The wanton destruction of ancient sites overrun by the Islamic State (ISIS) after it swept into Iraq in 2014 is worse than first feared, according to Iraqi officials who are appealing for international assistance to salvage the country’s archaeological heritage.
Qais Rasheed, Iraq’s deputy Culture minister, said during a Paris conference hosted by the United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO that ISIS had destroyed up to 70% of remains at Nineveh and 80% at Nimrud.
Nineveh, on the outskirts of modern Mosul and the site of an ancient Assyrian city, was recaptured by Iraqi forces in mid-January. The ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, 32km south of Mosul, was liberated in November.
In Iraq, as in Syria, ISIS used so-called settlement battalions to deliberately target religious buildings and shrines it deems un-Islamic, as well as ancient remains that long predate Islam.
“It’s not just one monument destroyed by one event,” UNESCO Assistant Director-General Francesco Bandarin said at the conference in Paris in February. “We’re talking about an entire region that has suffered for years a massive devastation.”
Video of militants hacking at the remains of civilisations dating back thousands of years figured prominently in ISIS’s online propaganda from the start of its expansion. This scorched-earth policy has continued as its forces retreat in the face of the Iraqi counteroffensive.
The sincerity of the militants’ desire to purge their self-proclaimed caliphate of its “polytheistic” heritage has to be set against the reality of their thriving traffic in ancient artefacts to fund their enterprise.
At the same time as they were filming each other dynamiting and bulldozing carvings, statues and buildings that had survived for up to 3,000 years, other members were hiding away movable treasures with a view to their eventual sale on the international black market.
Iraqi Education Minister Muhammad Iqbal Omar appealed in Paris for international help to clamp down on the illicit trade and to abide by UN Security Council Resolution 2199, which bans cultural trade from Iraq and Syria in an effort to dry up ISIS’s cash flow.
The fate of Iraq’s archaeological treasures is an issue above all for the Iraqi people. The ISIS destruction is seen in part as a strategy of demoralising the communities that fell under the terror group’s control.
Given Iraq’s status as a birthplace of civilisation, it is also an international issue. At the height of the destruction, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova described Iraq as “a vast museum that encompasses some of humanity’s cultural heritage and generously presents it to the world despite all the prevailing challenges”.
Hence the involvement of foreign experts and institutions in preserving what remains from what Bokova described as “cultural cleansing” by ISIS.
Among the institutions involved is the British Museum, which runs a government-funded programme for Iraq emergency heritage management training.
In January, the museum hosted the latest batch of Iraqi archaeologists who had travelled to London for training in the latest digital and excavation skills they will need to salvage and repair sites that ISIS sought to destroy.
In a way, it is payback time for institutions such as the British Museum.
From the 19th century, Western archaeologists, some little better than treasure hunters, plundered Iraq in a spree that involved many of its most precious artefacts ending up on display in London, Berlin or Paris.
What remained survived war and revolution under post-colonial governments, and new discoveries continue to be made.
Until he was toppled by the US-led invasion of 2003, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein fostered a personality cult in which he sought to portray himself as the reincarnation of ancient Mesopotamian rulers. That included the construction of a somewhat kitsch version of Babylon near the actual site outside Baghdad but it wrought no permanent damage.
The worst depredations came as a result of the 2003 US invasion that overthrew Saddam and unleashed widespread looting of museums and historic sites in which priceless treasures vanished.
Foreign archaeologists have been engaged with local colleagues to unveil the secrets still buried across Iraq, subject to the limitations imposed by war and political unrest.
Known sites may represent just the tip of an iceberg of sites and artefacts yet to be uncovered.
Experts, for example, have an inexact knowledge of the northern Iraq site of the Battle of Gaugamela where Alexander the Great’s forces defeated Persia’s King Darius in 331BC.
Outside the ISIS battle zone, work has continued at locations designated as world heritage sites. Restoration of the citadel that looms above Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, continuously inhabited for 6,000 years, has been under way for a decade.
In 2015, a British team uncovered the remains of the world’s oldest trading centre among the still largely unexplored ruins of Ur that date to the second millennium BC. Elsewhere other such discoveries are being made.
In a comforting irony that ISIS will not have intended, the damage the jihadists caused to the Mosque of Younis (Jonah) in Mosul has revealed an even older treasure.
Beneath the wrecked mosque, which ISIS rigged with explosives in mid-2014, Iraqi archaeologists recently discovered carvings and inscriptions linking the site to the Assyrian empire and the seventh century BC.
Harvey Morris has worked in the Middle East, including Iran and Lebanon, for many years and written several books on the region, including No Friends but the Mountains published in 1993.
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