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Can Iraq’s Antiquities be Saved?

23 March 2015

Recent images and reports from northern Iraq suggest that Isis militants have attacked not only artefacts in Mosul Museum but also a number of important archaeological sites. How have international archaeologists responded to these acts of destruction? Apollo talked to Mark Altaweel from the British Institute for the Study of Iraq.

At the start of the month we heard of a series of attacks on Iraq’s museums and heritage sites. Do you know the extent of the damage?

We’ve been trying to find out the details more recently. There have been reports of explosions, and bulldozers moved on Hatra and Nimrud after the Mosul museum was initially ransacked. In terms of damage we don’t have specifics, and this is the problem: we’ve not been able to get anything concrete from these sites. All we’ve heard are reports. We know from the fundamentalists’ video that they’ve done this initial ransacking of the museum and damaged the Nergal Gate, but I’d be tentative about saying how much is damaged on the other sites.

Is it quite surprising that they haven’t released any images?

Yes it’s a different pattern; I don’t know what they’re doing. It could be that they’re actually trying to loot these sites rather than just destroy. In some ways they use looting to fund their operation – but they don’t necessarily want to show these kinds of things because it’s making profit from heretical materials. It goes against their own beliefs, but at the same time obviously they accept that contradiction just to make some money.

What, if anything, can the international community try to do in response?

Iraq’s antiquities laws need to be implemented and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on cultural property should be adhered to­. But it seems that’s always hard to police. But I really think this is one of those cases where you actually just need intervention. I rarely say these kinds of things, but without a Western-backed intervention, I don’t see how this can end quickly. There’s no political way out.

Is that something that you sense more people are beginning to call for from within your field?

We try to avoid the politics side of things but I think there are some people who are calling for it. We need something to be done, and the longer this continues the more things get destroyed, the more lives get ruined. There definitely needs to be a political solution because this whole problem was fostered by a political problem, but at this stage it’s kind of at a critical point where in the immediate sense at least you can’t resolve it politically.

Why is it so important to defend cultural heritage in the area?

It’s critical for Iraq’s identity and certainly for Western knowledge as well. These are the sites and regions that heavily influenced what we’ve come to call Western culture. I think that’s important to protect. Of course, we can’t put it above human lives. But these are things that should be around for generations. I think we have to put a high value on them.

There’s also a practical benefit; these are sites that Iraq could benefit from one day, from tourism and things like that. And certainly in terms of their cultural heritage this is very important to Iraqis. Here in the West we put so much value in our heritage, in locations that define what our culture is about – think of the Houses of Parliament or St Paul’s Cathedral, or Stonehenge from the ancient period. They have high symbolic value. I think these sites are basically the same for Iraq.

Could you tell me a little more about what the British Institute for the Study of Iraq is working on, and how it’s involved in the international effort to respond to these events?

We’ve been putting out various statements on a general level, obviously condemning things, and making contact with the press, giving information about the region and the areas that are being attacked. Supporting our Iraqi colleagues is very important. At the same time we’re continuing normal activities, trying to fund scholarship and promoting Iraqi research – not just in Britain but also in Iraq itself. But there’s not really much more we can do. Our capacity is limited; it is hard to see a solution without more direct intervention, which is beyond our means.

At the moment that continued dialogue with Iraqi colleagues must seem more important than ever?

It does – you know, it makes you realise how fragile these things are, and that knowledge disappears. We have to try to do what we can, but at the same time we have to continue with our research – partly as a response to all this, because it is getting things out that are related to sites being destroyed. A lot of us – myself included – are publishing on some of these sites. There is a kind of unwritten policy, a desire to promote as much as we can from this area, to keep these things in the news, and in scholarship, so that you’re aware of the relevance of these places.

Mark Altaweel is a lecturer in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London and a council member of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq.

Related Articles

Letter: John Curtis on the cultural desecration of northern Iraq

Editor’s Letter: Thomas Marks discusses the destruction in Iraq

Islamic State militants take bulldozers to the ancient city of Nimrud (Maggie Gray)

Inquiry: Monuments Men (Peter Stone): With so many archaeological and cultural sites at risk in war zones around the world, is enough being done to protect them?

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