A past in peril

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

President Bush's war project would mean the total destruction of 5,000 to 6,000 years of recorded history located in Iraq's archaeological sites, museums and ancient monuments.

AN invasion of Iraq, by forces led by the United States, will, in a profound sense, mark the end of history for the Iraqi people. If a large segment of the Iraqi people are bombed out of existence, with them will be obliterated the rich remains of their past and part of the heritage of humankind. It will mean the total and irreversible destruction of 5,000 to 6,000 years of recorded history located in Iraq's archaeological sites, museums and ancient monuments. Only 12,000 out of 100,000 sites in Iraq have been uncovered thus far; it is believed that every mound in Iraq tells a historical tale. Even unexcavated sites are unlikely to survive the bombing.

It was in the fertile regions irrigated by the Tigris and the Euphrates that civilisation first took birth. The first villages and cities grew here, and here developed the earliest forms of writing. Southern Iraq was the site of the flourishing Sumerian civilisation, a cluster of city-states, in the 3rd millennium B.C. They had one of the most varied artistic traditions in the world, which became the basis on which Babylonian and Assyrian art developed. The country also has some of the most revered of Islamic pilgrim centres, notably Najaf and Karbala, where the tombs of Imam Ali and his son Husain, founders of the Shia branch of Islam, are located. Some of the earliest surviving examples of Islamic art, architecture and culture are located here, notably the Great Mosque at Samarra and the desert palace of Ukhaidar.

The damage caused to historical sites in the 1991 bombing by American forces was incalculable (Frontline, March 15, 1991). The Hague Convention of 1954, which prohibits the targeting of cultural and religious sites, was totally disregarded by the American forces. (In fact, Washington never signed the Convention, while Britain signed it but did not ratify it.)

The damage caused by the direct consequences of war was intensified by the impact of sanctions - inadequate protection to the sites during the period of the U.S. occupation resulted in the looting and vandalism of sites. For example, the museum in Bassora was pillaged during the occupation of southern Iraq by the Americans; it was reported that the heads of statues, art objects and ancient manuscripts were stolen, and certain rare pieces reappeared in 1992 in the art market in the U.S. and Switzerland. So with cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals, which also appeared in American and European antique markets. The Iraqi government made the plunder and export of antiquities a capital offence, and in January 1998 executed eight persons in Mosul, northern Iraq, for planning the illegal export of a precious Assyrian artefact.

Extensive damage to the priceless archaeological and art contents of the Baghdad National Museum of Antiquities, the seventh largest in the world, occurred as direct and indirect consequences of the war. It stands in the heart of Baghdad city, and the planned aerial assault will most certainly ensure its destruction. According to reports, just before the 1991 Gulf war broke out, the Iraqi authorities transferred the most precious of the archaeological contents of the museum to a secret location. The ceramics, ivory pieces and cuneiform tablets were swathed in cotton and sponges for protection. The basements where these were stored were accidentally flooded and the humidity caused by the cotton wool and sponge wrapping caused the growth of fungus on the protected objects. The cuneiform tablets were irreparably damaged. Efforts at restoration have suffered because of the ban imposed on Iraq importing chemicals.

No comprehensive independent assessment by any international team or agency of the damage caused to historical sites in the 1991 conflict has been made so far. The United Nations Security Council, led by the U.S. and Britain, blocked an Iraqi appeal for a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) commission to conduct such a survey owing, most probably, to the fact that its results would certainly have been bad publicity for the governments of those countries.

Among the sites at most risk from a war are the following:

Ur, Iraq's most famous site, perhaps the earliest city in the world which flourished under the Sumerians between 3500 B.C. and 4000 B.C. It is near Tallil, a major airbase and radar centre which was bombed in 1991. Ur has been identified with the biblical birthplace of Abraham. In the early decades of the 20th century, excavations here revealed a royal cemetery in which members of the ruling elite were buried with their servants and beautifully-made possessions. Ur's dominant feature is the remains of a ramped `ziggurat' or temple tower, the best preserved in Iraq. Many layers of history still remain buried under Ur.

Babylon, a city resonant with historical meaning, the capital to such kings as Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great. Built on the banks of the Euphrates, Babylon, whose site is near the city of Al Hillah in modern Iraq just 60 km from Baghdad, became the centre of a great empire in the 2nd millennium under its king Hammurabi. Babylon underwent a long period of domination by Assyria, which ruled from there between 722 B.C. and 626 B.C. The city then entered its period of great prestige and power under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled between 605 B.C. and 562 B.C. and rebuilt his capital as one of the greatest cities of antiquity. He was probably responsible for the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, laid out on elevated terraces and ingeniously irrigated by pumps from the Euphrates. Possible locations for the Hanging Gardens and the Tower of Babel have been found.

The site is close to a Scud missile factory, now possibly defunct. Other strategic installations present in the area, making it a target for bombing, are the Al Massayyib chemical factory and the Al Iskandariyah military research centre.

Nippur, an important religious centre dedicated to the god Enlil, is also in southern Iraq, 160 km south of Babylon. It was a major religious centre of the second and third millennium B.C. The site has yielded a splendid and extensive sequence of pre-Islamic pottery.

Nineveh, in northern Iraq, was the imperial seat of the Assyrian kings Sennacherib (circa 704-681 B.C.) and Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C.). Royal palaces with magnificent sculptures as well as 20,000 cuneiform tablets from Ashurbanipal's library have been found here. After the Gulf war, the excavated palaces were looted of their sculptures. Nineveh is on the World Monuments Watch list of the 100 most endangered sites.

The ruins of Ctesiphon, a splendid monument believed to be most at risk in the coming war. In Ctesiphon (100 B.C. to 900 A.D.) is found what is likely to be the largest brick arch to have survived antiquity. The graceful vault 120 feet (36 metres) high with an 83 ft span, is intact. The cracks that appeared on the vault in 1991 were believed to have been patched up by Iraqi archaeologists but renewed shocks from bombings could bring it down.

Baghdad itself has a wealth of monuments of cultural and religious significance. The city of the "Thousand and One Nights", Baghdad, built originally on a circular design, was one of the loveliest cities in the world, with tombs, mosques, minarets, a university and the revered Kadhumain mosque and shrine. It also has one of the finest archaeological and art museums of Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian art.

Samarra, some 110 km north of Baghdad, was the northern capital of Caliph Al-Mutasim, who built the city in 836. It extends along the Tigris for nearly 32 km. The ruins of the 9th century Great Mosque of Mutawakkil lies outside the city, as do a number of smaller but no less exquisite monuments. It is believed to have the oldest known Islamic tomb. A nearby Iraqi chemical research complex was bombed in 1991.

Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, is also on the Tigris. It is rich in architecture and has the leaning minaret of the now destroyed mosque of Nur ad-Din. It also has some of the earliest Christian monastries dating to the 4th century. Its museum has important Assyrian antiquities from excavations at Nineveh, Khorasabad and Assur. In 1991, a nearby army base, an airbase, and a Saad-16 missile site were bombed.

Ukhaidar, an 8th century fortified palace, which architecturally is believed to be an example of a multicultural impulse bringing together Persian, Byzantine and Syrian influences.

The holy Sufi shrines at Najaf and Karbala, the bombing of which would result in an angry backlash from Muslims the world over.

THERE are many other sites of great historical significance, like Kirkuk, the supposed site of the fiery furnace in the Book of Daniel. An important Ottoman castle is located here. Kirkuk is situated near an army and air force base and a large oil refinery, which was bombed in 1991. There is Hatra, which, in its day was one of the largest Greek cities of the Orient. The site has lavish carvings in pink ochre rock, with sculptures of birds, men and animals, in addition to cupolas, colonnades and immense archways. Excavation here came to a halt after the 1991 war.

Tikrit, Saddam Hussain's home town, is yet another historical site. It has an important old citadel. The area was bombed in 1991. Al Fallujah is a site where hundreds of cuneiform tablets were found. A nearby chemical research complex was bombed in 1991. Then, there is the Basra Al Qurna, which is said to be the site of the Garden of Eden on which stands a gnarled old tree, believed to be Adam's tree. Nearby naval and air force bases, an oil refinery and chemical weapons research complex were bombed in 1991.

Historians, curators and archaeologists from around the world realise that unlike in 1991, the coming military attack will be both deadlier and more sustained, and that very few of these fragile historical sites, many of them near strategic installations, are likely to survive. Although most associations and forums in the U.S., concerned with the protection of heritage have not taken a position on the war, which will most certainly destroy the remains of Iraq's rich history, they have nevertheless drawn attention to the sort of damage that is likely to to be caused by a war. The American Association of Museum Art Directors, the American Council for Cultural Policy and the Archaeological Institute of America have issued statements asking the U.S. government to protect Iraq's historical sites.

It is believed that an invasion of Iraq will begin with an enormous blast, most likely in Baghdad, followed by waves upon waves of air bombing attacks. Such an attack on an urban target will result not merely in high civilian casualties, but the destruction of museums, mosques and monuments. In a tragic reversal of history, old Mesopotamia, the birthplace of human civilisation, might well stand witness to its death.

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