Iraq's Lost Cultural Heritage

Dina Rizk Khoury, September 2003

The looting and destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage during the first weeks of the coalition force's occupation of Iraq has elicited an outpouring of concern and galvanized specialists across disciplines into action.1 Initial reports coming out of Iraq in April reported destruction of near catastrophic proportions. Since then, a number of international organizations and individual scholars have given us a more realistic assessment of the losses (the most recent of which came from a team led by Jean-Marie Arnoult (inspector general of libraries in France), for UNESCO).

The systematic preservation of Iraq's cultural legacy (which can perhaps be traced back to the Mesopotamian cultures of the fourth and third millenniums BC) began early in the 20th century under Ottoman rule. The National Museum of Iraq was founded in the late 1920s. By the 1940s, the Iraqi government had established the legal and institutional basis for collecting, cataloguing and housing Iraq's vast archeological and historical heritage. The nationalization of the oil industry in the early 1970s furnished the Ba'th government of Iraq with resources to fund various national, regional and university libraries, the organization of archeological and historical research institutions. Oil resources also allowed the government to increase the support for an Iraqi Historical Association linked with sister organizations across the Arab world and Europe. Iraqi historians and archivists struggled to maintain a balance between survival in an increasingly repressive regime and their commitment to their profession. With few exceptions, they were, until the mid-1980s, a skilled and professional group.

Until the 1980s, Iraq's largest libraries and archives were relatively well preserved, adequately if unevenly catalogued and administered by a trained cadre of employees. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Gulf War, the uprising that followed it and 12 years of UN imposed sanctions led to the looting of a number of regional libraries, the attrition of funds earmarked for the preservation and maintenance of the archives and the systematic bleeding of private as well as public manuscript collections into the regional and international market. The growing centralization of the archives in Baghdad, the preferential treatment given to research institutions and libraries associated with the Hussein regime, and the rumors that elements of the regime were engaged in the sale of Iraq's cultural heritage, made it more difficult for those working in libraries to carry out systematic cataloguing and preservation efforts.

Although the attrition of Iraq's cultural heritage after 1991 was substantial, it does not compare with what has been lost since April 2003. In addition to the burning, looting and dispersion of the historical record, Iraqi libraries and museums have suffered the loss of computers and equipment and in some cases their buildings were almost completely destroyed. Ministries were looted and burned and it is as yet unclear how much of the record of Iraq's modern history has disappeared. Certainly, any future government of Iraq will have a difficult time rebuilding a country where records of property and commercial transactions have vanished.

The National Museum of Iraq

The National Museum was the home of the largest collection of Mesopotamian artifacts dating back to ca. 9000 B.C. as well as to an important Islamic art collection. Altogether, the museum had 170,000 artifacts that included thousands of cuneiform tablets that have not yet been translated and properly catalogued. The museum has suffered two kinds of losses—the loss of major pieces that are famous and well documented and hence difficult to sell on the antiquities market (such as the ancient vase of Warqa, which has since been returned to the museum), and the loss of less well-known objects, which are more difficult to trace. A large number of these have remained unstudied and it is not clear how many have been catalogued; thus it is not easy even to ascertain whether records of such objects have been destroyed in the looting. Thieves can move these items with much more ease across borders.2

Libraries, Archives, and Archeological Sites

The initial assessment of the losses sustained by the National Library and Archives (and the Library of Religious Endowments) are not precise because the reports were mostly based on interviews with employees of these libraries, who seemed to be only partially informed or were hesitant to disclose information before the political situation is settled and security is restored.

The National Library and Archives, housed in the same building, were the largest repositories of books, manuscripts and documents from Iraq's Ottoman and pre-Ba'thist history. According to one source, the archives housed 450,000 documents covering the period of the monarchy (1920–1958); the largest collection of periodicals in Iraq; and archival materials dating from the Ottoman period for the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra. The archives, housed on the second floor of the building appears to have suffered a devastating loss. It is not clear if any of the material has been salvaged. The library collection seems to have fared better. Its employees moved the bulk of book collection to safe storage areas and to the Shi'ite suburb of Sadr/Thawra city. The UNESCO report gives a rough estimate of 1.2 million salvaged books.

The Iraqi House of Documents (founded 1988) held 50,000 manuscripts from the late medieval to the modern periods of Iraqi history. Built largely on the manuscript collection of the much older National Museum Library, the Library has added since 1991 a number of manuscripts from regional libraries and private collections. Its director, Ussama al-Naqshbandi has reported that most of this collection had been moved to a bomb shelter before the war began.

The Library of Religious Endowments held copies of documents recording information about religious endowments made by wealthy donors as well as a number of old Qurans and many manuscripts in the religious sciences (such as religious law, exegeses, rhetoric, and theology). Its building was looted and burned, and it is not clear whether the structure itself can be salvaged. According to one estimate, the library held close to 7,000 manuscripts. Staff at the library managed to store a portion of the manuscript collection before the war at an undisclosed location. The July UNESCO group reports that 40 percent of its manuscript collection and 90 percent of its printed books have been lost to fire and looters. The last available catalogue of the manuscript collection was published in the late 1970s.

Other smaller libraries in Baghdad, including the Mustansiriyya Library, housed in one of the oldest universities of the medieval Islamic world, have been subjected to looting. Of regional libraries, that of the southern city of Basra has sustained the most damage while those in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf have remained intact because clerical authorities have clamped down on looters. It will be difficult, but not impossible, to assess the magnitude of the losses of libraries and museums. It will be more of a challenge, however, to record the extent of the damage to Iraq's underexplored archeological sites. These have been ransacked over the past 12 years and are still being looted because of rampant insecurity in the countryside. Estimates of losses will remain speculative since many objects are not catalogued and hence are unrecoverable.

What Is to Be Done?

The situation in Iraq is clearly quite dire. Nongovernmental organizations and groups in the United States, Europe, and Japan have already begun efforts to assess the damage, develop ways to disseminate information and bring together experts to deal with the devastation of Iraq's cultural heritage. Their efforts, while crucial in providing expertise, will not provide the financial and infrastructural support for such a large undertaking. Such support can be provided by UNESCO, which can draw on the expertise of scholars across the globe.3 But the greatest support must come from U.S. government agencies, which, in addition to having the obligations of an occupying power, also have resources large enough to undertake the rebuilding of damaged repositories of Iraqi cultural heritage. The NEH has earmarked $500,000 of grants for proposals designed to preserve, document, and refurbish Iraq's cultural heritage. This amount is relatively small and needs to be increased. The U.S. government needs to be urged, as the National Coalition for History and the American Association of Museums have done, to allocate more funds for the recovery of Iraq's cultural heritage. It might also be urged to collaborate with the UNESCO and other international cultural organizations to pool resources and expertise. At the same time, it will be important also to initiate a dialogue with our Iraqi colleagues as they try to rebuild their cultural institutions, by sponsoring conferences, workshops, and other venues that would allow us to exchange ideas and information.

—Dina Rizk Khoury is associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University. She is the author of State and Provincial Society in the Ottoman Empire: Mosul, 1540–1834. She did research in the Iraqi archives and libraries in 1985–86.

Notes

1. This article is based on the reports of Nabil al-Tikriti (a doctoral student at the University of Chicago) and that of the Iraq Observatory, a personal conversation with Edouard Metenier in Damascus in July of 2003, information from the Arab press provided by Dr. Sayyar al-Jamil of al-Ain University in the United Arab Emirates, and UNESCO reports. For reports by Metenier and others see the special web pages on the web site of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago at http://www-oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/ For the latest UNESCO report see http://www.ifla.org/VI/4/admin/iraq2207.pdf. Al-Tikriti's report is available at http://www-oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/docs/nat.html . Pictures taken by al-Tikriti and Gibson McGuire of the Oriental Institute are at http://www-oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/mela/librarypix.htm. The Iraq Observatory report is available at http://www.h-net.org/about/press/opening_doors.pdf . The Iraq Observatory group also visited universities and research institutions in Iraq and has made a series of recommendations.

2. An organized international effort is well underway to record and recover these artifacts. For pictures and information see the official web sites of the American Association of Museums http://www.aam.org, and the University of Chicago Oriental Institute http://www.oi.uchicago.edu.

3. UNESCO, which issued a report proposing specific recommendations for the resurrection of Iraq's libraries and museums, has begun coordinating attempts to assess and recover losses to the libraries and archives in cooperation with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, the International Council of Archives and other organizations.