iraq’s ancient history neglected in ninawa: ‘just piles of old stones’

Iraq is home to some of the world’s most important artefacts of human history. Yet in Ninawa, archaeological sites are being sold off for residential compounds, used as refugee camps or for military bases.


The doors are closed and the entire building is in darkness. Inside, there are only echoes. Even the red lights one can see don’t give a friendlier impression. And, critics say, the lifeless state of the Mosul Museum, second only to Baghdad’s museums in the ancient and historic treasures it once housed, is just a symbol of how important archaeological sites and Iraq’s ancient history is being ignored by authorities here.  


It is clear that Iraq has much to offer students of ancient history and archaeology. Often referred to as the “Cradle of Civilisation”, the modern nation occupies much of the ancient land of Mesopotamia, where some of the greatest ancient civilizations developed, thrived and died out. As such, the country is wealthy in historical sites and ancient treasures.


Recent times have seen these much endangered. Various wars have wreaked havoc on historical sites and as security situations have changed, looters have ransacked museums and made off with ancient treasures.


In fact, the theft of Iraq’s antiquities began far earlier. Mosul archaeologist Ahmad Qasim al-Jumah says that organized campaigns began as far back as 1805, when ancient finds were sent to Europe to be displayed in museums there and never returned. In the 1970s, local experts say, further damage was done due to unscientific restoration methods and the unsafe transportation of antiquities around Iraq.


This century al-Jumah believes some of the most recent damage has come about because of the location of military sites after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime. US troops were deployed in a number of places that had archaeological significance and after they withdrew or moved on, Iraqi military took over the same places.


At one stage, al-Jumah says he tried to visit one of Mosul’s castles. However soldiers were deployed there and they refused him entry to the site. “It took them two hours to give me permission to go in,” he complained. “And I think I only got in because they were able to verify that I was the head of a committee formed to rehabilitate the castle. But who else would ever come and visit the castle under such conditions?”


Mosul’s historical sites are hardly set up to receive tourist attention anyway. “Most of the archaeological sites haven’t been well preserved,” al-Jumah reported. “None have visitor’s centres, there’s no lighting or information and hardly any signage.”


Where the military has been active, the signs that do exist have often been damaged by artillery. People have also started using the sites as rubbish dumps.


NIQASH visited several of the historic sites and, besides meeting Iraqi military there, found further factors to concern local historians and archaeologists. Hundreds of poor or displaced families have found shelter in these places and built housing randomly around the place. 


Confronted with this information, Salem Younis, the head of the state of Ninawa’s Antiquities Department, who is responsible for the protection of antiquities, didn’t think the situation was very serious. “There are very few violations and they do not pose a threat to the sites of archaeological importance, as long as there is no excavation, digging or the removal of any signs,” he stated.


The evidence contradicts him though. Official documents obtained by NIQASH indicate that some of the historically significant land has been developed into residential areas. Apparently one group, working illegally with government employees, managed to purchase three acres of land north of Mosul. They then sold it on for a high profit and an official letter sent by Ninawa’s property department in reply to a query from colleagues in the antiquities department, admits that, “the whole area has become residential. Nothing of its historic nature has been preserved.”


One of the reasons why this is allowed to happen is due the lack of any laws to protect such sites, experts say. The antiquities department has complained that no legal action of any kind has been taken against violators and that they can only stand by helplessly, as more historic sites are defiled or ruined forever. 


The local authorities have no interest in these things, Nagham Yacoub, who works in the tourism of antiquities in Mosul, said. For them, they are “mere stones that nobody needs. This was their response every time I asked for funding to rehabilitate on these sites,” she said. “Why is it, that in a place like this where there are around 1,500 archeologically significant sites, we have no tourists visiting them? Why is it that no scientific visits to these sites have been organized for years?” she asked annoyed, before saying that she felt that the local authorities were happy to keep the Mosul Museum closed.


The Mosul Museum is another sore point here.  While some items in the Museum were damaged after the insecurity following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, many are still safe mainly because staff sent them to Baghdad for safekeeping.


What was left – the pieces too large to move, for instance - was wrapped for safekeeping. “The tableaus which were not taken away were not affected during the invasion,” Dr Raya Mohsen, the museum’s director, explains, referring to the fact that some ancient bronze panels were stolen or damaged. However, as Mohsen noted sadly, “the library was much damaged. Most of the books that were stolen have been returned but there are still around 100 books missing.”


A source at the Rabiah border point, where Syria meets Iraq, told NIQASH that a lot of these books were ancient texts written in a language other than Arabic and that they were mainly smuggled into Syria.  


So Mosul Museum remains closed. To an outsider, it’s hard to understand why. The museum is in a secure area of the city surrounded by government departments and the city in general is more secure.


“The museum needs renovation and maintenance and we also need to bring back the items that were transported to Baghdad,” Mohsen explained. “The budget that the local government has allocated us for this is only due in six months – that is if they ever pay it,” she added. 


In fact, Mohsen continued, “another of the main problems is the shortage of employees. From 1990 onwards, only one new employee was hired and all the rest have now retired.” Half of those currently employed will retire shortly and only seven will stay on until 2012. “The museum will suffer because it has only one employee aside from me. The other four have actually already retired and are working on temporary basis.”


Yet there appear to be many young archaeology experts available to work in Iraq. Dr Nabil Nour ad-Din, the head of the Archaeology Department at Mosul University, felt that his students were well prepared to begin work at Iraq’s museums.


Additionally, he said that, “95 per cent of the archaeological digs in the country still need to be excavated. Many of the sites need maintenance and, in collaboration with European academic institutions, the university has prepared a scientific plan for that,” ad-Din continued. “However the authorities have yet to approve this plan.”


All of which leads back to one critical question: what is the most serious danger to Iraq’s precious antiquities? Is it war, looting or theft? Is it the generally insecure situation or the refugees camping on top of them? None of these actually. The same answer was given by all the experts NIQASH interviewed: “Ignorance”. Both from the average Iraqi, unaware of what that pile of rocks actually signifies, and the local authorities. 


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