The Nahrein Network


Commentary: Cultural Heritage Predation in Iraq – The sectarian appropriation of Iraq’s past

21 May 2022

Ivory statuette of a beardless Assyrian man

BY Kate Fitz Gibbon

A paper issued in March 2022, Cultural Heritage Predation in Iraq – The sectarian appropriation of Iraq’s pastchallenges key assumptions held by international governments, NGOs and donor and research communities. The study is by Mehiyar Kathem, Eleanor Robson and Lina G. Tahan and produced at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. The authors’ goal is to make clear “the mechanisms, modalities and impacts of cultural heritage exploitation in Iraq.”

‘Cultural heritage predation’ is the term the authors use to describe the destructive exploitation of cultural resources for political purposes. The paper describes how powerful political, sectarian and economic groups, rather than the Iraqi national government, are driving cultural heritage policies and administration. The authors are firmly on the side of centralization of heritage management, both for practical reasons and in hopes of a more just and diverse heritage policy.*

The authors make clear how Iraq’s cultural resources are now being badly misused to advance divisive political and social agendas, and how the integrity of sites and heritage resources is being compromised in the process. The institutionalization of political quotas in which appointments to key state institutions based on division of power between Kurdish, Shia and Sunni interests has resulted in in the sectarianized division of cultural resources.

Key points are:


Under the current system of cultural heritage predation, sectarian and elite exploitation of cultural resources is leaving Iraq’s historic infrastructure bereft of disinterested public support – including its 15,000 archaeological sites and many thousands of places of worship, monuments and historic places – and splintering society in ways that damage future hopes for collaboration and a cohesive central state government.

Cultural heritage is now recognized by competing parties as a key economic and political resource in Iraq. Political, religious and economic power-brokers have appropriated cultural heritage to serve their own agendas, not the public interest.

“What could and should be a common resource for developing society-wide amicable relations is instead subject to systematic and predatory exploitation, leading to the enrichment and empowerment of narrow interest groups and the alienation of many citizens from Iraq’s shared cultures and communities. The fragmentation of cultural heritage reflects the country’s own political fractures. These include the creation of autonomous heritage-related institutions, particularly in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), and the rise of religious endowments that promote subnational ethnic and religious interests. As a result, narratives of exclusion and the promotion of religious and cultural differences have become central to how politics is conducted, a key characteristic of heritage predation. Communities and society at large have become increasingly apprehensive about the ways in which cultural and religious heritage, and more broadly, narratives about the past, have been instrumentalized by political elites.” (p5)

The ability of the state apparatus to direct heritage management is curbed by its usurpation by competing political and religious groups. The central government cannot provide basic services such as such as security at major archaeological sites and emergency conservation; There is no central stewardship of heritage sites that should be shared national assets.

“An archaeologist from Iraq summarizes the situation:

“Our main issue is the lack of funding. There is simply no money for protecting archaeological sites, monuments and other important symbols of Iraqi history. It is all being destroyed, degraded and lost. We have sites in Nineveh, Dhi Qar and Babylon, for example, that are falling apart. In Babylon alone, we have tens of sites, if not more, that are falling down because we don’t have funds to buy emergency support scaffolding and carry out conservation work. Several Sumerian and Babylonian sites, and many other sites that are no less than 2,600 years old, and some 4,000 years old, including at the UNESCO site of Babylon, are falling apart because of a lack of government financial support.” (p 19)

“Iraq is forced instead to rely on foreign organizations and funders, whose interests are often circumscribed and short-term, and are not always aligned to Iraq’s own needs… these same US and European institutions have bypassed Iraqi laws and worked with Iraqi subnational actors without state approval or knowledge… [C]ultural heritage is also a national sovereignty issue. In many cases – and particularly in the KRI – US and European heritage programmes, including excavations and cultural rehabilitation projects, have normalized Iraq’s fragmentation by ignoring and excluding domestic state institutions and legal frameworks. Such interventions are often another form of exploitation. For example, international heritage institutions have benefited from the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars since the destruction wrought by ISIS from 2014 onwards, but outputs on the ground have generally not reflected this investment.”(p 6)

In the hands of power-brokers, Iraq’s cultural heritage is losing its value as a public good, and is increasingly appropriated for negative, sectarian purposes. These policies result in distortion by division of Iraq’s shared histories and identities, encouraging cultural divisions and prioritizing specific cultural agendas. The paper describes the sectarian parties’ deliberate rewriting of history by the country’s post-2003 sectarian elites.

“Saddam Hussein pursued major state-funded projects aimed at rewriting Iraq’s history, with a view to promoting his own vision for the country. Similarly, the post-2003 elites – namely Kurdish and Shia political groups – have engaged in expansive rewritings of history, using such projects to justify their own political actions and control of the Iraqi state. Another dimension of the problem can be seen in the rapid growth of political party-controlled universities, at the expense of intellectual and academic independence.  In an increasing number of cases, master’s and PhD students (particularly in social sciences and humanities) are being asked to revise their theses in line with political diktats. In the field of cultural heritage specifically, political interference has ranged from cultural appropriation and historical fabrication to the partial or complete erasure and restructuring of cultural and religious sites.” (p 6)

“Examples [of sectarian contestation] include calls by certain religious actors to destroy Baghdad’s Abu Hanifa Mosque, or to remove the bust of the Abbasid-era founder of Baghdad, Abu Jaafar al-Mansour (accused by some Shia religious leaders of having poisoned the Shia imam, al-Jaafar al-Sadiq, in the eighth century). The latter agenda is less about claims of historical injustices than about who owns the future of Baghdad…” (p 20)

There is restructuring of entire cultural and religious sites, cities and towns by subnational institutions.

“The fragmentation of Iraq’s national cultural heritage has been compounded by the establishment of religious endowments. The Shia, Sunni and non-Muslim endowments were created from the disbanding of the pre-2003 Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments… Religious sites in Iraq are now controlled by confessional political and religious groups, sanctioned by the Iraqi Constitution of 2005 and by separate laws promulgated in 2012 that include the Shia Endowment Law, the Sunni Endowment Law, and the Christian, Ezidian and Sabean Mandean Religions Endowments Law…” (p 17)

“A well-known example of heritage predation in Babil is the ‘restructuring’ of the Shrine of Prophet Ezekiel, known as al-Kifl in Iraq, who is said to have belonged to the exiled Judean community in Babylon in the sixth century BCE. Until 2010, the SBAH was the custodian of the complex, which comprised the shrine, a synagogue, a mosque and adjacent khans (inns). However, its ownership was subsequently transferred to the Shia Endowment, on the basis of a claim that Imam Ali had set up camp and prayed on the site. In the decade since its assumption of control of the site, the Shia Endowment has implemented a series of interventions to remove the synagogue and Ottoman-era khans, expand the mosque and build new minarets.” (p 18)

The war has exacerbated prejudice towards minorities to the point that smaller communities have gone underground and individuals who can do so have fled the country.

“For example, the Mandean and Baha’i communities have been uprooted because of the absence of security over the past two decades or so. Public displays of the Baha’i faith – a relatively new offshoot of Shia Islam – have disappeared as a result of continued threats, due to accusations by some armed and religious groups that its adherents are Shia imposters, heretics and servants of foreign interests. The historically significant Baha’i lodge in Sheikh Bashar, on the Karkh side of Baghdad, which was listed as a heritage building by [the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage] SBAH, was demolished in 2013 by the Shia Endowment and a new Shia mosque built on the site.” (p 14)

Ancient sites, especially ancient sites with an overlay of Shia religious edifices, are being severely damaged by modern additions.

“The use of cement, bricks, glass and other modern materials has compromised the integrity of the significant archaeological complex of Esagila, an ancient temple to the god Marduk…”

“A few kilometres away, at the largely unexcavated Babylonian city of Borsippa, the mosque and maqam (a site for visitation and prayer) of Ibrahim al-Khalil, a site purported to have been visited by the Prophet Abraham, are located on top of an archaeological mound. This site too is now overlain by new concrete structures, a market and a car park.” (p19)

The authors point out that Kurdish authorities have been very successful in bringing foreign archaeologists and sponsors for cultural restoration to regions they control, often without informing the central authorities.

“… thousands of cultural objects, including cuneiform tablets and seals, in the possession of museums in the KRI. These were purchased on the black market or confiscated at Iraq’s internal KRI-managed borders, in a scheme sponsored by Hero Talabani, the wife of the late Jalal Talabani (the former president of Iraq from 2006 to 2014 and co-founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political party), to prevent their removal from the country. The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities has yet to receive a list of those cultural objects, many of which were looted from the Iraq Museum in the spring of 2003 or plundered from archaeological sites in the following months and years.” (p 23)

The paper provides examples of an ordinary profit-motive at work, not only in developing religious tourism, particularly of Shia sites and monuments, but also in allowing neglect as the predicate for building over sites in cities for modern construction projects.

“An activist in Baghdad, who spends a significant amount of time working with communities and raising awareness of Baghdad’s history, refers to the neglect of Abbasid-era heritage in the city:

“In Iraq’s current situation, Abbasid heritage is viewed as Sunni. This means that in the emerging sectarian discourse of redefining the past, Abbasid heritage is seen by many, particularly political parties, as not Iraqi but as belonging to one group or section of society. This is not good for the future, as people will start to think that this heritage does not belong to all Iraqis. We have seen a lot of neglect of this heritage, but most Iraqi monuments and buildings are neglected in Baghdad. They are waiting for it to all collapse, so they can build shopping malls, new housing and with it erase the history of the old part of Baghdad.” (p 32)

The authors’ final recommendations are aimed at three constituencies – first, the Iraqi government, which is urged to transform the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities into a ‘front-line’ institution with reasonable budget, to establish principles for conservation and documentation and a national strategy for professional heritage development and education, seeking out international support.

Second, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities must build a working relationship with the KRI as well as with the country’s religious endowments to build common, national goals and non-destructive models for development.

Finally, the international donor and research communities must work to address Iraqi government priorities in cultural crisis situations, not just their own, must provide direct support to the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities as a central component of their work in Iraq, and combat corruption and mismanagement of resources in international heritage projects and ensure Iraqi partners and facilitators are held to account in cases of clear corruption and the misuse of funds.

Altogether, Cultural Heritage Predation in Iraq is an enlightening, useful and important read.

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