UNESCO to make a preliminary assessment of the state of Iraq’s Cultural HeritageIn the wake of the heavy losses to Iraq’s cultural treasures, notably in Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit, some 30 leading experts will meet at UNESCO Headquarters on April 17 to attempt a preliminary evaluation of the state of the country’s heritage. The meeting will seek to determine the urgent measures required to safeguard this heritage, which dates back thousands of years.
Following the looting of the National Archaeological Museum of Baghdad, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura, who on April 11 had exhorted US and British authorities to preserve the country’s archaeological treasures, called on them “to take immediate measures of protection and surveillance of Iraqi archaeological sites and cultural institutions.”
The Director-General also called on the authorities of countries bordering Iraq, international police, customs organizations and the principal actors of the art market, to join forces with UNESCO in a “comprehensive mobilization so that stolen objects should not find their way to acquirers.”
At the April 17 meeting, which, apart from the opening session at 9 a.m., will be held behind closed doors, the group of about 30 Iraqi and international experts* will attempt to draw an inventory of recent cultural destruction. They will also make recommendations on those elements of Iraq’s heritage that require priority action and the way this should be coordinated. A press briefing will be held at 2.45 p.m.**
Iraq is often described as the "cradle of civilization". From the end of the fifth millennium B.C., Ancient Mesopotamia gave rise to a host of technical and cultural innovations. Thanks to an exceptional combination of geographical and climatic factors, a surplus of agricultural production led to the development of sophisticated societies, the invention of writing and the establishment of the first urban settlements and legal codes. In more recent history, Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate and the political and cultural centre of the Muslim world.
Numerous sites, and those collections in national museums that were spared from the pillage, bear witness to an invaluable legacy for all humanity. Before it was sacked,
The Baghdad Museum, for example, housed around 100,000 artefacts that testified the glory of the civilizations that succeeded each other in the "Land between the two Rivers", from pre-historic to Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, Persian, Parthian, Sassanide, Greek and Islamic.
Outstanding sites include the cities of Ur of the Chaldees, the supposed birthplace of Abraham; Babylon and its legendary Tower of Babel; Nineveh, Ashur, Samarra and Hatra. This great, fortified city, which combines Greek, Roman and Oriental influences, is the only Iraqi site inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List (1985).
Another seven sites feature on a “tentative list”, which was supplied in 2000 by the Iraqi authorities with a view to their inscription on the World Heritage List, including Mosul, Nimrud, Ashur, Samarra, Al-Ukhaidar, Wasit and Ur.
After the meeting on April 17, conditions permitting, UNESCO will send a mission of experts to Iraq. This mission should allow for a preliminary assessment of the state of conservation of the museums, monuments and the main heritage sites, in order to identify most urgent needs; evaluate the capacity of local authorities to rehabilitate cultural heritage; identify Iraqi and international partners and to draw up a plan of action and a strategy to raise the necessary funds. Italy has already announced that it will place an initial sum of 400,000 Euros at UNESCO’s disposal.
UNESCO began working with the Iraqi authorities in 1976 to safeguard the country's cultural heritage. In the 1980s, the Organization contributed to the restoration of Babylon and Basra. More recently it has worked in three main directions.
UNESCO first engaged in the fight against looting and the illegal trade of cultural artefacts that developed during and after the 1991 conflict. UNESCO forwarded a list of missing items supplied by the Iraqi authorities to many museums and auction houses, to the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and INTERPOL. In 1995, UNESCO alerted the art market and the international community to the theft and looting of artefacts from the site of Hatra.
Beginning in 1998, UNESCO participated in the modernization of the museum in Baghdad, which had suffered from a lack of maintenance. The Organization notably contributed to the installation of a closed-circuit television security system and new air conditioning. UNESCO also supported the rehabilitation work in Baghdad of Qasr Al-Abbasi, which houses the renowned cultural institution Bayt Al Hikma, founded in the 9th century by the Caliph Al-Mamun.
UNESCO sent several missions to Iraq between 2000 and 2002, in particular to find ways to save Ashur, the first capital of the Assyrian kingdom, from a planned dam construction project. The proposal to inscribe this site on the World Heritage List is due to be considered at the next session of the World Heritage Committee in June 2003.
"UNESCO's recent experience in other war-torn and post-conflict situations has shown that culture can play a key role in consolidating the peace process, restoring national unity and building hope for the future," said UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura. In recent years, UNESCO has contributed to rehabilitating heritage and encouraging cultural activities in Cambodia, the States of the former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan, among others.
*The presence of the following experts has been confirmed:
Iraqi experts: Donny George, Director General of Restoration, Museum of Baghdad; Salma El Radi, University of New York; Abdulsattar J. Mousa, Department of Culture and Information, Directorate of Heritage – Sharjia; Walid Yasin Ismail, Archaeological Advisor, Department of Antiquities and Tourism, Al Ain; Lamia Al-Gailani Werr, Seals expert, London; Zainab Bahrani Van-Mierop, Associate Professor, Dept. of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, USA; Ghahim Wahida, Cambridge University, UK.
International experts: Helga Trenkwalder (Austria), Director, Austrian mission to Borsippa; Leon De Meyer (Belgium), Director, Belgian Archaeological expedition to Iraq, Honorary Rector, University of Gent; Ingolf Thuesen (Denmark), Director, Carsten Niebuhr Institute for Near Eastern Studies; Simo Parpola (Finland), Director, State archives of Assyria project, Institute for Asian and African Studies; Annie Caubet (France), Keeper of Ancient Near East Department, Louvre Museum; Beatrice André-Salvini, Head Curator of the Department of Oriental Antiquities, Louvre Museum; Barthel Hrouda (Germany), Director, German missions to Isin and Ashur; Giuseppe Proietti (Italy), Director General for Archaeology, Ministry of Culture; Roberto Parapetti (Italy), Director, Italian-Iraqi Centre for the Restoration of Monuments, Rome; Ken Matsumoto (Japan), Director, Kokushikan Archaeological expedition to Kish; Diederik J. W. Meijer (Netherlands) University of Leiden, Faculty of Archaeology; Piotr Bielinski (Poland), Director, Polish Archaeological missions to Tell Rijm, Eski Mossul dam project; Abdelaziz Daoulatli (Tunisia), Heritage Advisor for ALECSO; Veysel Donbaz (Turkey), Director of the Tablet Archive, Istanbul Archaeological Museum; Joan Oates (UK), British School of Archaeology in Iraq, British missions to Tell al-Rimah and Nimrud; Alastair Northedge (UK) Institute of Art and Archaeology, Paris; Neil MacGregor (UK), Director, British Museum; John Curtis (UK), Keeper of Ancient Near East Department, British Museum; McGuire Gibson (USA), Director, American Archaeological missions to Nippur and Tell Razuk, President, American Association for Research in Baghdad; Abdullah A. Kareem El Reyes, Arab Regional Branch President of the International Council on Archives (ICA); Cristina Menegazzi, International Council of Museums (ICOM); Michael Petzet, President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS); Ross Shimmon, President of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS).
**Journalists wishing to attend the press briefing must obtain accreditation
from UNESCO's Press Service, tel. +33 (0)1 45 68 17 48 or send the downloadable accreditation request. Accreditation Request