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Stop ISIS and save Iraq’s cultural heritage

By Tobin Hartnell and Bilal Wahab

The Islamic State, or ISIS, has shown the world how brutal it can be, not only against civilians but also against Iraq’s cultural heritage.

In gruesome videos posted on the Internet, ISIS fighters raided the Mosul museum and destroyed artifacts that dated back centuries. ISIS had also pillaged and demolished mosques, churches, temples and ancient palaces.

These crimes against Iraq’s cultural heritage go beyond destruction—ISIS only destroyed what it could not loot and sell in black markets. Revenue from looting and trafficking Iraq and Syria’s artifacts is reportedly second only to oil smuggling.

The international community has started to pay attention and is trying to curb the looting and trafficking in artifacts and manuscripts that rob Iraqis of their rich history.

Even so, countering ISIS pillaging should also include the discovery and preservation of Iraq’s cultural heritage in safe parts of Iraq, such as the Kurdistan region.

When the world saw the video clips and images of the destruction of the Mosul Museum, there were several inconsistent, even unhelpful, comments about the value of the museum's collection.

Perhaps it is best to start with the good news.

In 2003, in anticipation of the Second Gulf War, roughly 1,500 objects, including many precious statues, were moved from the Mosul Museum to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad. Despite the looting of the Iraqi Museum, many of these objects were saved.

Now, for the bad news.

As days go by, the world learns more about the destructive ways of ISIS. At Nimrud, the Neo-Assyrian capital of Assurnasirpal II (883 - 859 BC), ISIS created improvised explosives to blow up the palace and associated administrative quarters of the city.

Visitors to the later Neo-Assyrian capital of Nineveh would walk through the city's Nergal Gate, the same gate that ancient residents would have used. Here, ISIS used industrial tools to deface the gate's winged bulls, thus destroying an irreplaceable link to the past.

The news from Hatra (1st Century BC - 2nd Century AD) is also likely to be dire: the city was the first Iraqi cultural site listed on the World Heritage register. In its later stages, it was the capital of the first Arab kingdom in history.

The site is famous for its cosmopolitan mix of religious ideas and cultural styles, including Greek, Parthian, Roman, and Arab. Whatever antiquities remain at Hatra are being systematically torn down and broken up.

If Nineveh and Nimrud represents northern Iraq's glorious past, Hatra surely represents its legacy of tolerance. Its destruction or looting would represent the destruction of the best alternative to ISIS, an identity built on a sense of shared humanity amongst the different faiths and cultures.

It is not just destruction because, for ISIS, conflict pays.

Unlike the oil-dependent Iraqi and Kurdish governments, ISIS has a locally generated and diversified revenue stream that comes from smuggling oil, trafficking artifacts, and exacting taxes, protection money and ransom from its subjects.

Such revenues have allowed ISIS, the world’s richest terrorist group, to govern and maintain self-sufficiency.

The ongoing conflict allows ISIS to pillage museums and excavate ancient sites for any gold coins and artifacts they can traffic and monetize. ISIS also exploits the high unemployment rates among the youth to create incentives for more pillaging of archeological and historical sites.

ISIS issues permits to local residents to dig ancient sites and charges a percentage of the monetary value of their finds.

The money in turn, allows ISIS to continue its barbaric onslaught on Iraqi civilians and its cultural heritage. The New York Times reported that ISIS works with mafia-like organized crime networks and traffickers, who at times make special orders and ask ISIS for specific types of antiquities to be dug up.

Indeed, the revenues from trafficked artifacts come second only to oil. Compared to oil, however, artifacts are more easily looted and harder to stop militarily.

Therefore, destroying Iraq’s cultural heritage is integral to the vicious cycle of ISIS violence, revenue generation, incentivized destruction, and coercion with organized crime.

It is time to reflect on what the world should do next.

First, there have been attempts to curb destroying and pillaging Iraq’s archeological sites and written history. UNESCO launched a coalition against the illicit trafficking of Iraq’s cultural artifacts, backed by a United Nations resolution.

However, pre-emptive and punitive measures are inadequate in halting the systematic destruction and looting of Iraq’s heritage, given the mismatch between law enforcement abilities and ISIS' criminal network.

Second to protection, Iraq needs to replace the destroyed pieces, by excavating and preserving archeological sites in a responsible fashion.

To that end, the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, or AUIS, has been working since August to create an Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage, so that Iraqi students can take the first step towards becoming the next generation of cultural professionals.

We welcome the ever-growing support from various American and French institutes, German universities, and our partnership with Arabs, Kurds, and international organizations.

ISIS destruction of cultural heritage will only lead to further cycles of internal violence in Iraq. Now is the time for anyone who cares about culture to help create a group of Iraqi professionals that can monitor, protect, and promote its celebrated ancient past.

After all, this is a better alternative to the mindless destruction going on in the present.


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Dr. Delir | 23/4/2015
The archeological sites in South Kurdistan are intact compared to the rest of Iraq where they were ruined by IS. World leaders condemned IS destruction and looting of valuable Iraqi sites. UNESCO representatives repeatedly visit Kurdistan to ensure their protection. Kurdistan's millennium-old civilization is still alive.
Morteza | 23/4/2015
Don't stop them. Let them fight. get ride of them. Kill and destroy them once for ever.
Shakhawan | 23/4/2015
A useful source of information for Kurds: Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs
Sardar | 23/4/2015
Wanna know the detailed history of archeology and cultural preservation in Iraq and Kurdistan. This is the best source ever:
Peace Activist | 24/4/2015
Time for peace. No more wars.
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