Modern war, ancient casualties (TLS – The Times Literary Supplement)

No one outside Iraq is monitoring the state of what is possibly the largest archaeological settlement site in the world – which is just one reason to re-examine the reports of ISIS destruction in Iraq.

“Islamic State cowards have destroyed the Assyrian empire” ran one headline in the Guardian on March 16. “‘Ancient statues’ destroyed by ISIS in Mosul were FAKES”, suggested the Daily Mail on the very same day. The truth is somewhere in between, but it will take many months of careful analysis to determine exactly how much of northern Iraq’s cultural heritage has been lost since the invasion in June 2014.

The ancient Assyrian cities have attracted most media attention. Running in a chain up the Tigris River are the huge archaeological sites of Assur, Kalhu (modern Nimrud) and Nineveh, with the more ephemeral Dur-Sharruken (modern Khorsabad) 20 km to the north-east. In the ninth to seventh centuries BC they, along with Erbil (now the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan), formed the powerful urban core of the largest empire the world had then seen, stretching from the mountains of north-western Iran to the eastern Mediterranean coast and even, at times, into Egypt.

Commensurate with their rulers’ wealth and power, these were truly huge cities: the walls of Nineveh encompassed an area of around 4 square miles, Kalhu and Dur-Sharruken about a third of that size. Even in the early first millennium BC, these were already very ancient settlements: Nineveh has yielded pottery from the seventh millennium BC, Nimrud from the fifth, Assur from the third. Dur-Sharruken was the newcomer, built for King Sargon in the last years of the eighth century BC and abandoned in haste upon his unexpected death. The Assyrian kings lived on millennia of history: what now look like natural hills in the landscape are archaeological deposits thousands of years deep.

Nimrud, Khorsabad and Nineveh were the objects of antiquarian investigation in the mid-nineteenth century, as part of British and French imperial adventures in the eastern end of the Ottoman empire. Only artefacts robust enough to survive simple excavation techniques and the long boat journey to Europe via Bombay and the Cape of Good Hope made it to the Louvre and the British Museum. Most spectacular were the carved stone bas-reliefs and winged animals that had lined the palace walls. To good Christian Victorians these spoke powerfully of the idolatrous enemies of the biblical peoples against whom Jonah had been sent to preach. More mute at first were the many thousands of clay tablets dug from the palace ruins at Nineveh. Decipherment of the bafflingly complex cuneiform script took concerted international effort but gradually revealed – and is still revealing – a different narrative from the familiar truths of the Old Testament.

Meanwhile, adventurers continued to take objects from the neglected mounds, for sale to Western museums, universities and seminaries, which wanted tangible evidence of the biblical past. Even the advent of “modern” archaeology in the early twentieth century did little to stop the dispersal of Assyrian souvenirs. Sir Max Mallowan’s famous excavations at Nimrud in the 1950s, for instance, were partly financed by institutional donors who received gifts of artefacts in return for their support. Recently the Nimrud Project has identified seventy-six collections containing material from the site, dispersed across twenty countries worldwide, and we are sure that this is a conservative estimate.

In the second half of the twentieth century the Iraqi antiquities authority invested a great deal in the partial restoration of the most spectacular excavated Assyrian buildings: temples, palaces and city gates. The aim was partly to understand better how these buildings had looked and functioned in antiquity, and partly to attract local and international tourists – though few outsiders were willing or able to come as Saddam Hussein’s grip on the country tightened and then UN sanctions of the 1990s made Iraq a no-go area for foreigners. In the late 1980s, the Iraqi archaeologist Muzahim Mahmoud discovered a series of royal tombs at Nimrud, burials of women laden with spectacular gold jewellery. This must be one of archaeology’s best-kept secrets, despite transforming our knowledge of the nature of ancient queenship.

ISIS have released no videos or stills of their activities on the Assyrian ruin mounds, other than their destruction of the medieval shrine to the prophet Jonah (Arabic Nebi Yunus) at Nineveh in July 2014. There is, as yet, no independent confirmation or denial of most of their claims. The site guards employed by the state are now barred by ISIS from entering the sites, but they report at Nimrud, for instance, that the ninth-century palace of King Assurnasirpal and two nearby temples – to the great goddess Ishtar and the wise god Nabu – have been bulldozed.

This is heartbreaking news, especially for the Iraqi experts such as Mahmoud, who have spent their lives curating and researching the cities of ancient Assyria. But it is far from the total destruction that some media stories would have us believe.

First, these are buildings that have been destroyed and rebuilt at least twice before: in the Median and Babylonian sacking of the Assyrian empire in 612 BC; in their dismantling over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether for antiquarianism or for archaeology; in their physical reconstruction in the 1950s–80s, and in their virtual reconstructions in the computer labs of early twenty-first-century universities. While there is much we still do not know about these buildings, and would very much like to, there is a lot we already do – and it is likely that something can be rescued even from the most recent rubble.

Second, huge areas of the Assyrian cities have never been surveyed or excavated and there are millennia of archaeological deposit underneath the (once) standing remains on the royal citadels at Nineveh, Nimrud and Assur. ISIS has videoed their destruction of the winged bulls at one of Nineveh’s thirteen gates; a dozen more still lie untouched under their earthen mounds. The lower cities of Nimrud and Nineveh, where the ordinary residents lived, have never been explored, though aerial imagery shows traces of roads, squares and canals.

And then there are the hundreds, maybe thousands, of non-royal cities, towns and villages of the Assyrian heartland which have never been studied. When Iraq became off-limits to international researchers in 1991, archaeologists turned to Syria and Turkey to investigate the western and northern edges of the empire but we know surprisingly little still about “ordinary” Assyria proper.

Mainstream media interest in Assyria will be ephemeral at best. Just a year ago in the Guardian, the same writer who recently wept over the destruction of Assyria declared, “Egypt and Greece were civilizations. Assyria was not . . . . Assyrian art itself casts an evil spell”. The truth is that before the recent conflict there has been little real commitment in the mainstream West to studying or saving Iraqi cultural heritage. Most academics who want to work on it are told far too often that ours is a minority interest, that there is no audience for our work. There have been few tears before and almost no thought about how this kind of heritage is best preserved in the long or short term.

At the moment it suits some politicians to portray the West as saviours of “world” heritage in Iraq. Boris Johnson in the Daily Telegraph paints a stark contrast between heroic Victorian antiquarianism and current iconoclastic barbarism, as if there were nothing between the two extremes. What this simplistic view misses out is any place for Iraqi professionals who have been studying this material for decades, or any place for collaborative reconstruction and research which might serve local populations as well as academia. For Johnson there is the British Museum or nothing; but that is no good to Iraqis, who deserve, and enjoy, their local history as much as we do ours.

The Western media gaze has focused very tightly on ancient Assyria these past few weeks, to the exclusion of other acts of destruction that are just as devastating, if not as biblically resonant. Syria’s ancient cultural heritage has been systematically dismantled for profit and propaganda over the past four years, by all sides of that intractable conflict. Syrian and international archaeologists have heroically documented the destruction of sites like Ebla and Mari, Aleppo and Apamea, Dura-Europos and Palmyra, to only sporadic attention.

Even in ISIS-occupied Iraq, much cultural heritage destruction has gone under-reported. The desert city of Hatra, west of Assur, has become subsumed into the Assyrian narrative, primarily through featuring on ISIS’s video of men laying waste to Mosul Museum. In fact it is a much later settlement, founded in the second century BC as an independent Arab city state, which became a Roman garrison in the 220s AD. This stone-built circular city, roughly a square mile in size, was one of the first to be studied intensively by Iraqi archaeologists in the 1940s as they moved away from the Western obsession with biblical heritage and looked to the origins of Arab culture. That city too is currently under ISIS occupation, and very vulnerable to destruction, being all standing remains – but nothing but rumours have emerged from the site to date.

As part of the twentieth-century reconstruction of the city, fragmentary statuary found there was taken to the Iraq Museum for restoration, with replicas put in place on site and copies made for provincial museums. On release of that very grainy video some of us, myself included, first thought that we were watching the destruction of such replicas, but it soon became apparent that the iron bars running through the statues were holding together reconstructed composites made of ancient fragments and new. It was only our first hurried attempts to interpret what was going on that reached that Daily Mail headline about the “fakes”.

Some places never make it into the headlines. The archaeological site of Samarra, capital of the Abbasid caliphate for much of the ninth century AD, was classical Islam’s Canberra to Baghdad’s Sydney. The archaeologist Alistair Northedge, who surveyed it in the 1980s, estimates that it “may be the largest archaeological settlement site in the world”. It is certainly by far the most important for our understanding of the medieval Middle East. It runs for 30 miles along the Tigris River, adjacent to the modern city of the same name which has been the scene of much fighting. Like Hatra it is mostly above ground, encompassing palaces, mosques, military quarters, racecourses, and even hunting parks. No one outside Iraq, to my knowledge, is currently monitoring its state.

Then there are the buildings of the living communities: the many dozens of Shi’a mosques and tombs, Christian churches and monasteries, Yezidi shrines whose destruction attracted attention in the summer of 2014 as ISIS began its first purges of the population. As the Iraqi army drives ISIS back towards Syria, up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, many heritage buildings, dating back centuries, that survived that first wave of destruction are becoming vulnerable once again.

Perhaps most shocking, and most urgent, however, is the systematic destruction and dismantling of the academic and community infrastructure of cultural heritage in ISIS-occupied territory. Museums have been ransacked, libraries torched, universities turned into terrorist enclaves. The curators and librarians of Mosul, the conservators and researchers, the archaeologists and site guards, are in fear of their lives, if not dead or already fled. This is where the international community needs to offer its first wave of help once ISIS have been disposed of. Physical plant, research equipment, retraining, support of many practical kinds: all will be desperately needed. The fact is that ancient stones can wait, as they have waited for millennia; they depend on the Iraqi people, and the Iraqi people need us more.


AUTHOR: Eleanor Robson

(Eleanor Robson is Professor of Ancient Middle Eastern History at University College London and voluntary Chair of Council at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq. To donate to BISI’s Iraqi Visiting scholars programme)

TLS – The Times Literary Supplement, 25.3.2015.

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