March 2023 marked the 20-year anniversary of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. The war, violence and reconstruction efforts that followed have had an impact on Iraq’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Following the collapse of the government, looting occurred at an unprecedented scale. The most well-publicized instance was the looting of the national museum of Iraq (founded one hundred years ago, in March of 1923, as a single room in a government building housing artifacts curated by the British Orientalist Gertrude Bell). Over a period of 36 hours in April of 2003, 15,000 artifacts were stolen from the museum. Meanwhile, displacement and violence following the expansion of ISIS in 2014 led not only to the destruction of heritage sites but to the targeting of minority cultures. Hannah Parsons-Morgan, a PhD candidate in archaeology at the University of Exeter interviewed archaeologists Mark Altaweel at University College London and Jaafar Jotheri at the University of Al-Qadisiyah. Parsons-Morgan spoke with Altaweel on March 16, 2023. Jotheri subsequently contributed to their conversation over email. Their conversation—which explores the crises and opportunities of Iraq’s cultural heritage since 2003—has been edited for length and clarity. This interview is also available in Arabic as part of a collaboration between MERand the independent Iraqi media initiative Jummar.
Hannah Parsons-Morgan: To begin, can you describe the immediate impact on Iraq’s cultural heritage of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003?
Mark Altaweel: The immediate impact, of course, was the looting to the national museum in Baghdad. That happened before Baghdad had fallen to American soldiers and continued for some days after. I think that was the initial immediate shock or trauma to Iraq’s cultural heritage. But, with the US invasion there was also a significant increase in looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq, places like Umma—a site dating back to the Sumerians—as the government authority had more or less collapsed.
Jaafar Jotheri: Yes, it’s worth mentioning that the period between 2003 and 2008 was the worst in Iraq’s history for illegal digging. Many archaeological sites were virtually destroyed by the scale of looting. Smuggling routes became more developed through places such as Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan with items ending up in Turkey, Iran and the Gulf states. The vast majority of items looted from these sites have never been found, even while a few publicized items from the Iraq National Museum and illegally excavated sites (such as the famous Warka Mask or smuggled tablets purchased by Hobby Lobby) were eventually returned to Iraq.
Hannah: Why specifically was southern Iraq so vulnerable to looting?
Mark: This goes back to pre-2003. Obviously looting didn’t begin in 2003. In southern Iraq, especially, looting had been increasing substantially in the 1990’s as a response to poverty caused by the economic sanctions that hit this area particularly hard. So, by 2003, there were already fairly well-organized looters in that part of the country. The government had tried to limit looting in the late 1990’s through targeted excavations, which had some success. But it still was a recurring problem. With the invasion, as the economy and society effectively collapsed, this facilitated moving artifacts. These artifacts had a big market in places like the United States, as evidenced by the Hobby Lobby scandal. There was an appetite for a lot of objects from Iraq’s pre-Islamic and pre-Christian periods.
There was also some damage to other areas but relatively minor: some looting in Mosul Museum, a bit of targeted looting in places like Nimrud, but that damage was much more minor, far less extensive than in Baghdad and southern Iraq. In those areas, what we saw in the early 2000’s was a general insecurity, even before the arrival of ISIS, which caused a halt in archaeological work. Archaeologists working in Mosul felt routinely threatened and work was only done on a limited scale. Excavations and heritage conservation efforts in the provinces of Salahaddin, Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala were almost nonexistent or very small scale. Again, some looting occurred, but it was far less extensive.
Hannah: What efforts were made to prevent looting and have they been successful?
Jaafar: To prevent looting, in 2008 the government established a new department in the Interior Ministry called “the Archaeology Protection Forces” in each province, which began recruiting Iraqi archaeologists to serve as “commanders.” At the same time, this was a period when the internet was becoming more accessible, and local community members grew more engaged in Iraq’s cultural history through social media, which aided in efforts for its protection. Religious authorities in Najaf and Karbala also became engaged with safeguarding and raising awareness about the importance of Iraq’s wider heritage. Leaders like Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have issued fatwas forbidding the smuggling of artifacts. Local and international conferences and workshops have even been organized in Najaf and Karbala around the themes of heritage. For example, the first International Conference for the Enhancement of the Archaeological Heritage in Iraq (ICEAHI) was held in Kufa in 2018. All of this has had the effect of slowing looting in southern Iraq, although it still persists at a reduced level.
Hannah: What about the looting that happened with the emergence of ISIS in Iraq, particularly following 2014?
Mark: What happened in 2014 was very different. By then looting in the south had diminished substantially. With the conquest of Mosul, ISIS basically took the practice of organized looting they had been doing in Syria and more or less applied it to Iraq. We saw organized looting in a few key places, like Nineveh, but also organized destruction for propaganda purposes. This included the destruction of the Prophet Jonah Mosque, believed to be the burial site of Jonah, which had been revered not only by Muslims but also Christians and Jews. Other sites destroyed include the Mausoleum of Imam Awn al-Din, a 13th century Shia shrine that had survived the Mongol sack of Mosul and Saint Elijah’s Monastery, a 6th century Christian monastery that was one of Iraq’s oldest Christian structures. Yezidi sites were destroyed, and Iraq’s ancient heritage was also targeted, again, for propaganda videos that could circulate on social media and grab headlines. But there was also targeted looting to sell objects to Western markets (buyers in Europe and the United States), which was a means to finance their operations.
Hannah: Can you describe what’s been done subsequently to preserve the cultural heritage in these particular regions?
Mark: There’s actually a lot of work now in the area once ruled by ISIS, which is being done by various aid agencies from UNESCO to smaller agencies. A team from the University of Pennsylvania, sponsored by the US government, is working inside of Nimrud. In Mosul, there has been rebuilding of some of the old churches and mosques funded again largely from international donors. I think there’s been neglect in Yezidi heritage and reconstruction in northern Iraq, particularly after ISIS. Even compared to other minorities in Iraq, Yezidi heritage preservation has very little attention from the outside compared to Christian groups who might have more connections, not only to a diaspora, but also to external funding sources. But I think in some ways the current threat is potentially more to the intangible heritage (languages, cultural memory, communal identity) because a lot of the minorities that were targeted and displaced do not necessarily feel safe enough to return in mass.
Mark: I think there is. I noticed on my last trip to Mosul in 2022 there’s a real hunger by people to understand and preserve their heritage in part provoked by the traumas of ISIS. There is something to be said for trying to bring in the sort of recent trauma to Iraq’s intangible heritage to the tangible. One example that speaks to this: The University of Heidelberg was asked by the Iraqi antiquities authority to excavate ruins dating back to the Assyrian empire, which were found under the Prophet Jonah Mosque—the biblical site that was blasted by ISIS, who then dug tunnels underneath. When the mosque is rebuilt, they are hoping to also preserve the ancient items that they had found because of the destruction. Basically, they’re trying to merge this reconstruction with the opportunity to learn something about the deeper past as a way to potentially bring the population together.
Jaafar: It’s also worth mentioning when speaking about intangible heritage that some types of intangible heritage have thrived after 2003 while other types have declined. The reason behind that is that when Iraq was under economic sanctions (1990–2003), people depended on the local resources and crafts. In 2003, when the Iraqi markets opened up and started filling with Chinese, Turkish, Iranian and Syrian products, local Iraqi products lost out to competition with the foreign products. As a result, the skills to produce traditional crafts have declined rapidly since 2003. Some examples are the traditional boatbuilding, textile of men’s Abaya and women’s accessories, goldsmith, horse saddles, coffee preparation, the production of reed oboes and agricultural and farming tools. However, oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events have thrived as restrictions that existed preceding 2003 lifted.
Hannah: One of this MER issue’s editors raised the following point, which I want to put to you, Mark: There’s a trope that certain groups like Assyrians and Yezidis have been more supported by the west, one that has led to their targeting. At the same time, external reconstruction funds do not always meet local needs as conveyed by local community organizations and their counterparts in the diaspora. For example, many Yezidis and Assyrians might note the emphasis on rebuilding churches has overshadowed other needs of local populations. Do you see this playing out?
Mark: Yes, possibly. There is a lot of general poverty and lack of opportunity, which is made worse by corruption. Perhaps providing for more general opportunities for work could help all of the population. There should be assistance to everyone so envy and strife does not become a potential problem.
Hannah: Speaking of reconstruction, Mark, you’ve spoken before about a “renaissance” in cultural heritage in Iraq’s Kurdish regions. Can you speak more about this and why specifically in this region?
Mark: I think a combination of factors contributed to this. The Kurdish region of Iraq was an area that hadn’t been explored very much, especially by international archaeologists as it was kind of a no-go zone during the Saddam years. Particularly around 2009–2010, foreign archaeologists started to come to the Kurdish region. Then the war in Syria began in 2011, and this indirectly benefited the Kurdish region in terms of archaeology because a lot of archaeologists who couldn’t work in Syria instead went to the Kurdish region. Now the entire country has become safer, but the Kurdish region was relatively safe at the time, and corruption was also relatively limited unlike in other parts of Iraq; the biggest project was the Erbil Citadel. Since 2014, however, the region has suffered from a major financial crisis and increasing corruption, which has limited local Kurdish research and work.
Hannah: In 2022, the Chatham House Report on Cultural Predation suggested that the muhasasa system has been a key factor in cultural heritage issues. They write that due to this ethno-sectarian system, “income and other resources derived from cultural heritage increasingly accrue not to the Iraqi state but to subnational institutions that actively promote ethno-nationalism, sectarianism and religious objectives.” How do you see this playing out in archaeology?
Mark: The main problems I see in terms of predation is that you have corruption, which is pervasive at multiple scales following 2003. For example, things might not get done at the ministry levels without some bribe effectively, or development is happening without permissions. Iraq’s antiquities laws that are already in place are actually pretty good. But unfortunately, they’re often not followed. All of this means that people are doing things in regards to heritage that may not be addressing the needs of certain communities, for one. Insofar as the political system contributes to corruption, I think that is one of the biggest threats. For instance, I was hearing a recent story from Samarra. A lot of houses were being built on the site, which is completely illegal, but there was not much anyone could do because a local government official was corrupt. It creates a situation where the authorities who are interested in protecting the heritage are not able to do their job.
Meanwhile, it’s worth mentioning, you have regions that are woefully neglected particularly south of Mosul and north of Baghdad for reasons related to mistrust and belief that everyone there had belonged to ISIS. That area in general is the most neglected part of Iraq. Over the past 20 years, it has also been among the most violent areas. There’s not much activity, very little archaeology, very little heritage building and there’s very little news about it. Even in the central government there’s almost no mention or funding to the area. I only know of one project effectively working in that area.
Jaafar: I think the system mismanaged all the sectors in Iraq after 2003, not only the archaeology sector. For example, look at the mismanagement in water resources, agriculture, manufacturers, housing and education. As for the ancient archaeological sites, they cannot be considered based on ethno-nationalism. In other words, the archaeological sites have been treated as national assets (belonging to the central government in Baghdad) rather than regional or local assets.
Hannah: We’ve obviously talked a lot about “manmade” issues, what about the impact of environmental or climatic factors on Iraq’s cultural heritage?
Mark: Climate change is also something that’s increasingly a threat. Iraq is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in the world. Rivers are drying up. Places that were green not long ago, when I was there recently, are now desert. These are massive threats both in terms of buildings being affected but also to people being displaced and the landscape changing, which presents new threats to the tangible and intangible heritage.
Hannah: Do you think that efforts to mitigate climate change can work hand-in-hand with efforts to preserve cultural heritage?
Mark: I think learning from the past can be quite effective as a lot of Iraq’s built heritage, historically, was constructed around climate. For instance, ancient irrigation practices in Iraq included the Qanat systems—these underground irrigation systems, which helped to preserve water by preventing evaporation. Much of Iraq’s irrigation today is just in ditches above the surface. Why not try to use underground systems? Another example is in the construction of homes. Mudbrick homes may seem like a bad idea, but actually this material prevents a house from getting too hot in the summertime. We can learn from the traditional heritage in architecture in Iraq, using technology that works together with the environment.
Hannah: This discussion of centering local knowledge practices recalls some of the work Jaafar is doing. Jaafar, I was reading a blog post you did for UCL with recommendations of how to “decolonize” archaeology within Iraq. Can you talk more here about what you mean by decolonizing archaeology?
Jaafar: By decolonizing archaeology I mean that international teams should encourage local Iraqi scholars and ordinary people to celebrate and promote Iraqi heritage. Rather than selecting areas to work in based on international interests, research based on Iraqi needs should be considered and prioritized. Involving local Iraqi experts in research, training more Iraqi archaeologists/heritage specialists (including in conservation) are also critical. Iraqis have stated that conferences and exhibitions about Iraq should be held more in the country and results should be published in Arabic and other local languages and Iraqi journals. Foreign teams should also help develop local museums and promote their work with local populations as part of their wider project efforts.
Hannah: On that note, I wonder if we could bring everything to a close by looking at the future as all archaeologists should. What is training like for the heritage disciplines in Iraq today and what opportunities exist for the future generation?
Jaafar: Over the past two decades, there has been a lot of investment at the university level. Iraqi historians and archaeologists in Baghdad, Mosul, Al-Qadisiyah and Babylon universities campaigned to establish more archaeology departments and even expand their departments to become faculties. In 2008, for example, Mosul University expanded the Department of Archaeology to become a Faculty of Archaeology. Samarra and Kufa established new faculties in 2010 and 2011, respectively, while Al-Qadisiyah, ThiQar and Al-Muthanna have done similar things after 2014. Two new scientific journals specializing in Iraqi heritage were founded: one by Mosul University and the other by Al-Qadisiyah University. Similar expansion of archaeological programs has been seen in the Kurdish region, though it has faced difficulties with funding since 2014.
Mark: I think investing in youth especially in a country like Iraq, which has such a young population, is critical. There’s so much eagerness to know about the heritage in Iraq, in part, thanks to social media. But while there might be investment in universities, students don’t find jobs easily after they graduate when they study heritage or archaeology. Increasing training opportunities is important but also increasing employment opportunities. For this, creativity is needed. For example, in the tourism sector, which in Iraq is so connected to cultural heritage, I have seen people with startups developing tourism in the marshes of Iraq or other heritage sites in central or southern Iraq. Some foreigners might think of Iraq as a no-go zone, but actually many visitors come to Iraq from Iran and Pakistan as part of Shi’i festivals like Ashura to visit religious heritage sites. There’s also emerging Western tourism, particularly after Pope Francis visited Ur in 2021. As a result of the pope’s visit, the Iraqi government launched a large project to rehabilitate Ur and provide local tourist infrastructure, and in 2021 the government also started granting visas upon arrival to most European countries, Canada and the United States. It’s obviously still limited in numbers, but there are tour groups now going to Iraq quite regularly.
[Mark Altaweel is a professor of Near East archaeology at University College London. Jaafar Jotheri is an archaeology professor at the University of Al Qadisiyah in Iraq. Hannah Parsons-Morgan is a PhD candidate in archaeology at the University of Exeter.]