging the US government to take account of historic sites in Iraq as the military draws up its strategy

Iraq’s history is our history too

Collectors, curators, lawyers and art patrons, are urging the US government to take historic sites in Iraq into account as the military map out possible scenarios for attack and occupation. Specialists concerned about potential threats to the thousands of archaeological sites scattered throughout Iraq are supplying maps and other information to the Defense Department.

The initiative, coordinated by Arthur Houghton, a Middle East specialist and former antiquities curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is an attempt to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage following the US government’s initial disregard for archaeological sites during the 1991 Gulf War.

The allies began bombing in January 1991. In February, The Art Newspaper (No.4 pp. 1-2) ran an article enumerating Iraq’s most important architectural monuments and archaeological sites and pointing out, on the basis of information supplied by the Pentagon, that most were close to, or even in the midst of, military installations or factories producing weapons of mass destruction.

It was not until March that the Defense Department sought out information from archaeologists with experience in the field. The request came after a letter appeared in the Washington Post deploring the military’s seeming indifference to the heritage of the country it was bombing.

Experts estimate that the number of archaeological sites in Iraq could be anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000. They warn that these sites face a greater risk than they did 10 years ago because of the greater American determination to topple the regime.

Government officials say that precision weapons reduce any threat to the cultural heritage but archaeologists and others point to the toll on historic sites of Iraq’s long war with Iran, the aftermath of Desert Storm in 1991, and the prospect of an attack followed by a period of lawlessness and possible partition.


The current belief is that an invasion of Iraq will begin with an enormous blast, probably in Baghdad. The Defense Department will not discuss tactics, but any huge attack on an urban target raises fears of high civilian casualties, as well as damage to nearby museums, mosques or monuments, of which there are many.

Archaeological sites are likely to be more protected, simply because many of them are underground. Yet even buried remains are at risk, especially in the south, if there is a land invasion. “Based on the last Desert Storm, if a battle plan involved an invasion from Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, then there would certainly be a likelihood of emplacement or trenching in sites. In southern Iraq, the highest ground is often on top of archaeological sites. If you have bulldozers creating earthworks on these sites, that’s going to destroy things,” says John Malcolm Russell, an archaeologist at the Massachusetts College of Art and author of The Final Sack of Nineveh.

Tell Lahm is one such site in the south that was damaged during Desert Storm and could lie in the path of another invasion.


If war is likely to endanger the cultural heritage, the aftermath could be much worse, say archaeologists. In the absence of a functioning government, looters move in. Objects taken out of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad (to make room for objects looted from Kuwait) and sent to museums in Kirkuk, Mosul, and Basra were looted after US troops routed the Iraqi army in 1991. On sites in Kurdistan, illegal excavation has been taking place quite openly.

Neglect has taken a rapid toll in Iraq. “A lot of things tin store in museums have been destroyed”, says Professor Russell: “It’s been catastrophic, but nothing so dramatic as a bomb hitting a museum; more like the contents of a museum deteriorating in water”.

US policy and the conduct of war

The US observes the Hague Convention of 1954, which prohibits the targeting of cultural and religious sites in war, even though Washington never ratified the accord, partly to retain its option to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union.

During the Gulf War, US adherence to that policy was tested when Iraqi forces placed two fighter aircraft near the ziggurat at Ur, long thought to be the oldest city in the world, and which did sustain some damage during Desert Storm, archaeologists say.

The decision by US Air Force lawyers, who advised the military command, was not to strike at the aeroplanes, because they were not being used and because the site could have been damaged, says Scott Silliman, a law professor at Duke University who worked on the targeting of sites while serving as an Air Force lawyer during Desert Storm.

Precision-guided weapons enhance the US capacity to target military sites while avoiding “collateral damage” to people or property, says Professor Silliman.

“The public is generally unaware of the elaborate procedure involved in military targeting, but there is no requirement in law that, just because we have precision guided missiles, we must use them.

The law also allows us to use ‘dumb bombs’. But the law does contain specific protection for cultural monuments. They are not in any way to be targeted unless the enemy is shown to be using them as cover,” says Professor Silliman.

“Are we saying that there’s nowhere in Iraq that can be bombed without causing some kind of damage to cultural monuments? That creates an impossible scenario. But wherever there is an identified monument or cultural facility, then there will be a conscious effort not to damage it”.

Professor Silliman cites the US involvement in the 1991 Gulf War as showing how a country can fight according to international law: “That’s where you had attorneys deployed in the area of responsibility, involved in targeting as never before. That really set the example; the US is not going to go back on this.”

Yet the Hague Convention does not guarantee the “civilised” waging of war by all parties, nor did it ensure that when targeting Iraqi sites in 1991, US commanders had all the archaeological information they needed to know which sites to avoid.

So far, no independent assessment of any damage caused to historic sites in the 1991 conflict has been made, partly because the UN Security Council, led by the US and Great Britain, blocked an Iraqi appeal for a Unesco commission to conduct it. “It would have been bad publicity, probably,” says Professor Russell.

The future of Iraq’s heritage

The American Council for Cultural Policy takes no position on whether or not the US should invade Iraq, but the group is offering assistance in an eventual rebuilding of Iraq’s cultural institutions.

Founded by former Metropolitan Museum of Art lawyer Ashton Hawkins, the ACCP is also asking other groups to join it in its efforts.

The ACCP talks about working with the Iraqi Antiquities Service to rebuild cultural institutions after any new invasion. The Antiquities Service lost one generation in the 10-year Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and another to the purges and scarcity of the 1990s. But Saddam Hussein does see the nationalistic benefits of an antiquities policy, and has been funding the department more generously in recent years. US archaeologists see restoring control of cultural sites to Iraqi specialists as a sign of US willingness to allow at least some autonomy for a conquered nation that George Bush says needs “de-nazification”.

Thousands of sites remain to be studied.“There is no history of this part of the world without archaeology,” says one American archaeologist, who, like most of his peers, opposes a US invasion. “Everything we know about Mesopotamian history, about Egyptian history, comes from archaeological investigations. Without the things from those sites, we wouldn’t know anything about the human past. If we consider that those people’s stories might help me to understand my society, then it’s unthinkable to destroy them. But that’s not a connection many people make. “

Cultural sites in Iraq

1. Ninevah and Khorsabad Assyrian capitals

2. Mosul Important museum containing Assyrian and Islamic items, Ommayad mosque, Mujahidi mosque, mosque to Prophet Jonas, mosque to Prophet Jerjis, Palace of Qara Sarai. Bombed Nearby army base, air base, Saad-16 missile site, chemical weapons and nuclear centre bombed 1991.

3. Ashur Assyrian capital 10 miles south of Nimrud

4. Nimrud Assyrian capital near Makhmur.

5. Arbil Ancient Roman town of Arbela, continuously inhabited for 5000 years or more.

6. Dukan

7. Makhmur

8. Kirkuk Supposedly site of the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel. Important Ottoman castle. Nearby command centre, army base, air base, large oil refinery bombed 1991.

9. Baija Important unexcavated archaeological remains l40 miles north of Baghdad. Nearby centre for production of feedstocks for chemical weapons (phosphoric acid) bombed 1991.

10. Tikrit Saddam Hussein’s home town with important old citadel. Nearby air base, army base missile site bombed 1991.

11. Samarra 70 miles north of Baghdad. Northern capital of Caliph Al-Mutasim, built 836. Ancient town extends along Tigris for 20 miles. Great Mosque, Ma’shouq Palace, Caliph’s residence, Abu Duluf mosque, Askari Tomb. Nearby main Iraqi chemical research complex and production plant (mustard, Sarin and Tabun gasses); major bridge, and main north/south artery road bombed 1991.

12. Haditha Near Anah with Babylonian inscriptions and Assyrian minaret. Nearby missile site, air base, chemical weapons complex and major new dam bombed 1991.

13. Al Ramadi Ancient town of Heet on Euphrates.

14. Al Fallujah Ancient site with cuneiform tablets drawn by Pellugto. Ruins of pre-Islamic Anbar, most important city in Iraq after Ctesiphon in 363. Capital of Abbasid dynasty in 752. Nearby chemical research complex producing feedstocks (including phosphorous) bombed 1991.

15. Baghdad World famous National Museum of Antiquities, Abbasid Palace, Mustansiriyah college (possibly oldest university in world), Martyr’s Mosque, Archaeological sites of Jemdat Nasr and Abu Salabikh. Bombed 1991 because of operation, command and communication centre, presidential palace, major airbases and laboratory specialising in biological warfare.

16. Al-Iskandriyah l00 miles south of Baghdad.

17. Musayyib l30 miles south of Baghdad.

18. Kerbala Shi’a shrine to Imam Al-Hussein, most renowned of Iraq’s Islamic sacred attractions. 60 miles south of Baghdad, 45 miles from Najaf and 30 miles from Al Hillah. Nearby chemical weapons plant and rocket, missile programme and test range for missiles bombed 1991.

19. Babylon Nebuchadnezzor and Alexander the Great’s capital 60 miles south of Baghdad. Borsippa Ruined city eight miles from Babylon. Kish Biblical site. Capital of King Sargon, founder of first Mesopotamian Empire.

20. Al Hillah

21. Nippur Major religious centre of third and second millennia about 40 miles from Al Hillah and Najaf.

22. Najaf Most important Shi’a shrine to Ali Ibn Abi Talib. One of Islamic world’s principal centres of instruction. Chemical weapons facilities bombed 1991.

23. Uruk Sumerian city, 4000 BC.

24. Ur Iraq’s most famous site, perhaps earliest city in the world. Sumerian city at height 3500-4000 BC. Major airbase of Tallil and radar centre, bombed 1991.

25. Basra Al Qurna said to be site of Garden of Eden with Adam’s tree. Shrines dating back to early days of Islam suffered extensive damage during war with Iran. Nearby naval and air bases, oil refinery, chemical weapons research complex and plant bombed 1991.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Iraq’s history is our history too'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 130 November 2002