Iraq War Threatens Ancient Treasures

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated March 21, 2003
The looming war in Iraq is likely to take a heavy toll in terms of lives and property. But in a country regarded as the "Cradle of Civilization," there may also be substantial harm to irreplaceable cultural heritage in the form of damage to ancient structures, archaeological sites, and artifacts.

Iraq is the land of ancient Mesopotamia, where peoples in the fertile ground between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers domesticated animals, began agriculture, and gave rise to the earliest cities some 6,000 years ago.

Civilizations like the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians thrived within the nation's borders. The biblical patriarch Abraham and Babylonian King Hammurabi lived in what is today Iraq, while Imam Ali, the founder of Shiite Islam, died there.

But Iraq's rich heritage, a source of enduring pride to humanity, has been under stress since the Gulf War of the early 1990s. A new outbreak of hostilities may put archaeological sites, historic architecture, and priceless artifacts in further jeopardy, archaeologists fear.

In Iraq, sites of tremendous scientific and historic importance are part and parcel of the landscape.

Babylon and Ur were traditional tourist favorites of prewar days. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Hatra, located in the northern city of Mosul, is a large fortified settlement that was the capital of the first Arab kingdom. It survived Roman invasions in A.D. 116 and 198, and its remains echo a faded greatness that once blended Hellenistic and Roman influences with enduring Eastern traditions.

Baghdad's Iraq Museum is a treasure trove of irreplaceable artifacts, including most of the discoveries made in Iraq since the country's creation in 1921. The museum houses libraries of cuneiform documents, including ancient written archives from Uruk and Sumerian literary texts from Mesopotamian schools that date to 2500 B.C.

The first immediate danger to Iraq's cultural sites is bombing or combat damage. In the first Gulf War, damage of this kind appears to have been fairly limited. Shellfire damaged the brickwork of the ziggurat at Ur, which was constructed in 2100 B.C. In Mosul, a 10th century church was partially destroyed by bombing in 1990. Cracks appeared in other ancient sites as the concussion of nearby explosions rocked ancient foundations.

For every well-known site, there are countless others of importance—many as yet undiscovered. While some sites are true standouts, the sheer number of others makes designating any certain number for protection a difficult proposition.

"There are millions of sites in Iraq," said Selma Radhi, an independent scholar and consultant archaeologist who has excavated and restored ancient monuments all over the Middle East. "How could one choose two that should not be bombed?"

While such damage is a concern, it's likely not the greatest worry.

"We're not so worried about errant bombing," explained McGuire Gibson, an Iraq specialist at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. "It could happen, but it's that period of uncertainty that would come with the war that would be a problem."

Antiquities Black Market

Gibson and many other prominent archaeologists are most concerned about looting. It's been an ongoing problem in Iraq since the first Gulf War, when Iraq's formerly robust Department of Antiquities began to decline. In the event of combat and/or unrest, looting could become much worse.

"The regime has made use of Iraq's ancient past and great traditions," Gibson explained, "so they are very conscious of such things." "Saddam Hussein has identified himself with the glories of ancient Iraq, trying to get the Iraqis to think of themselves a single people. Before the Gulf War they were the best department of antiquities in the Middle East. They used to have multimillion dollar budgets."

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the sanctions placed on Iraq limited government funds and sent the currency into a downward spiral. As money became scarce, what was once a very favorable climate for science began to deteriorate.

But the war put a serious damper on international and domestic research in Iraq, and the department's budgets were slashed. That was followed by a costly "brain drain" of qualified Iraqi academics. "In the early 1990s they lost a lot of their trained personnel, their Ph.D.'s, restoration and museum staff," Gibson said. "Many of them couldn't make a living so they retired and went to Yemen, Jordan, Libya, or other countries in the region."

The biggest loss so far as the artifacts themselves were concerned, however, was the dismissal of many armed guards that once numbered in the hundreds and firmly controlled important sites from local looting. That left valuable items within much easier reach of people who were themselves feeling an economic pinch.

Ominous signs testify to the problem. Iraqi artifacts now appear in foreign antiquities markets, a trade that did not exist prior to the Gulf War.

The illicit activity in some areas is surprisingly extensive, as the government simply doesn't have the money to enforce protections.

In one instance, Gibson described the sacking of an ancient city gateway, which featured two 20-foot-tall statues of human-headed bulls.

"They hacked away the head and got it as far as Lebanon," he said. "That statue head must have weighed 2 or 3 tons. It was brazen and big-scale looting. Fortunately, they weren't able to sell it because Interpol had photos and it became too hot to handle. It was eventually returned—in 13 pieces."

Decisive Action Might Protect Sites

With war in Iraq perhaps only hours away, archaeological professionals both within and outside of Iraq are doing all they can to prepare for it.

From Yemen, Selma Radhi reports that "the National Museum has been shut for a while, and this is a necessary precaution. They'll remove all the objects and put them in secure vaults; they did the same in the previous war. The staff is very professional and are perfectly capable of taking care of everything."

Gibson concurs that his Iraqi counterparts will do all they can, but he also fears for their safety. "Our colleagues at the museum lived [in the building] for the duration of the Gulf War to guard it," he said. "They were out of contact with their families because they were ready to defend the collections. If it happens this time, they may die."

Such concerns have led individuals like Gibson and groups like the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) to pressure the U.S. government and its allies to proactively protect Iraq's cultural legacy in the event of war.

"This cultural heritage is of great value to the people of Iraq (as well as people throughout the world)," AIA said in an official statement, "and plays an important role within civil society. The preservation of this heritage is also of long-term economic benefit to the nation and to the region."

According to McGuire Gibson, that preservation will require quick and concerted effort to bolster the skeleton staff and protective measures that the Iraqi government has in place. "If there is a period of even a day of chaos, without firm control, there is a very good chance that the Iraq Museum, or other sites, could be looted," he said.

"They have to rehire the guards immediately," Gibson added, "bring them back up to strength. That's necessary to drive off looters whose desperation has made them all the more daring."

While concerned about the sites, Selma Radhi holds out hope for their survival—and concentrates on another pressing worry.

"I'm more worried about the people there than about the sites," she said. "The sites have withstood the centuries and they have survived. They will still be there…but the people won't."

More Iraq Stories from National Geographic News
National Geographic News: Iraq
Humanitarian Crisis Looming for Iraq, Aid Workers Warn
National Geographic TV Reporter Embedded in Iraq
Dogs of War: Inside the U.S. Military's Canine Corps
Iraq Conflict: Following the "Laws of War"?
Dolphins Deployed as Undersea Agents in Iraq
Geography Shapes Nature of War in Iraq
Iraq War Threatens Ancient Treasures
Photographer Tells of Iraqi Kurds "In Agony"
Iraq Expert Predicts "Problems of Control"

More National Geographic Iraq resources:
Hot Spot: Iraq
History and Culture Guide
Maps and Geography

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.