War Could Wipe Out Ancient History
By Diego Cevallos*
Iraq, set in the cradle of Western civilization, holds 10,000 archeological sites with countless secrets still to be deciphered. Experts fear that the war will bury many of them forever.
MEXICO CITY - When the U.S.-led war against Iraq finally ends, experts in national heritage will have the bitter task of assessing what damage bombs and missiles have wrought on the vestiges of a millennia-old history in the cradle of Western culture.
Since March 20, thousands of bombs have been dropped on the land that tradition has identified as the biblical “Garden of Eden” and the departure point of the prophet Abraham who sought the Promised Land.
There, where remnants of the Tower of Babel can be found, writing was created, the wheel and glass were invented, and mathematics and other sciences were developed, the foundations of Western civilization.
“They aren’t fighting near just any important place, but in the middle of the richest and most extraordinary cultural heritage on the planet,” archeologist Nicolo Marchetti, a Middle East expert at the University of Bologna-Italy, commented in a conversation with Tierramérica.
Bombs and missiles fall relentlessly on government palaces, ministries and public buildings in Baghdad and other cities along the Tigris River, which fed the West’s earliest cultures: the Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian.
Apparently the result of error, the bombardments have hit markets, hospitals and even a maternity ward in the capital. There is nothing to indicate that the country’s historic wealth has not also been affected.
Iraqi territory is estimated to hold 10,000 archeological sites with artifacts and constructions that have yet to be studied and countless secrets to decipher.
Much of the country’s treasures are in Mosul Nasiriya and Tikrit, three cities that have been bombed heavily by the invading forces.
As the U.S.-British offensive began, Iraqi officials rushed to erect barricades around the National Museum of Iraq, home to the oldest cuneiform tablets (with the world’s first writing) and the largest collection of Mesopotamian pieces, dating back 6,000 years.
But the efforts to protect the museum may have been in vain. It is set in the central Salihyia district of Baghdad, just 700 m from the foreign ministry building that was reduced to rubble. Some say it will be a miracle if bombs do not level the museum in the coming days.
McGuire Gibson, of the University of Chicago and considered the leading U.S. authority on Mesopotamian archeology, takes a philosophical approach, saying “war is war” and just about anything could happen to those sites.
Before March 20, when the attacks began, Gibson and other experts met with officials from the Pentagon (U.S. Defense Department) to inform them about Iraq’s most valuable cultural sites.
The Pentagon had a list of 150 important locations. The academic experts handed over a list of more than 4,000 and insisted that they represented just a small percentage of Iraq’s rich heritage.
Twelve years ago, during the first Gulf War, the United States also held information about this cultural wealth, but that did not prevent the destruction from occurring.
In the crossfire are legendary cities. For example, Mosul, intensely bombed to destroy Iraqi missile launch sites, is home to the Nur ad-Din mosque, built in 1170.
Close by are the ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, the largest archeological site of the East, covering 750 hectares. And Nimrud, with its beautiful palaces, like that of King Ashurnasirpal II.
The list is long, and the new discoveries are ongoing in Iraq, also seen as giving rise to Eastern civilization.
The experts warn that knowledge could be lost forever if bombs hit historic sites. And even if they escape harm, in the chaos of war they are vulnerable to looting, says Gibson.
As the war thunders on, historians, archeologists and experts in ancient cultures feel as if their hands are tied.
“Now we are only distant witnesses to what occurs,” Mounir Bouchenaki, assistant director of culture at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), told Tierramérica.
The UN agency is preparing a working group to travel to Iraq once the war is over.
The only weapons UNESCO has to protect world historic heritage are the commitments signed by various countries, but which do not include mechanisms with “teeth” to force compliance.
Bouchenaki hopes that the parties to the conflict respect the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, in effect since 1956, a reaction to the devastation of art and historic sites in Europe during the Second World War.
“It is in the interest of everyone to protect works of art, because even from the perspective of propaganda, no one wants to be seen as the destroyer,” Miguel Angel Elvira, director of Spain’s Archeological Museum, told Tierramérica.
The U.S. military, he commented, will not want to destroy “elements evoking the Christian tradition of the West.”
Archeologist Marchetti is not so optimistic. “I have the impression that the damage is already widespread and that, frankly, nothing can be done.”
“War has its own logic and follows its own path,” he lamented.
Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, experts agreed in acknowledging that Iraq had a laudable record in preserving its ancient artifacts and cultural heritage.
But after the war, that point of view changed. The conflict, in which a U.S.-led military coalition forced Iraq to withdraw from neighboring Kuwait, was centered on bombardments, not the massive influx of troops into the heart of Iraq.
The damage to historic sites sent an alarm throughout the world of cultural experts.
Bombs destroyed millennia-old bridges in Baghdad and seriously damaged historic structures in the capital, like the 13th century Mustansiriya, the Kaplannya mosque and the Archeological Museum of Iraq, one of the leading such institutions in the world.
Once a ceasefire was established, looting and vandalism of museums and libraries multiplied as a consequence of internal conflicts.
Iraq’s General Directorate of Antiquities reported that 13 museums were seriously damaged in the war. Nine would require restoration and the others reconstruction. Six libraries were destroyed.
Nearly all of the artifacts taken out of Iraq – clay tablets, ivory carvings, metal utensils, illuminated Islamic manuscripts, jewelry, gold and silver coins, statues and ceramics – have ended up on the clandestine market of art and archeology.
In 1994, experts from around the world, including many from the United States, gathered in Baghdad and mourned the destruction of history as they found that war had resulted in at least 3,500 catalogued artifacts being spirited out of the country.
One can only expect more dramatic losses to be reported when they gather again after this war, which is proving to be much more lethal and devastating.
* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. Carla Maldonado (Italy), Haider Rizvi (United States) and Lidia Hunter (Spain) contributed to this report.