Celebrating Iraq’s Cultural Heritage
Eleanor Robson, Voluntary Chair of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq’s governing Council and Professor of Ancient Middle Eastern History at University College London, discusses Iraq’s cultural heritage.
For over eighty years now, the journal Iraq has been publishing top-quality research on the archaeology and history of Iraq. It was set up by the British School of Archaeology in Iraq in 1934, and is now run by its successor organisation, the British Institute for the Study of Iraq. From this, its 76th volume, it is published by Cambridge University Press with all of its back catalogue also available to subscribers.
On the face of it, this is an inauspicious time to be promoting a journal of research on the archaeology and history of Iraq. The country’s rich and diverse heritage is in the news for all the wrong reasons. Since the summer of 2014, when ISIS suddenly captured the city of Mosul, we have heard about the desecration of churches, the destruction of Yezidi shrines, the demolition of Shiʾa mosques. More recently ISIS have circulated videos of men taking sledgehammers and explosives to statues and buildings from the ancient Assyrian cities of Nineveh and Nimrud, as well as the desert kingdom of Hatra.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Iraq had no heritage left to research, that it has all fallen victim to the extremist iconoclasm of recent months. Devastating as that destruction has been, it is not the full story.
First, ISIS’s visual propaganda makes them appear disproportionately effective and powerful. Early in 2015 the world’s media agreed not to circulate their gruesome videos and photographs of executions. That hasn’t stopped ISIS’s inhumane killings but it has significantly reduced the flow of that type of imagery. Unfortunately, scenes of cultural heritage destruction have replaced them, with just as much shock value. But we can choose, as we have for ISIS’s human victims, to look elsewhere, to celebrate the living past instead of the moment of death.
• Read Wathiq Al-Salihi’s study of the god Hercules-Nergal at Hatra, which typifies the religious variety of Iraq two thousand years ago.
• Read David Kertai’s analysis of the two main palaces of 9th-century BC Nimrud, one of which was recently blown up
Second, we can turn our attention and support to cultural heritage in the rest of Iraq. In Iraqi Kurdistan archaeology is thriving like never before, thanks to strong support from the local antiquities authorities. And also in the south, fieldwork and historical research continue through international collaborations.
• Read Karel Nováček, Narmin Ali Muhammad Armin and Miroslav Melčák’s investigation of the Kurdish capital Erbil in medieval times
• Read Carrie Hritz, Jennifer Pournelle, and Jennifer Smith’s geo-archaeological survey of the southern Iraqi marshlands
Despite what you may have read in the news, then, the study of Iraq’s history, archaeology and culture is, to a large extent, still thriving. Iraqi experts and international colleagues alike refuse to be entirely cowed by ISIS. Thanks to Cambridge University Press, BISI’s journal Iraq will continue to publish the results of their studies for many years to come.
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