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The Enduring Legacy and Looming Threats to Iraq's Ancient Heritage

Ancient Iraq, often hailed as the cradle of civilization, played a pivotal role in advancing human development through its significant contributions to science, arts, and humanities. This rich historical legacy not only elevated human standards but also left an indelible mark on global cultural heritage.


Iraq's archaeological and cultural monuments are among the world's most important, offering profound insights into the historical evolution of human civilization. The remnants of ancient cities such as Babylon, Sippar, Shuruppak, and Kish, dating back to the 1800s BC and earlier, highlight the sophisticated urban planning and cultural richness of these early societies. Among these ancient cities, Girsu stands out. It is home to the world’s oldest surviving bridge, with archaeological evidence tracing back over 4,000 years. Additionally, the ancient fortress of Qalatga Darband, constructed around 2,000 years ago in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan, serves as a testament to the region's strategic significance during times of empire transitions.


Advancements in Science and Astronomy


A prime example of the intellectual prowess that flourished in ancient Iraq is Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Jabir Al Battani, also known as Al Battani. Born in Iraq, Al Battani made ground-breaking contributions to astronomy from his observations in Antioch and ar-Raqqah, Syria. He catalogued 489 stars and introduced significant refinements to the calculation of the year’s length. His work on the precession of the equinoxes and the inclination of the ecliptic, marked a critical advancement from Ptolemy's geometrical methods to more accurate trigonometrical approaches.


Cultural and Historical Destruction by ISIS


Since the summer of 2014, ISIS began deliberately damaging archaeological sites and museums while continuing attacks on local shrines and holy places held dear to local communities. In well publicised news reports, often issued by ISIS itself, prominent heritage sites including the Mosul Museum, the archaeological sites of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Hatra, and possibly Ashur and Palmyra were either claimed to have been attacked or threatened to be destroyed.


From 2013 to 2019, ISIS waged a violent campaign across much of Syria and Iraq in a dangerous new paradigm of “performative destruction”—a choreographed combination of cultural and physical genocide, publicized globally through the Internet. Da’esh framed its actions as a religious duty targeting people and cultural heritage monuments.


The destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq by ISIS is neither random collateral damage nor necessarily an exercise in barbarism. It is targeted and ideologically explicable. Motivations for destruction, include a way to hide looting, strategic political or military gain, deliberately increasing political-sectarian tensions to incite conflict and well-documented, deliberate cultural cleansing, in addition to, of course, funding and profit generating.


Looting and Smuggling of Antiques by ISIS


The looting of archaeological treasures from Iraq's museums and dig sites significantly increased following the occupation by American forces in 2003. The situation worsened in 2014 when Mosul fell into the hands of ISIS, and took control of approximately a third of Iraq's archaeological sites. The organization established a dedicated department for managing the looting and smuggling of antiquities, fuelling their operations through the sale of these stolen cultural assets on the global market which were initially purchased by intermediaries and subsequently smuggled through neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Iran. Traditional smuggling routes were commonly used, but in the modern era, the internet has also become a tool for the illegal trade of these items.

Therefore, the global market for antiquities, estimated to exceed $45 billion annually, significantly contributed to the financing mechanisms of ISIS. This group capitalized on the robust demand for antiquities, with little regard from buyers about the provenance of these items. This oversight has led to the phenomenon termed "blood antiquities", wherein global collectors inadvertently supported what has been described as one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations


As the international community intensified efforts to disrupt ISIS's primary revenue streams, including oil, livestock, and agriculture, the organization increasingly relied on smuggling antiquities. These stolen goods were typically smuggled through Syria, entering international markets via Turkey and Lebanon, after being trafficked online, these artefacts were frequently sold to collectors or stored in secure locations, with the expectation that their value would increase over time. Eventually, many of these items made their way to markets in Europe, the United States, the Gulf states, and China, where they were often sold at auction.


Regrettably, the Middle East, a region of unparalleled historical and cultural wealth, attracted colonizers and has fallen victim to the conflicts that followed. It has perpetuated the plunder of its invaluable historical, cultural, and archaeological treasures. From the colonial empires of the past to the militant and terrorist organizations of the present, the theft and exploitation of these assets have echoed through time, severing ties with the past and robbing the native populations—and indeed, the entire world—of irreplaceable cultural heritage. This ongoing saga of cultural predation not only impoverishes the historical narrative of the colonized nations but also challenges our contemporary understanding of heritage preservation.


As we reflect on these losses, a critical question arises: How can the international community effectively safeguard and respect the cultural and historical heritage of the Middle East, particularly from Western appropriation and destruction in times of conflict? The answer requires a concerted global effort, one that transcends mere condemnation and moves towards actionable commitments to protect and restore the cultural identity of this historically rich region.


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