Invasive US security measures place Samarra’s heritage at risk

A giant embankment built around the city has reduced attacks on US troops, but may have compromised important sites

American counter-insurgency measures in Samarra in western Iraq have, once again, led to concerns over possible damage to the rich archaeological heritage of the city. On 19 September, the news agency UPI reported that the American battalion stationed in Samarra had begun the construction of a berm or temporary embankment around the city, setting up checkpoints on all the roads to control access. According to Major John Holcomb, the intelligence officer for the First Brigade Combat Team of the Third Division, this has reduced attacks on coalition troops by one third since August.

However, concerns about the effect of the berm on some of the city’s most important archaeological sites have been raised by Alastair Northedge, the Professor of Islamic art and archaeology at the Sorbonne in Paris. He says that the Inspector of Antiquities at Samarra has confirmed that the berm, created by bulldozing earth into a giant embankment, is complete on the north and east sides of the city, crossing the archaeological area somewhere north of the palace of Sur Isa.

Although he says that it has become increasingly difficult to get accurate reports on the situation in Samarra, Professor Northedge has calculated that, while it may not yet encircle the entire city, the section of berm constructed so far must cut through the Cloverleaf Racecourse, “a unique monument, of which there is no like in the world”, one of three horse-racing courses established in the ninth-century caliphal capital.

He estimates that, depending on its path, the berm has almost certainly cut across the sites of at least two ninth-century palaces, and possibly also a Chalcolithic cemetery. If it is extended around the south of the city, it will threaten other important monuments including the Sur al-Wastani, and the remains of the original Abbasid city centre. In a report written for this newspaper (see p.36), Professor Northedge says: “there is no alignment that can possibly avoid the destruction of major monuments”.

The US military’s apparent lack of concern for the monuments of Samarra has already attracted criticism this year, after the Malwiya, the great spiral minaret of the mosque of the caliph Al Mutawakkil, was damaged by a missile fired at US snipers who were using the ninth-century building as an observation post (The Art Newspaper, March 2005, p.7). At Tell’afar and Mosul, the building of berms similar to the one at Samarra has been followed by a military offensive. While, for now, this may have been averted in Samarra, according to Professor Northedge any such attack would threaten not only the fine traditional architecture in the old city but also the golden dome over the Tomb of the Two Imams (Marqad al-Imamayn) of the Shi’a.

To protect cultural sites in Iraq, the new constitution is expected to include a reference to archaeological sites and museums being under national government control, as well as partially under the regions. This follows a call by the minister of tourism and antiquities, Hashim al-Hashimi, who was concerned that archaeology was being downgraded to become a regional responsibility. The proposed constitution was to be subject to a referendum on 15 October, as we went to press. o For commentary by Professor Northedge, see p.36

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'US security measures threaten Samarra’s heritage'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 163 November 2005