Save Iraqi Heritage

Loss of lives and property in conflict zones capture the headlines. It is understandable that killings must be reported and as far as possible, avoided. Apart from the loss of life, violent conflicts are a threat to some of our most important heritage sites, which are a reminder of where we came from and how we got here. The loss of such treasures is seldom reported in the headlines. Even when such crimes are reported, they are limited to an addendum in the top story, which is invariably about the loss of lives and territory and strategic gains or losses.

An often-neglected but fundamentally important victim of conflict is the physical manifestation of a community, a people, a nation — their heritage.

The first great civilization of antiquity was established in the fertile valleys of Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq.
In fact, the term “Mesopotamian civilization” is generic. In reality, the civilizational and cultural contributions of Mesopotamia included three distinct peoples whose history took place on this territory: the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Assyrians.

Mosul, once the capital of the Assyrian civilization, and one of the world’s oldest cities in the Middle East is about to turn into another cultural desert that radical groups have become so efficient at creating, while the rest of the world just sits and watches.

The terrorist organization, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who took over the provence of Mosul in northern Iraq, has destroyed over 30 historic sites since early June, including dozens of churches and Shi’a religious halls known as hussainiyas. Among these are the mosques of Imam Yahya Abu alQasim, Nabi Shayt (the Prophet Seth who is considered in Islam, Judaism and Christianity to be Adam and Eve’s third son), and of Nabi Yunis, or the Prophet Jonah click for the video.

All of these monuments are a testament to the region’s importance and predate Saint Peter’s Basilica or the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. They are rare links to religious antiquity, and such destruction is not only a regional loss but a crime against history.

The Islamic State’s destruction of the Nabi Yunis Mosque in Mosul, over the tomb of the Prophet Jonah, is more than an act of wanton stupidity and puritanical inflexibility.

It also continues the trend in which violent extremist groups—which all share a penchant for destruction despite their differences—do not seek to proclaim that “they are here” now, but rather that everyone else “was never here”. From Afghanistan to Mali to Syria and Iraq, takfiri extremists have tried not so much to establish their superiority as the invisibility of those they deem to be unbelievers or apostates.

Moreover, the persecution and consequent expulsion of Christians and other minorities is tearing apart the historic and cultural fabric of Iraq. Yet the reaction of a weary international community has been muted. This is unfortunate in that among history’s many “conquering armies,” ISIS would be one of the weakest and easiest to dislodge before it can wreak further destruction.

More than a century ago, when Mosul was loosely-governed by the Ottoman Empire, Gertrude Bell, a British traveler and writer who would later help establish modern Iraq after World War I, toured the ancient sites and reflected on the city’s traumatic history.
“Upon the unhappy province of Mosul hatred and the lust of slaughter weigh like inherited evils, transmitted (who can say?) through all the varying generations of conquerors since first the savage might of the Assyrian Empire set its stamp upon the land,” she wrote in 1909.
She was happy to report, though, that despite what she called Mosul’s “turbulent record,” the city had “lost nothing of its quality during the past few years.”
The same cannot be said now, with ISIS determined to erase a heritage that many previous conquerors left intact.

The Islamic State (ISIS) had destroyed a statue of Othman al-Mousuli, a 19th-Century Iraqi musician and composer, and the statue of Abu Tammam, an Abbasid-era Arab poet.
The tomb of Ibn al-Athir, an Arab philosopher who travelled with the army of warrior sultan Salahuddin in the 12th century was desecrated after ISIS took over the city. Witnesses said the domed shrine had been razed and a park around it dug up.

Several Shia places of worship have also been destroyed. Including the mausoleum of saint Fathi al-Ka’en and shrines in the villages of Sharikhan and al-Qubbah. The statue of the Virgin in the Church of the Immacuate in the al-Shifa area has also been destroyed.
These monuments were immeasurably valuable to the region and the rest of the world. ISIS makes no distinction as to which faith the monuments they destroy belong to. Both Sunni and Shia shrines are threatened, as well as Christian churches.

The doors of the Mosul museum, looted in 2003 after the US invasion of Iraq, but still home to one of the world’s great collections of sculpture, have been padlocked. The centuries-old manuscripts stored in Mosul’s central library, many of them gold-leafed religious texts, have been removed.

The Hatra and the Ashour Temples — both UNESCO World Heritage Sites — are causing particular concerns because they are under ISIS’s control. The well-preserved complex at Hatra is thought to be a potential target, because of its statues of pre-Islamic gods.

The ancient city of Ashur on the Tigris River in northern Mesopotamia, dates back to the 3rd millennium BC. Between the 14th and the 9th centuries BC, it was the first capital of the Assyrian Empire, a city-state and trading platform of international importance. It also served as the religious capital of the Assyrians, associated to the god Ashur.
ISIS also controls the temple complex at Nimrud, home to 3,000-year-old statues of Assyrian deities and gods. It had earlier looted the museum at the Syrian city of Raqqa, selling the art on the international black market to raise funds.

Obviously, neither ISIS nor the Taliban have heard of The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, of 1954 — nor do they care to. West Asia may have lost much of its cultural heritage by the time this conflict ends — if at all it does in the near future.

In March 2001, the Taliban announced that they intended to destroy the two ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. There was an enormous international outcry, that had no impact on the outcome, as the Taliban was callously unconcerned about international public opinion. Still the outcry was meaningful in one respect: some treasures belong to history and to future generations, which is the whole point of a UNESCO World Heritage designation. Public pressure in one field could manifest itself in other areas, such as economic and trade pressure. In the case of ISIS, however, only military pressure will work. While there has been some condemnation (from the Arab League to the Vatican), no massive international outcry has yet been articulated. This stems in part because of “outrage fatigue” from an international community that is confronting atrocity after atrocity, but also because the destruction seems, however insane, as part for the course in the region. An attack on Notre Dame would be met with overwhelming outrage and action, while the destruction of more ancient sites in Syria and Iraq is met with weary shrugs, all the while the world loses more of its invaluable historical sites.

This is the true danger of persistent conflict: making the unacceptable somehow seem acceptable. The situation in Iraq is now such that an extremist group has taken over lands containing historic sites valuable beyond all measure, undertaking a campaign of destruction and expulsion of religious and ethnic minorities, while the Iraqi government continues its fatal paralysis, and the attention of the international community moves from crisis to crisis. Despite its claim to honor history, groups like ISIS deeply fear it and so they seek to re-write it. The question is not in their intentions but in the international community’s resolve.

by: Sermed ALwan

June 2015

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