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."

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