Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iraq: Groups Take Steps To Spare Cultural Heritage

By Vladimir Abarinov and Irina Lagunina

Iraq's historical and archeological treasures are under threat because of the war. A number of prominent institutions around the world have issued a joint declaration saying the significance of the monuments and treasures of Iraq -- the site of ancient Mesopotamia -- imposes an obligation on everyone to protect them. RFE/RL spoke to experts about how these sites can be saved.

Prague, 28 March 2008 (RFE/RL) -- Several leading archeological and historical institutions have issued a joint declaration to ensure the war in Iraq does not lead to the destruction of that country's monuments, museums, and archaeological sites.

The declaration states the significance of Iraq's cultural heritage as the site of ancient Mesopotamia and says all peoples and governments have an obligation to protect it. It goes on to say that heritage is now in grave danger.

McGuire Gibson is a professor at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad. He explained the significance of ancient Mesopotamia to modern man. "It's the beginning even of our own traditions. Civilization begins there and many of the things that were put in place -- ideas about what a king does, ideas of what are the relations of the governor to the governed, ideas of what constitutes literature, the relationship of people to God, many, many basic ideas on ethics -- these things started in Mesopotamia and then spread from there. And they go in both directions. They go both west and east. So, they form the core of our own Western tradition, they also form the core of Eastern tradition," Gibson told RFE/RL.

The history of Mesopotamia -- the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers -- goes back some 5,500 years. Mesopotamian society brought to life the notion of cities, public structures, law, and culture.

Nearly 4,000 years ago, the Sumerian King Hammurabi created a code for the old Babylonian empire. The code included modern legal notions such as economic and family law, as well as prohibitions against assault and theft.

It was in Iraq, in the city of Nineveh, that scientists found the text of the first known piece of literature. It is the Gilgamesh epic written around 4,000 years ago. The epic tells the story of the days before a great flood.

Does anyone know how many historical sites may be in Iraq?

"There are hundreds of thousands of sites in Iraq," Gibson said. "I mean there is no way that we could ever discover them all. There are sites everywhere you look. Ninety-nine percent of all the hills that you see in southern Iraq are ancient sites. There are no natural hills in southern Iraq between the two rivers. So, any hill that you see is a site. And there are many, many sites that are very tiny or that are not hills at all, they are just flat."

Zainab Bahrani is an associate professor of art history and archaeology at New York's Columbia University. He told RFE/RL: "There are about 10,000 archaeological sites in Iraq. But there has not been enough time to excavate all of them. And so there is a real wealth of information that we can still get from doing research in this area. In the museums there are thousands of texts that have not been read yet. Texts in the ancient cuneiform scripts that the Babylonians and the Assyrians used. And work needs to be done on those. There are also all these standing monuments that are important, the Medieval monuments in Baghdad and Mosul. We have some of the earliest Christian churches in the world in the north of Iraq, for example."

In January this year, scientists provided the Pentagon with a list of more than 4,000 sites that should be avoided in the event of war.

Professor Gibson participated in the meeting. He said the Pentagon is committed to sparing Iraq's cultural heritage.

"We delivered a list of over 4,000 sites to the Pentagon so that they can avoid them if possible in the war. And they have in fact taken all this. I know that they have fed that into their databases and they've made a commitment to try to avoid as many archaeological sites as possible. And they know that there are many, many more of those sites. They have also given a general order that soldiers are not to take off any of those sites or to be digging into sites and digging things off them," Gibson said.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the sites are safe.

In the 1991 Gulf War, the Pentagon was also provided with a map of objects of historic importance. The U.S. military knew it should not bomb the National Museum in Baghdad, for example. And, in fact, the military did not bomb the museum in spite of the fact the Iraqi regime had parked military aircraft around the building.

What U.S. forces did not know was that the Iraqi government earlier ordered that the museum's collection be moved to the Central Bank. Unfortunately, the Central Bank did come under fire and some treasures were lost.

Cultural objects are protected under international law by the 1954 Hague convention on cultural property. It calls on all parties to a conflict not to harm and or use weapons against objects of great historical value.

Three Serbian commanders are now indicted in The Hague war crimes tribunal for breaking these rules in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik. This now constitutes a precedent in the law.

If the Iraqi regime chooses to use the sites as a safe haven for military equipment, it loses its rights under the Hague convention.

Professor Bahrani said the Iraqi regime's attitude toward protecting historical sites has been "quite good."

"They've done a good job in protecting sites up until now, especially [during] the 1991 Gulf war. After instating the [UN economic] embargo, it became more difficult for them to protect the sites. So, some damages occurred and places were looted. There were robbers coming in and practicing illicit excavations and that kind of thing. But in general the policy of the current Iraqi regime with regard to antiquities has been quite good," Bahrani said.

Gibson said one explanation may be that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sees himself as part of a long line of great men descended from ancient Mesopotamia and takes pride in preserving this legacy. "A lot of the presentation of the regime has used antiquity to legitimize itself. And it is showing Saddam in relation to the great leaders of the past. And so a lot of money has been expended in archaeology. And they also know that when the oil stops, tourism is still going to be a very big source of funding for that country. And if you let these sites be destroyed, you actually, you are destroying your future," he said.

Despite the relatively good protection, valuable sites in Babylon, Nimrud, and Nineveh have suffered from plunder by various organized criminal groups in the past 10 years. Those networks involved some 200 to 300 looters who delivered Sumerian objects to antiquity shops in the West.

Experts say halting the destruction of war is only part of battle to preserve the country's heritage, and that long after the bombs stop, that fight will continue.