Al-Askari mosque in Samarra Iraq undergoing repairs.

Momentous buildings, monuments and ruins which still stand testament to Iraq’s rich and ancient heritage should be protected at all costs against the rampaging Islamic State (Daesh) group.

Destruction of Assyrian artifacts by IS militants.
Destruction of Assyrian artifacts by IS militants.

As grandiose a term it is for itself the land which conforms to the present day polity of Iraq really does deserve the title the ‘Cradle of Civilizations’.

Unfortunately at present that country is once again being attacked by the dark and barbaric forces of reaction. The modern-day Mongol-like Daesh. The group which shows it has no compunction whatsoever when it comes to murdering and enslaving civilians of communities and sects it finds distasteful, and of reducing to rubble rich and ancient buildings and monuments which have stood for centuries, as well as withstood that tough test which time gives. Iraq is dotted with such sites which could potentially fall victim to that group and consequently be lost forever.

UNESCO presently lists only four world heritage sites in Iraq deemed to be of notable cultural and historic significance. However eleven more sites in Iraq are on a list to be evaluated and considered. One suspects that at least some of them are worthy of the stature expected of a site to be considered worthy of inclusion on that renowned list of sites possessing “outstanding universal value.” And with that inclusion also afforded protection by the international community wherever possible. One hopes more Iraqi sites will be added to that list in the near future, sites such as ‘The Sacred Complex of Babylon’ near Baghdad (the capital of the Old Kingdom of Babylonia), the Mesopotamia Marshlands and the Ancient City of Nineveh which is home to many artefacts which extend back to the early origins of human civilization. Sadly that last site may not make the list since it is in this area where the reputed site of the Tomb of Jonah is, which Daesh overran and blew-up last July.

Limiting ourselves to the four listed sites for now one cannot but fear for their structural integrity when one sees how closely to the north and west of the country they are situated. In other words how close they are to Daesh forces in Iraq, a group that has, as you know, made highly substantive and worrying gains in recent months in light of the weak governance of Baghdad and the embarrassing inefficiency of Iraq’s Army.

Hatra ruins.
Hatra ruins.

Today it is possible, and I hope will be for many many years to come, to see the remnants of the capital of the first Arab Kingdom, Hatra. This ancient thick-walled structure was attacked by the Romans who were repelled in two periods at both ends of the first century (the years 116 and 198CE). It is a rich architectural combination of Hellenistic, eastern and Ancient Roman architecture. Truly one, amongst many, highly notable structures still preserved from ancient times.

In Samarra we have the archaeological city which still stands as a preserved example of an Islamic capital city of an empire which stretched as far west as Tunisia and east to Central Asia. Again according to UNESCO some 80% of this site has yet to be excavated. In other words, this site still has so much to teach us about the Abbasid Empire, its culture, how it functioned among other things. It along with the ancient ruins of Ashur (the first capital of the Assyrian empire) are two sites in Iraq that UNESCO proclaim to necessitate safeguarding from attack given their proximity to Daesh’s savage rampage across Iraq.

We have witnessed the kind of nasty deeds such fanatics can do to sites of cultural importance they find distasteful. Al-Qaeda in Iraq after all successfully managed to bomb the Al-Askari Shrine, a site of immense importance to Shia, as well as many Sunni, Muslims (“I swear by the shrine” is a common phrase used by Muslims which itself signifies the importance and value of the shrine to them) and destroy its beautiful golden dome. A blatant act of sectarian-motivated destruction.

Such deeds are certainly not below a group like Daesh. Their like-minded compatriots of the violent Islamist persuasion around the world have intentionally destroyed heritage sites around the world which they allege are anti-Islamic and should be destroyed. This has ranged from the defacing of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu to Buddha statues in Afghanistan. That is what has happened. In Iraq we shouldn’t run the risk of simply standing by in shock on the sidelines and watching it transpire yet again. Remember, the heritage is not just Iraq’s, but by extension, given its age, humanities as a whole.

Similar such sites testify to Iraq’s rich and diverse culture are of risk of wanton destruction. Not simply risk of being damaged or destroyed in the crossfire of fighting, as has happened so many wondrous sites in places like Aleppo in neighbouring Syria (one sad thing about those sites even before the war began there is how neglected they were by tourists and world travelers in relative comparison to such sites in other nearby countries). That’s bad enough in and of itself. But the threat posed by Daesh is of much more fundamental and pressing concern. These are very resolute and innovative fighters when it comes to carrying out deeds they deem commensurate with their obscurantist beliefs. This should not be allowed happen. We know where the sites are and cannot not know they have been identified as being in danger. Surely the least the world community can do is offer to assist the Iraqi authorities in upholding the protection and structural integrity of these sites by whatever means necessary.

One sincerely doubts Daesh will succeed in its efforts to establish a caliphate. But just because they will eventually, one hopes sooner rather than later, become history shouldn’t mean we should run the risk of letting them desecrate more of these sites unopposed. Sites which have stood the test of time and will hopefully stand for centuries to come as testament to Iraq’s long history.