Two books survey the deterioration of Iraq's cultural heritage five years after war took hold

Sorry tales of devastation and waste, with little hope on the horizon


Two remarkably similar books have just been published to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and the looting of the Baghdad Museum. Both are edited collections of essays by academics and curators, produced in almost exactly the same format and length (319 and 322 pages). They have a similar number of contributions (28 and 22), with five writers providing different essays in the two books (Matthew Bogdanos, Neil Brodie, Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, Donny George and McGuire Gibson).

First to appear was The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq. It is edited by Newcastle University’s Professor Peter Stone and Lebanese archaeologist Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, and published in Britain by Boydell. Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War was launched just two weeks afterwards. Edited by Lawrence Rothfield, from the University of Chicago, it is published in America by Altamira.

The British book was first conceived of when the Baghdad Museum was sacked. Focusing on cultural heritage, Professor Stone wanted to assemble “a diary of the time from the key players’ own perspectives”. Five years on, his publication has turned out to be different. Although many of the major figures have contributed, time constraints facing the busy writers and space restrictions within the book mean that they have had to summarise their experiences.

It is particularly valuable to have essays by three successive international advisers to Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, who served from 2003-05—John Malcolm Russell, Zainab Bahrani and René Teijgeler. Each individual was very different, but the various frustrations they encountered comes through in their contributions. Dr Bahrani, for instance, admits that she had “naively hoped that the ministry would become independent of the occupation authority”. Instead, she found that US forces held authority over heritage sites, and had set up a military base at Babylon, which she strongly opposed.

The British book also has contributions from four Iraqi archaeologists. Donny George and Lamia Al-Gailani Werr are well-known figures, but two others have had rather less opportunity to address western audiences. Mariam Moussa writes about damage to Babylon caused by coalition troops, describing it as “a major affront towards this world-renowned archaeological site”.

Abdul-Amir Hamdani considers the fate of Ur, where a coalition air base was set up three kilometres away. His account is disturbing: “Troops frequently visit the archaeological remains…and their presence, driving heavy military vehicles across the site and wearing heavy boots as they trespass on the buildings, has actually changed parts of the landscape and has, almost certainly, destroyed or damaged yet unexcavated artefacts and buildings.”

The American book, edited by Lawrence Rothfield, covers similar ground, although its perspective is slightly wider. In his introduction, Dr Rothfield writes of the need for contingency planning for conflict situations, citing countries such as Syria and Iran where this could become important. “We need to learn the lessons Iraq offers about cultural heritage protection,” he says. With Iraq as a case study, the book provides “a point of departure for developing forward-looking policy options”.

Dr Rothfield’s book ends with a series of policy recommendations for cultural heritage protection in conflict situations. These range from the eminently sensible (and often obvious) to the slightly wacky. In the latter category, it is recommended that museums could be protected by the “wire-tripped release of malodorants [stink bombs]” and archaeological sites could be preserved by informing civil leaders that looters are being “monitored by satellite and digging will be detected (even if this is not actually being done)”.

While the range of contributors to the American and British books are similar, the US one has slightly fewer direct participants in the Iraqi situation and more writers with a wider perspective.

Reading the two books emphasises the unfortunate paucity of information about the present situation in Iraq. On the looting of the Baghdad Museum, the best source remains Dr Bogdanos’s detailed account in the July 2005 issue of the American Journal of Archaeology, but what has happened at the museum since then remains unclear. One fears that little is being done in the way of inventory recording and conservation. It is even uncertain whether the museum has been “reopened”; two ground-floor galleries were restored late last year, and are accessible by special invitation, but most of the building remains firmly closed, because of the security situation. Even less information is available about museums outside Baghdad.

The fate of archaeological sites is equally difficult to assess. Dr Rothfield, in his introduction, claims that in 2006-07 the country’s 10,000 recognised sites were being “destroyed at a rate of roughly 10% a year”. Frustratingly, the source of this key figure is not recorded, and one can only hope that it is an exaggeration. If typical of the full post-invasion period, then half of Iraq’s archaeological heritage has already been lost.

Neither book explores the important question of how Iraqi politicians (and the public) regard cultural heritage protection, and the current leaderless situation. Last year the minister of state for Antiquities and Tourism, Liwa Sumaysim, resigned with other Sunni ministers, while the minister for Culture, Asad Kamal al-Hashemi, fled into exile.

In terms of quality, both the British and American books are good, although in any collection of essays, their quality varies considerably.

In reading the accounts of those involved, one often ends up by wanting more facts and details, plus a little more candour.

For those just interested in Iraq, the British volume is more substantial, although the American book has more on the wider issues of protection of cultural heritage in conflict situations. Readers with a serious interest should opt for both.

o Peter Stone and Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, The Destruction of the Cultural Heritage of Iraq (Boydell and Brewer), 319 pp, £50, $95 (hb) ISBN 9781843833840

o Lawrence Rothfield (ed.), Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War (Altamira Press), 322pp, £53, $80 (hb) ISBN 9780759110984; £19.99, $29.95 (pb) ISBN 9780759110991

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sorry tales of devastation and waste, with little hope on the horizon'