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Iraq’s heritage sites must be sealed off, documented after Mosul liberation

By Judit Neurink 1/12/2016
The ancient site of Nimrud, south of Mosul, after its liberation by the Iraqi forces. Photo: Frman Abdulrahman
The ancient site of Nimrud, south of Mosul, after its liberation by the Iraqi forces. Photo: Frman Abdulrahman

ERBIL, Kurdistan Region--The damage done to archeological and heritage sites in Iraq under ISIS did not stop when these places were liberated and the radical group expelled, says Abdullah Qader, the director of Iraqi institute for Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil.  


He believes that the damage to major sites such as Nimrud and monasteries and churches should have been documented immediately after liberation, which was not the case, for lack of planning and money. Qader, who also heads the Association of Archaeologists in Kurdistan, argues that the sites should be closed until proper documentation is done to make ensure that nothing is or will get stolen and so rebuilding will be possible.


What should be the policy for the archeological sites, after ISIS?

Abdullah Qader If I were to decide, I would send teams of archeologists with the army to start documenting the sites. But we are an institute for training, and this is an issue for the authorities in Baghdad. Only in Mosul we had ninety archeologists working, as guides, supervisors, teachers; most of them are now living in Duhok, Sulaimani and Erbil. What is their role now? In Amman, a workshop has been held for ten archeologists in Iraq and Syria, who even got a bag with cameras and other things to use for the documentation of liberated sites. But we see on TV that churches are being liberated and then people go there and start cleaning. That should not happen. First the damage needs to be documented, then they can clean. I would prefer these areas to be closed so that nobody can go there until the specialist teams have done their work.


Why is this so important? People want to use their church.

It will not take more than three or four hours. What we are afraid of, for example is what happened in Nimrud. When the Iraqi army entered, there were no archeologists or specialists with them. We are afraid the army does not have enough awareness, does not know how to work with these artifacts. We’re also afraid that what has been left, will be stolen.


Here in Iraq there is a lack of awareness among people about archeology. That is why, before the liberation of Mosul, we published a guidebook. We gave 1,400 of them to the coalition forces and the Peshmerga. It is a small guide; you can put it in your pocket. It contains maps, pictures and names of archeological sites.


So when the Peshmerga was digging in Khorsabad, and found fragments and artifacts, they phoned the archeologists in Akre. Even though this place does not belong to their office, they went immediately to take the stuff. It’s not a matter of whose area is it, but how to take care of it. People in Baghdad and Mosul are not responding in time.


In Amman, I asked those participating in the workshop about their plans, once the areas are liberated, but they had no plans, and if they had, they were not talking about it.


Isn’t it a bit late for a plan especially when so many places have already been liberated?

For sure it is too late. And even of those who were trained in Amman, I don’t think they started working in the field. There should have been a plan a year ago, at the time when the Iraqi government started planning to liberate these areas.


We are a small institute, but we could publish this guide. What about the Department of Antiquities in Baghdad, why didn’t they work to make people aware so they should be careful with archeological sites. What did Baghdad do for the sites, nothing!


So why does Kurdistan not organize it? Why does it have to be Baghdad?

I want to go to Nimrud with my staff to make some documentation, but we will have problems. It is not our task. The General Directorates in Baghdad and Mosul have more staff; they should have a plan and go. Most of the staff of Mosul University is living in Kurdistan, but they have not done anything.


Is money the problem?

The first problem is the leadership, the second the lack of a plan and the third one is money. These are open sites, not protected, anyone can go and take whatever they want. If we document what ISIS has destroyed, then we can in the future restore it. Without it, it will be very difficult to rebuild our heritage sites.


In the West, there is a debate on this issue and some archeologists worry that in rebuilding the place the old features will be lost. They call it Disneyfication.

Daesh (ISIS) tried to destroy the history of this country, and preventing us from rebuilding would only help them. What will we gain by leaving the places destroyed? For instance, in the Erbil citadel we are rebuilding under supervision of UNESCO, and we follow their rules and restrictions. For the churches and mosques, it’s clear that we have to rebuild. The mosque of Nabi Younes (Jonah) in Mosul is a spiritual center. We can rebuild it, and it’s true that we lost the archeological value, but we can regain the spiritual one. How can the international community prevent us from doing so? The cities that were destroyed in the Second World War were rebuilt, so we should also be allowed to rebuild our country. 


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