Dr Benjamin Isakhan Assesses War Damage in Iraq

The development of the world's first database that documents the destruction of heritage in Iraq

Iraq is the birthplace of human civilization and the country has a rich and proud history that dates backisakahn-iraq to more than 3500 BCE. In addition to the many great achievements of Ancient Mesopotamia, Iraq was the capital of the Islamic empire during the Abbasid period (750-1258 CE) in which key innovation were made in astronomy, philosophy, politics, law, science, and medicine.

However, since the invasion and military occupation of Iraq from 2003, Iraq's rich cultural heritage has suffered terribly. Museums, libraries and art galleries have been looted with devastating efficiency; mosques, churches and historic markets have been bombed in deliberate ethno-religious sectarian motivated attacks; coalition military bases have been set up at very sensitive archaeological sites; and professional black market operatives have dug and smashed their way through the ancient catacombs of Iraq's many heritage sites in search of treasures from the ancient world to sell on the international black market for antiquities.

In light of these dramatic and devastating events, Dr Benjamin Isakhan has recently conducted field work in Iraq in order to develop the world's first database that documents the destruction of heritage in Iraq.

Dr Isakhan heads a significant research team of Australians, Americans and Iraqis who will work together to build the database over three years (2012-15). The research is funded by a grant from the Australian Research Council's Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) scheme and is supported by the Centre for Citizenship and Globalization at Deakin University. Dr Isakhan's research will not only include several trips to Iraq to assess damage done to various heritage sites, but also interviews and archival work in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. The purpose of the database is not only to enable policy formation towards the minimization of heritage destruction during times of conflict, it also aims to list the heritage sites in Iraq that most urgently need protection and restoration from the Iraqi government and the international community.

During his current trip, Dr Isakhan has been able to visit several sites of historical significance that have been damaged since 2003.

One of the most well-known examples was the looting of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA) immediately after the fall of Baghdad on 9th April 2003. Over the course of nearly one week, looters repeatedly targeted the building, carrying away material and equipment and even going as far as lighting white phosphorous in the complex to ensure maximum damage. Dr Isakhan met with the Director of the INLA, Dr Saad Eskander, who gave him an update on the restoration and digitization projects going on at the INLA. Dr Eskander also told of the extraordinary challenges facing the INLA over the years, ranging from initial looting to gunfire on the building during warfare, threats to staff and ongoing bureaucratic and political issues.

Dr Isakhan has been able to visit the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur which first emerged as a city-state around 3000 BCE. It is among the most important sites of the ancient world and commonly thought to be the birthplace of the father of the three great monotheistic religions of the region, the prophet Abraham. In 2003, Coalition forces (including Australians) set up a key military base adjacent to the site known as "Camp Adder". Although the damage done during this time was not extensive, some damage was done via the erection of new buildings or by using heavy machinery on and near the site.

Dr Isakhan was also able to visit the holy city of Najaf which is home to the Imam Ali Mosque and Shrine. The stunning gold façade and intricate architecture of the mosque and shrine date back to 977 CE and the site is now considered the third holiest site for Shia Muslims. Sadly, the mosque and its surrounds have been targeted several times since 2003 which have included several co-ordinated car bomb attacks and mortar fire. Perhaps the worst instance came in 2004 when a Shia militia seized the site to use it as a military base to launch attacks against Iraqi Security Forces, leading to some damage to the site.

Such damage has plagued hundreds of sites across Iraq and in many cases the damage has not been adequately recorded. These sites are not just part of Iraq's rich cultural heritage; they represent major landmarks in the broader story of human civilization. While there are some success stories, like the restoration work being done at the INM, it is clear that much of this heritage is in urgent need of preservation, protection, excavation and careful restoration. The legacy of despotic rule and brutal wars hangs heavy over the country and many urgent problems require immediate attention. But as the security situation in Iraq slowly improves and international investment in Iraq's oil sector ramps up, the international community and the Iraqi government could do much to improve and restore Iraq's important heritage.

Dr Benjamin Isakhan is Australian Research Council Discovery (DECRA) Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalization at Deakin University, Australia. He is the author of Democracy in Iraq: History, Politics, Discourse (Ashgate, 2012). He can be contacted at: benjamin.isakhan@deakin.edu.au


Contact: Benjamin Isakhan

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