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The destruction of culture in Iraq has been enormous; now conservation must be a priority

We can help by providing training in site management techniques, in museology and in conservation

One of the biggest casualties of the war in Iraq has been the cultural heritage. This is all the more regrettable because both before, during and after the war many warnings were issued to the coalition troops urging them to respect and safeguard the cultural heritage of this uniquely endowed country. Iraq has often and with every justification been described as the cradle of civilisation. Writing was invented here in about 3,000 BC, and the great civilisations of Sumer, Babylonia and Assyria spawned kings who have become household names in the west: Hammurabi, who introduced the world’s first law-code, Nebuchadnezzar who made Babylon one of the seven wonders of the world, and Sennacherib who “came down like a wolf on the fold”. In the Islamic period, the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid became the hero of many stories in the Arabian Nights. Iraq has indeed a rich history, and there are so many ancient settlements that the country is a vast archaeological site. Special care and attention were needed to deal with this rich and delicate heritage. Sadly, they were not forthcoming.

The first blow was to the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. After coalition troops had captured the city in April 2003 the museum was left unguarded and an orgy of theft and destruction broke out. Some 40 well known objects that had been left behind in the galleries when other things were packed up before the war were stolen, and about 14,000 objects were removed when the storerooms were broken into. In addition cases were smashed, and every office in the building was vandalised. Some material has been recovered, both within Iraq and abroad, but it is estimated that around 8,000 objects are still missing. This figure includes some iconical pieces such as the ivory plaque showing a lioness devouring an African and half of the valuable collection of 10,000 seals.

Archaeological sites fared no better. There was extensive looting which may yet continue at many sites in the area to the south of Baghdad, and important sites such as Isin and Umma are now pock-marked with holes and craters. This did not happen to Babylon, but a different fate awaited it. Straight after the war a military camp was established here which grew in size until it accommodated 2,000 soldiers. The camp is right in the centre of the ancient site, and, although none of the damage was willful, it is quite impossible to establish a military camp on a sensitive archaeological site without causing considerable damage. Large areas of the surface have been covered with gravel, sometimes compacted and chemically treated, trenches have been dug through archaeological deposits, surface soil has been scooped up to fill sandbags, and some of the dragon figures in the Ishtar Gate have been damaged. In addition to all this, fuel leakages and the movements of helicopters and heavy goods vehicles around the site will have caused damage that cannot yet be qualified or quantified. Future generations of archaeologists will sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon. Nor is this damage confined to the south of the country. Thus, the Assyrian reliefs in Sennacherib’s Palace at Nineveh, stripped of their protective roof covering, have largely disintegrated. Now we hear that the ancient mound at Kish has been turned into an observation post and that coalition snipers are positioned in the helicoidal minaret at Samarra (see p.7).

This damage to the Iraqi cultural heritage is particularly distressing because for many years, up until 1990, Iraq had without doubt the best record in the region for protecting its cultural heritage. It is true that after 1990 and the imposition of sanctions there were insufficient resources to look after it properly, and it is also true that Saddam ruthlessly exploited it for his own purposes, but at least the importance was understood of promoting the idea of an Iraqi cultural identity. Now, more than ever, when the country is on the brink of fragmentation, is a cultural identity needed, and the cultural heritage of the country can help to provide that. It is both regrettable and surprising that it has not been better safeguarded in the last two years.

So much for what has happened. It is important now to look to the future and offer constructive suggestions. First, the Coalition should provide every assistance to the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to enable them to continue with the good work that they have already started, assisted by various advisers to the Ministry of Culture. We can help by providing training in site management techniques, in museology and in conservation. We can go further, and send an international team of conservators to Baghdad to undertake remedial work, provided of course that such an initiative would be welcomed by the Iraqis. Also, we can ask that the process of handing over responsibility for protecting all sites and monuments to the police officers of the Iraq facility protection service be accelerated.

And the Iraqi government should be urged to request that Babylon and other internationally acclaimed places should be nominated as World Heritage sites. Above all, there must be a recognition that cultural heritage is not a dispensable resource, and it deserves to be better looked after in the future than it has been in the recent past.

The writer is keeper of the Department of the Ancient Near East at the British Museum, London.