Members of a French team restore the antiquities in the Mosul Museum.
March 20 marks the twentieth anniversary of the US conquest of Iraq which has devastated its people, destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, and has wreaked massive damage to its ancient and unique cultural heritage. In Iraq there are six sites designated as “World Heritage Sites” by the UN Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as well as thousands of other locations which have contributed greatly to global history, development, and culture. Wars mean UNESCO and its allies have to double efforts in their struggle to save and reclaim key sites so they will not be lost due to conflict, neglect, and pillage.
UNESCO’s head Audrey Azoulay travelled to Baghdad, Mosul and Erbil between March 6 and 9 to survey progress in the cultural organisation’s efforts to restore Iraq’s ancient treasures and reclaim the country’s heritage looted after the unprovoked, illegal 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq. In Baghdad, she visited the Iraq Museum, the repository of hundreds of thousands of artifacts from the ancient Mesopotamian civilisations which emerged in the land fed by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the land known as the “cradle of civilisation.”
The museum was looted over three days while US tanks were parked nearby after the US occupied the capital on April 9. US archaeologists, museum directors and historians had warned the George W. Bush administration — and Bush in person — that pillage could take place if the museum was left unguarded. The warnings were ignored and nothing was done to secure the Museum. Thousands of objects in the Museum’s collection of 170,000 artifacts were stolen or smashed. Fortunately, many treasures had been moved to secret bunkers and the priceless gold jewellery was stored in the vault of the central bank which had been flooded by the Tigris. UNESCO retrieved and returned nearly 17,000 artifacts in 2021; the US has returned hundreds of items stolen by its soldiers and contractors in recent years.
Azoulay’s visit was the latest by UNESCO. The organisation’s first post-US war mission arrived in Baghdad on April 9, one month after the conquest of Baghdad. The group, charged with assessing the damage at the Museum, included my close friend Iraqi archaeologist Selma al Radi who invited me to go along. The team consisted of eminent archaeologists who had worked in Iraq for many years. Accompanied by National Geographic photographers, they travelled around the country documenting the situation which was far worse than at the Museum. They found excavations, known but unexcavated sites, and sites unearthed by looters were being stripped and the history they provided was being lost.
Ahead of the war the Pentagon and Congress were told by General Eric Shinseki the number of troops needed to pacify Iraq was at least twice the 145,000 US troops ordered for the offensive by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Shinseki was ignored and retired quietly as a four-star general that June. The Bush administration compounded its stubborn destructive stand on the military front by dismissing Iraq’s civil service and demobilising the armed forces. Consequently, administrators managing Iraq’s museums and heritage sites and the police and troops protecting them were no longer in place.
Meanwhile, the lack of US occupation troops allowed al-Qaeda and its offshoots to establish themselves in the country and to recruit unemployed and angry civil servants and soldiers to fight the US occupation regime and wage war in Syria. The US military, reinforced by Sunni Iraqi forces, managed to quell the rebellion in 2007 before the bulk of US forces left the country in 2011. Nothing was done to counter the rise in Syria of al-Qaeda’s Daesh until June 2014 when its fighters surged across the border and seized control of Mosul and 40 per cent of northern Iraq. This time major Iraqi heritage sites were ravaged and excavations looted, leaving a desolate landscape. The US scrambled to recruit Western airpower and Iraqi ground troops to liberate Mosul by force, destroying large areas of the city, and savaging its magnificent monuments.
Azoulay’s second stop on her Iraq mission was Mosul which is slowly, gradually being rebuilt by its people while its cultural heritage is in the process of being rescued and repaired. UNESCO’s “Spirit of Mosul” programme, now in its fifth and final stage, has, according to its website, focused on “the rehabilitation of emblematic cultural and religious landmarks that are strongly linked to the history of Mosul and the identity of its people. [These are] Al-Nouri Mosque and its leaning Al-Hadba minaret, Al-Saa’a Convent (Conventual Church of Our Lady of the Hour) and it’s amazing bell tower, Al-Tahera Church, Al-Ekhlas School, and 124 Heritage Houses in the Old City. The reconstruction of heritage goes beyond the building of stones, it is about creating jobs, empowering the people and building hope.”
She “paid tribute” to the Iraqis who have been involved in the project. UNESCO has been partnered by the UAE in the reconstruction of iconic Al-Hadba minaret of al-Nouri mosque and the bell tower of Al-Saana Convent.
Azoulay concluded her tour in the Kurdistan autonomous region where UNESCO and its partners are rebuilding the ancient Citadel of Erbil, which dates to the 6th millennium BC, and the Erbil Archaeological Museum.
UNESCO’s work is never done. Like other countries which are heirs of ancient civilisations, all Iraq is a heritage site. Last fall, archaeologists discovered the remains of a huge 4,500-year-old palace at the location of the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu which is near the modern city of Tello in southern Iraq. The Sumerians are regarded as the inventors of civilisation. They developed writing, architecture, and governance. The ruins of the palace were discovered 140 years ago but had been abandoned for 80 years. Early excavations and conflict damaged the site but enough remnants survive to contribute to human history.
In April 2002, archaeologists working in the Daesh-destroyed ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh near Mosul discovered a locked door which had remained closed for 2,634 years. Inside was a corridor where the walls were covered in unique reliefs depicting military camps and warriors during the invasions of Mesopotamia by the Assyrian King Sennacherib. The door and its treasures were found while rebuilding one of Nineva’s gates by teams of archaeologists from the US University of Pennsylvania and Mosul.
The quest for the knowledge of the ancients is unceasing.