Deakin researcher in Iraq to investigate link between heritage destruction and violence

17 October 2012

At Deakin University Dr Ben Isakhan spends much of his time working with two sombre databases. One, provided by the Iraq Body Count, is a meticulously kept record of civilian deaths in Iraq, while the other is a list of the heritage sites and museums that have been destroyed since the country's 'liberation'.

Dr Isakhan, from the University's Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, is currently in Iraq refining data gathered as part of a world first project trying to establish whether there is a link between heritage destruction and violence in a country.

"There's been talk of a relationship in previous studies, which have looked at the heritage destruction in Armenia at the end of World War I, during the Holocaust in World War II, Northern Ireland and Cambodia, but it's never been empirically tested," he said.

"Thanks to an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) grant my research will empirically scrutinise some of these assumptions.

"One aspect of the study looks at the destruction of Iraq's many significant Islamic sites (mosques, shrines, etc.) during the ethno-religious sectarian violence that raged across the nation in 2006-7."

Dr Isakhan admitted the use of the Iraq Body Count as a measure of violence in Iraq was particularly horrible, "but it is very important and it tells us how bad it has been."

"It has been meticulously kept and it is amazing that they have been able to keep it going," he said.

"It is tragic and it makes truly painful reading."

But just as painful for Dr Isakhan is the database of the other casualties in Iraq, the galleries, museums, historical sites and artefacts some of which are thousands of years old which have been damaged or obliterated as part of the violence.

"The very earliest days of the occupation saw an unprecedented degree of looting and arson in which important state institutions were the main target, including the Iraq National Museum (INM), the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA), and the Museum of Modern Art," he said.

"Whatever the reason or intention of this destruction, and even if we look at just what occurred at the INLA the fact remains that much of what was housed in the INLA was unknown to foreign or even Iraqi scholars and a rich catalogue of Iraq's cultural heritage has now gone up in smoke and is lost forever.

"Since then a number of sensitive historic locations have suffered irrevocable damage like Mesopotamian archaeological sites, an Abbasid-era palace and mosque, an Ottoman-era mosque and the Hashemite Parliament House."

Dr Isakhan said Iraq – the cradle of human civilisation – is one of the most important archaeological parts of the world.

"Iraq is home to an estimated half a million archaeological sites with a registered list of approximately 25,000 sites," he said.

"The vast majority of these – and the most significant and sensitive of them – concern Ancient Mesopotamia.

There are in fact hundreds of examples of Ancient Mesopotamian sites that have been affected by the war."

Dr Isakhan said just as worrying as the damage caused by the violence was the damage caused by the military occupation itself, and by looters.

"Babylon, which is 90km outside Baghdad, is among the most important cities of Ancient Mesopotamia and one of the world's most significant archaeological sites," he said.

"It was also home to the military base Camp Alpha.

"Trenches have been dug, parts of the site have been levelled to park military and other heavy equipment, damage has been done to the Ishtar Gate and the Procession Street of the ancient city.

"For example as one observer described it; "nine of the animal bodies which adorned the Ishtar Gate and represent the mythical dragon emblem of the ancient God Marduk, the God of Babel, have gone missing".

Dr Isakhan said inexpert looting meant insights from civilisations long gone was being lost forever.

"Once an archaeological relic has been taken from the ground it loses 90 per cent of its scientific value, primarily because it loses the context and the associations that go with it," he explained.

"Even if we were able to find it, we have its aesthetic value but what it could tell us about our origins – how we developed the world's first cities, the first literature, and the arts of civilization has gone."

Dr Isakhan said the destruction of heritage was a tragic by product of war and the breakdown of social cohesion which followed in its wake.

"Historic sites, cultural artefacts, museums, libraries all help create a sense of national identity and give people meaning in their lives," he said.

"In a complex society like Iraq it plays a part in understanding the people and their backgrounds.

"Most of the heritage in Iraq is highly politicised and different 'conquerors' have used and abused Iraq's history to create a new historical memory which suits their own political purposes.

"When you destroy all that it creates a vacuum where people can pedal their own narrow ideologies.

"And it matters because is that something we really need more of?"

Further information

Dr Isakhan is the author of a new book - Isakhan, B. (2012). Democracy in Iraq: History, Politics and Discourse. London: Ashgate


Media contact

Rebecca Tucker
Media and Corporate Communications
03 5227 8568, 0418 979 134
Email Rebecca

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