Iraq’s cultural heritage in ruins

Lack of protection and killings of archaeologists are taking a terrible toll.

al-Askarri shrine in Samarra, Iraq
Sectarian violence is taking a terrible toll on Iraq's religious and cultural heritage [EPA]

Rassi also said the intimidation and murder of archaeologists since the 2003 US-led invasion has impeded the country’s research into, and preservation of, millennary culture.


He said: “There aren’t archaeologists remaining in Iraq because most of them have been killed and the others have fled from the violence. Our situation is getting critical in Iraq. Archaeologists and artists are being targeted by militias and insurgents.”


Bitter legacy


In May 2003, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1483 which stressed “the need for respect for the archaeological, historical, cultural, and religious heritage of Iraq, and for the continued protection of archaeological, historical, cultural, and religious sites, museums, libraries, and monuments”.


But Lamia Al-Gailani-Werr, an Iraqi archaeologist and member of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and former adviser to the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council, says the looting and destruction of Iraq‘s sites has continued despite international awareness.


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“The destruction of Iraq‘s heritage is leaving a bitter legacy for future generations,” she told Al Jazeera previously.


Meanwhile, Baghdad authorities are facing growing challenges as they pursue artefacts smugglers or provide protection to endangered sites.


Iraq‘s ministry of culture says its employees are unable to continue their research or visit existing sites and excavations due to security risks.


Mariam Muhammad, a senior official at the ministry, said: “We are seeing the history of Iraq being lost and because of violence we cannot move to afford protection. Professionals in the area are being killed on [a] daily basis and our employees are afraid to leave their homes.”


Haythem Abdel-Lattef, 56, an archaeologist who was working at the Babylon heritage sites south of Baghdad in 2006, chose to leave Iraq seven months ago after one of his sons was kidnapped.


He said: “I received telephone calls which threatened me, saying that if I didn’t flee Iraq within one week, they were going to kill my sons and wife. I packed and after two days I arrived in Jordan where I’m facing difficult financial conditions as I had to leave everything behind in Baghdad.”


After arriving in Jordan, he said he received word that two of his colleagues who had been excavating new sites near Babylon were killed.


Artists, singers targeted


The culture ministry’s Muhammad said that in addition to the threat to Iraq‘s archaeological resources, many of Iraq’s leading authors, artists and singers have been persecuted and killed – victims of the country’s sectarian violence.


In February 2007, the Iraqi Artist’s Association said 75 singers had been killed between March 2003 and December 2006. The association also said 80 per cent of the country’s singers had fled the country.


But those that braved the bullets and continued to perform have often paid the price.


In November, Youssef Jabry, 20, was beheaded for singing Western songs at parties and wedding receptions while popular comedian Walid Hassan, who often mocked post-invasion politics, was shot to death as he drove through Baghdad.


In December, Muttashar Al-Soudani, Iraqi soap opera icon, was gunned down by unknown assailants as he collected his pension in Baghdad.


In January, Wissam Abdallah, 25, an up-and-coming actor, was killed by unknown fighters.


Betraying Islam


Abdallah’s mother, Salua Abdel-Kader, 48, told Al Jazeera her son was killed because he was “seen as a sinner” by Islamic factions which have gained power in post-war Iraq.


He said: “I lost my son who was an actor because he was performing at the theatre and for this reason considered a betrayer of Islam.”


His murder and the pursuit of other actors and singers have sowed fear among the performing arts community in and around Baghdad.


Abdel-Kader said: “Our lives have been inside the walls of our houses. The maximum entertainment that you can find today is going to your neighbour for a [cup of] tea and nowadays, even this diversion sometimes isn’t possible because of the spread sectarian violence.


“We cannot visit museums, theatres or libraries because art in Iraq today has been considered a sin by extremists.”


Graveyard for artists


Since May 2007, three Baghdad artists were killed, including Khalil al-Zahawi, renowned Islamic calligrapher.


A senior member of the Calligraphy and Arabesque Art Department at the Nineveh Institute of Fine Arts told Al Jazeera that he believed conditions in Iraq have made it a graveyard for artists and innovation.


Speaking on the condition of anonymity because he has been threatened with death, he said Islamic extremism has forced many of his colleagues to either flee Iraq or go undercover.


“Only Islamic art is permissible because the new Islamic groups like al-Qaeda feel there is no importance to us. Those of us who paint portraits, for example, are seen as sinners,” he said in a small unfurnished apartment in Damascus.


“Those that cannot leave Iraq because of financial constraints find themselves going hungry – hungry and fearful that the next bullet or sword is destined for them.”




One such Iraqi artist was condemned to death by Islamist groups for belonging to “a Zionist organisation”.


Maher Harbi, a Christian artist in northern Iraq, managed to survive two successive assassination attempts before fleeing to Syria.


He had been a member of an association of Shia, Sunni, Christian and secular artists who met once every week to discuss holding ateliers and exhibits.


But Mohammed Alban, a photographer for al-Sharqiya satellite channel, wasn’t so lucky. His assassination led to the dissolution of the Mosul chapter of the artists’association in late 2006.


Muhammad Khalid Lattif, actor and member of the Iraqi Artists Association who survived an assassination attempt, said: “Even if we work, how can we put in practice or expose our projects to Iraqis? There aren’t places [to exhibit] because everywhere is under security and as soon as we reach to wherever the place is, we are going to be killed.


“We will cry all together for this sad reality threatening our culture.”

Source: Al Jazeera