Raiders of the lost art

Babylon, Nineveh, Eden - the ancient sites at the heart of Iraq have suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein, discovers Dan Cruickshank. And things could be about to get a whole lot worse...
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'Life is meaningless to us – we will protect this museum until the last drop of our blood." This is what Saba al-Omari, the young curator of the Mosul Museum, told me when I visited Iraq last November. She wore a black head scarf and black gloves and had a strange, earnest expression in her eyes and a smile on her lips as she spoke of her resolve. She was deadly serious. Her director – who stood by and nodded agreement – is older and did not wear a scarf. She is a Christian, her young companion a Muslim, yet both – sensitive, educated and highly intelligent people – were adamant. Foreign aggression – no matter its reason – would be stoutly resisted.

'Life is meaningless to us – we will protect this museum until the last drop of our blood." This is what Saba al-Omari, the young curator of the Mosul Museum, told me when I visited Iraq last November. She wore a black head scarf and black gloves and had a strange, earnest expression in her eyes and a smile on her lips as she spoke of her resolve. She was deadly serious. Her director – who stood by and nodded agreement – is older and did not wear a scarf. She is a Christian, her young companion a Muslim, yet both – sensitive, educated and highly intelligent people – were adamant. Foreign aggression – no matter its reason – would be stoutly resisted.

As we spoke a US or British jet flew overhead to reinforce the necessity of the blast-proof walls that fill the building's upper windows and justified the evacuation of all the museum's most fragile objects. The rows of empty cases were far from mute. The absence of objects revealed the fact that art and culture is in the firing line in Iraq and that the country's truly unique and internationally precious cultural treasures could suffer horribly if the country becomes a battlefield. Almost daily – so my Iraqi companions insisted – Western jets attack targets in the north Iraq exclusion zone, in which Mosul is the main city, as well as in the southern exclusion zone near Kuwait. The targets are said to be military. But such attacks can – through error or recklessness – have human and cultural consequences. The young curator insisted that even now the museum is regularly rocked by near misses from bombs or missiles. I saw no evidence of this – but then I was in Mosul for only three days.

Both these women share a great love – veneration might be a better word – for the astonishingly rich and ancient culture of their country. This is not surprising. Iraq is the cradle of world civilisation. Most things that the West regards as fundamental to the progress of man have their origins in Mesopotamia – the ancient land that forms the heart of modern Iraq. Mesopotamia – the name means the land between the rivers – was so called by the Greeks because the wide alluvial plain between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates was fertile and a paradise in a hot and arid part of the world. It was here, around 7,000 years ago, that the people of southern Mesopotamia learned to irrigate the land, by means of canals and ditches, and so make productive use of the sun-baked but fertile soil. This brought wealth and plenty to the region and stimulated the growth of intellectual and spiritual life. Around 5,500 years ago the Sumerians – the first great civilisation in the region – invented writing, the wheel, mathematics, our modern concept of time (the division of a unit of time into 60 portions is Sumerian), pottery and the arts (the oldest book now known, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was written in Mesopotamia around 4,500 years ago) and theology (the origin of much Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian myth and scripture is found in Sumerian religious writings). Later, in around 2,000 BC, came codes of law and the calendar. But perhaps most compelling for modern man is that this extraordinary sequence of events took place within a series of mighty cities. As far as we now know the world's first city was built in southern Mesopotamia and it was here that urban civilisation – for good and for ill – has its roots. The first city – Uruk, where Gilgamesh was king – was founded around 6,000 years ago and the story of Uruk and its king reveal the sacred – divine – origin of the city. Gilgamesh went on a quest for knowledge and immortality and, after many adventures realised that immortality could only be gained through architecture, through city building – an activity that would honour a man's gods and allow the builder's name to live forever.

I was in Iraq to make a programme for BBC2. The aim was simple: to see what damage 20 years of war, with Iran and then against the West, has done to all aspects of Iraq's culture – ancient buildings and sites, museums, customs and traditions of religious tolerance. I also wanted to discover what the people of the country feel about the actual and potential attacks on their culture, to what degree these astonishing ancient sites and artifacts represent modern Iraqi's sense of national identity and pride. If my aims were straightforward, the investigation was not. For the past 20 years few Westerners have visited Iraq. The tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein has made it a difficult place to enter – simply getting a visa demands great persistence and patience – and has, in the popular imagination of the West, made Iraq a frightening country in which to wander. This is far from the truth. Iraqis are warm and friendly and – as in all Arab countries – it is a near sacred obligation to offer a kindly welcome to visitors. But, despite this tradition, Western tourists stopped coming years ago and, with frightening speed, the vast cultural importance of the country has been largely forgotten. Once out of sight and out of mind it is far easier for that history to be ignored in any war. As Donny George – a director of the Iraq Museum and an archaeologist of international standing – explained: "The West now sees Iraq as an armed military camp and has forgotten that the entire country is the home of ancient and precious cultures and artifacts. This means that a bomb or missile landing anywhere can destroy a historic site or obliterate finds yet to be made."

This forgetfulness is strange, since museums in Europe and the United States are packed with cultural booty brought back from Mesopotamia in the 19th and 20th centuries. The most striking examples are from the Assyrian Empire – the power that came after the Sumerians and that reached its zenith around 850 BC and from the Babylonian Empire of King Nebuchadnezzar II that dates from around 600 BC. When these great finds were made – at Khorsabad, Nineveh, Nimrud and at the sites of other ancient and long forgotten cities – a lost civilisation was found. It became necessary for man to rewrite his own history – sometimes with most dramatic consequences. For example, when clay tablets carrying the tale of Gilgamesh were found and deciphered in the 1860s and 1870s they shocked the West. Here was an epic – not only 1,500 years earlier than Homer but clearly earlier than the Bible – that included a story of a great flood uncannily like the story of Noah. In the same way in which Darwin's theories of evolution were challenging the literal truth of the Bible's account of creation, so the translation of Gilgamesh questioned orthodox Christian beliefs. It suggested very forcibly that the Bible was not the world's first book and not the result of Divine revelation but a composite work including stories from earlier theologies. This discovery – along with the mighty winged bulls with human heads, and carved panels of ancient kings and gods of cities mentioned obscurely in the Old Testament – caused a sensation in 19th-century Europe and the United States. Things Assyrian were all the rage and launched fashions in clothes, furniture and interior decoration.

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after the First World War and its former province of Iraq came under British control in 1919, the frenzy of excitement about this newly discovered ancient land reached new heights. British archaeological teams continued investigations at Nineveh and Nimrud and at the earlier Sumerian cities in the south including Uruk and Ur. These teams included Max Mallowan and his wife, the novelist Agatha Christie. They visited Iraq repeatedly in the 1930s and early 1950s with Christie – inspired by the country – setting two of her thrillers there, the best being the splendidly if ominously titled Murder in Mesopotamia of 1936. Christie even lived for a while in a rambling medieval courtyard house in Mosul. Strangely, Iraqis still take a proprietorial pride in the author and continue to devour her books, so her house was not difficult for me to find.

From Mosul I travelled south to the 2,000-year-old Hatra – a classical city that was built by Arab princes. Hatra was at the cross roads of a great trade route and – an oasis in the desert – it accommodated all the cultures and religions of the known world. This diversity is still reflected in its stones and statues that tell of the influence of Rome, Greece and Persia with the gods of different cultures living in happy harmony. Hatra withstood the siege of a series of Roman emperors but finally succumbed to a Persian attack in 241 AD. Since then the city has been abandoned and – having enjoyed a renaissance as a tourist hot-spot in the 1960s – now lies desolate once more. Saddam's regime has brought increasing isolation and privation to Iraq, but it has not spared ruins such as that at Hatra from unwelcome attention. Here, reconstruction of a crude sort, is in hand.

Clearly historic sites and ancient architecture are now hot political issues. Just how important was revealed during my visit to the legendary city of Babylon. Famous from the Bible, Babylon was reconstructed in spectacular style in the seventh century BC by King Nebuchadnezzar, including one of the wonders of the world, the Hanging Gardens. The story is told in the Book of Daniel. Having taken and plundered Jerusalem and having driven the Jews into captivity, Nebuchadnezzar – and the Assyrian gods of the Babylonian empire – became emblems of arrogance and evil for the biblical prophets. So Nebuchadnezzar's great stepped pyramid – or ziggurat – which was the symbolical residence of the gods on earth, was demonised in the Old Testament as the Tower of Babel – the emblem of man's overweening pride, ambition and arrogance. Similarly Ishtar – the Goddess of love and war much venerated in Babylon (and the prototype for Aphrodite and Venus) – is dismissed in the Book of Revelation as the "Mother of Harlots", the great whore of Babylon.

This city still has the power to impress and play a role in contemporary politics – or so Saddam seems to believe. Much of the ancient city has been rebuilt to create a series of soulless courts formed with new bricks and cement mortar. Nebuchadnezzar attempted to insure immortality by stamping his name on the bricks he used. Saddam has done the same, suggesting that he is the personification of the history and soul of his country and that his regime represents the continuity of the great Assyrian and Babylonian empires. His attempt to build himself into the fabric of the country explains much that one sees in Iraq. The staggering 9th century giant spiral minaret at Samarra – an elemental and astonishingly powerful sacred building – now presides over the shell of what was once the largest mosque in the world. But, in an attempt to associate his regime with the Islamic cause, Saddam has started reconstruction within the shell so that now a forest of reinforced concrete columns rises to destroy the beauty and archaeological significance of the monument. It is in this same cause – to make himself a champion of Islam – that Saddam is spending vast sums of money and much needed resources on the construction in Baghdad of the world's largest mosque. Already huge concrete columns rear up to the empty sky.

Journeying south I saw the mournful ruins of Uruk – with its once huge ziggurat built of sun-dried bricks now gradually oozing back into the earth – and managed to enter the 4,200 year old Sumerian city of Ur. This was no easy task, since an air base – classed as a sensitive military site – now adjoins the ziggurat of Ur. This close juxtaposition of history and modern military construction is particularly disturbing. The Iraqis claim that the ziggurat was strafed by US fighters during the 1991 Gulf War and I was shown evidence – hits from cannon shells – that was inconclusive. If the impact marks were caused by attacking US fighters then the Iraqis could well have been sheltering warplanes in the very shadow of the ziggurat. It is now impossible to discover the truth. What is certain is that military bases are often located near ancient sites – I noticed another near Hatra – so if war starts, history in Iraq will be very much in the firing line and an inevitable victim of violence.

I ended my journey at Al-Qarna, a town in the southern tip of Iraq. By ancient tradition Al-Qurnah – where the Euphrates and Tigris meet and then flow south to the Persian Gulf – is said to be the site of the Garden Of Eden. Certainly it fits the Old Testament description and with its fertile and well-watered soil supporting palms and life-stock, the land around Al-Qurnah must have seemed a paradise to people coming from the surrounding deserts. The place – still beautiful, lush and peaceful – now has a forlorn feel. No visitors lodge at the tourist hotels and what the locals call Adam's Tree – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – is dead and, rather ominously, the Tree of Life is nowhere to be seen. But here, as in so many places in Iraq, the sense of peace is deceptive. If invading tanks roar through Eden, the cultural – as well as the human – losses could be catastrophic. This would be a disaster for the world for the simple reason that the history of Iraq is the history of the world.

'Dan Cruickshank's The Lost Cities of Iraq': 9pm, BBC2, 2 February