A group of children walking through a neglected 19th century building in the town of Kifri in Garmian region.
SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region — Iraq’s cultural heritage is being destroyed by the day, international experts warned at a conference at the American University of Sulaimani, Iraq (AUIS) on Sunday.
“In the 1980s and 1990s the major issue was looting. Now, there is a new wave of destruction of artifacts that’s linked to prosperity: a boom in construction and infrastructure,” said Simone Mühl, an assistant professor at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, who is leading a team of German archeologists in Sulaimani province.
The first annual Iraqi Cultural Heritage Symposium, titled "Iraq Cultural Heritage in Crisis: Strategies for the Future,” pointed out that Islamic State’s destruction of priceless antiquities at the Mosul Museum and the ancient site of Nimrud in February grabbed headlines around the world.
Participants explained, however, that Kurdistan’s unbridled economic development presents a more-subtle challenge to the wealth of archeological sites in an area that formed part of the Cradle of Civilization, the birthplace of cities, agriculture, and writing.
“Once we see threats we alert the Directorate of Antiquities,” said Mühl, who spends most of her time on “rescue” excavations.
“But there is so much construction work, and much of it is not official. What is needed is a political effort,” she added, calling for increased monitoring in certain areas, some of which are home to one valuable site every two square kilometers.
While advances in agriculture are welcome to a region recovering from decades of economic underdevelopment under the Baathist regime, there has been a pernicious side to the region’s rapid progress. New wealth has allowed farmers to purchase more powerful tools that do greater harm to historical sites, many of which are flat and hard to identify with the naked eye.
“The government does not pay enough attention to preservation, and cultural heritage and archeology is not taught sufficiently in schools,” said Kozad Ahmed, head of archeology at the University of Sulaimani. “It is just as important as oil. It’s not just about making money, but something that should be passed down from generation to generation.”
To quickly identify potential sites and save them from destruction, archeologists working in the region have encouraged the use satellite images to build a geographic information system (GIS), which helps them identify and analyze archeological sites.
“The ultimate objective is to have a GIS database with a collection of all sites,” said Jessica Giraud, a research fellow at the Institut Français du Proche Orient. She insisted that government officials could easily use the database to prevent development near the region’s buried treasures.
At the same time, experts acknowledge the difficulty of the task during a budget and security crisis in the region, citing the costs of high-tech machinery used in excavation and hiring specialists to operate machines. They claim the smartest interim solution is to train locals to carry out preservation.
“For now, we need to insource foreign talent to train our students as cultural heritage professionals,” said Tobin Hartnell, professor of archeology at AUIS.
“The best excavators and surveyors are locals,” he continued. “With trainings they can be experts, and ultimately teach us. They can achieve 10 times as much as non-local experts, at a fraction of the cost.”
Hartnell is launching an archeology program at AUIS, and is looking for international partners to build up the school’s academic resources in the field.
New York University has already committed to providing 2,000 books on archeology and the history of neighboring cultures in the ancient Near Nast, and a private donor has pledged $20,000—even before official fundraising has begun—to help bring in foreign expertise.
Once the program is developed, Hartnell estimates that six students per year will participate in exchange programs with foreign universities at the Masters or doctoral level. AUIS students are well primed for such programs, as they are already fluent in English, French, German, and other languages spoken at prestigious international programs.
As many as 50 students at the small private school have expressed interest.
“This Saturday we are literally going to start training archeologists,” Hartnell said, explaining that the Institut Français du Proche Orient will begin training for a research project in Sulaimani governorate to take place in June.
“We don’t need a huge number of people,” he claims. “We just need 25 good ones.”