Decade-old unrest takes toll on Iraq's cultural heritage

Source:Xinhua Published: 2013-6-24 8:25:12

In the middle of an Iraqi northern desert, the imposing remains of the Hatra city stand forlornly in the midst of wild grass, faintly attesting to the remote glory of the Parthian Empire about 2000 years ago.

Well-known for its high walls full of inscriptions and watchtowers dotted around the fortified city, Hatra, about 110 km southwest of Mosul, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985, the first such site in Iraq.

For the past decade of unrest following the 2003 US-led war, Hatra has been suffering from inadequate excavations and maintenance and few tourists have ventured into the historic site.

"Hatra has been neglected by the Iraqi department of antiquities since 2003. Now the archeological site lacks funds needed for excavations and maintenance and there are very few archeological teams coming to work on the site," Dr. Mohammed Subhi al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi archeological researcher, told Xinhua.

Around the temples and ruined walls where Hellenistic and Roman architecture blend with Eastern decorative features, several Iraqi interior ministry policemen stood idly with rifles in hand, guarding a sprawling and virtually empty site.

"Tourists stopped visiting the site years ago because of the insecure situation in the area, even foreign archeological teams' safety cannot be ensured," a local security source who refused to be named told Xinhua.

"There aren't enough security members available to protect the Hatra archeological site, due to fears of regular attacks by armed groups, particularly al-Qaida which considers antiquities like the statues are prohibited in the Islamic law," the source said.


Iraq is home to one of the earliest civilizations. In over 5000 years, the country was bestowed with numerous historic treasures, which, as a result of the unrest in the past decade, have been afflicted by a cultural catastrophe.

In the chaos following the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, the Iraqi national museum was ransacked by looters as US soldiers just stood by and watched. An estimated 15,000 priceless antiquities were lost and only about haft of them have been recovered so far.

The museum, which houses some of the world's most precious artifacts of ancient Mesopotamia, is still not open to the public due to slow renovations amid persistent violence in the country. Only specially arranged groups are allowed to visit some renovated halls.

The looting also occurred in museums and libraries in other provinces, but more severe -- and less publicized -- damage was the destruction of Iraq's archaeological sites.

Chaos and fragile security during the post-invasion years left many historic sites in the hands of looters who carried out random excavations and stole tens of thousands of antiquities, usually causing irreversible damage, said Huda Hussein, an Iraqi female archeologist.

"The links of the antiquities to their places are evidences for the civilizations that once prevailed there, so moving them will cut the links. But of course they (the looters) don't know or they don't care, and they only care about money," she said.

At least 32,000 items were estimated to have been looted from 12,000 recognized archeological sites across Iraq since 2003. Yet for the potentially more than 100,000 sites which are undiscovered, it is impossible to reckon the actual number of stolen artifacts.

Military operations and conflicts also took a heavy toll on Iraq's cultural heritage, including the considerable damage inflicted on the historic site of Babylon by US-led coalition forces as they based their troops on the site in 2003 and 2004.

Insurgents blew up the top section of the Malwiya spiral minaret in the town of Samarra on April 1, 2005. Before the bombing attack, the 9th-century tower had been used by US troops as a lookout position.


As most of Iraq's museums and archaeological sites have been damaged or neglected and security concerns have impeded access to historic areas, an entire generation of Iraqis has been virtually denied a field trip to the country's illustrious past for the past decade.

The prolonged unrest, together with weaknesses in management, has undermined the field of archaeology and heritage conservation in Iraq.

A country enriched in archaeological resources, Iraq only has three sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Besides Hatra, the ancient cities of Ashur and Samarra joined the list in 2003 and 2007 respectively. Due to protection concerns, both of them were also put on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

In order to protect its cultural wealth, Iraq has enacted severe laws to crack down on stealing, smuggling and trading in illicit antiquities, with some punishment going as harsh as the death penalty.

The Iraqi government's campaign improved the general public's awareness of the importance of cultural protection over the years, but looting and trafficking of historic items still exist across the country, especially in remote areas where enforcement of law is mostly slack.

In recent years, the Iraqi authorities have been working with the UNESCO and other governments and NGOs to protect, restore and develop major museums and archaeological sites in the country.

Late last month, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and the Iraqi authorities signed three agreements to ensure the long-term conservation and sustainability of the architectural heritage in Samarra.

"We are committed to conserving cultural heritage in Iraq. This goes beyond physical restoration of cultural buildings, mosques. It is also about cultural identity, social cohesion and dialogue between different communities," Bokova said.

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