Editorial Feature

The Challenges of Rescuing Heritage

Suzanne Bott explains the impact war and conflict has had on heritage sites in Iraq

Inspired in part by her naval officer brother, Suzanne E Bott became a planning and heritage consultant for USAID and then the US State Department following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. She ended up in Mosul and became enraptured by the area’s archaeological sites such as Nimrud, Nineveh and Hatra, then watched in horror as ISIS/ISIL began destroying everything she had come to love…

Nimrud & Hatra (From the collection of World Monuments Fund)

How did you come to be in Iraq?

I went in 2007 as a senior reconstruction advisor. I wanted to do something meaningful for people who wanted and needed my help. When I saw what had happened during the invasion with the destruction of the National Museum in Baghdad I was very moved. It stayed with me and when I had the chance I went for it. I spent the first year in Ramadi then in 2008, I joined the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Mosul. With military backing I was able, for the first time in many years, to bring UNESCO representatives and Iraqi government members to visit the sites and assess their condition. Primarily, the sites were Ashur, Nimrud, Nineveh, Hatra, Khorsabad, the Tomb of Nahum in Al Qosh (KRG), and several monasteries—Mar Elia, Mar Matti, and Mar Benham.

Part of the impetus for preservation work in the region was economic, for when tourism would be possible. The other part was the goal of educating Iraqis in their shared heritage as a way of promoting healing. So many were unaware of their own history. I made it my mission to plan for the reopening of Mosul Museum but it was destroyed by ISIS/ISIL before completion.

I am now an advisory member of the Iraq Task Force for Reconstruction (through UNESCO) but I returned from Iraq in 2010 with a very bad case of PTSD having seen more than anyone should see and have had to learn what I can and can’t control—that’s part of a memoir I’m writing. It has kept me from being more actively involved in Iraq in the field although I’m still engaged with training.

Nimrud (From the collection of World Monuments Fund)

It’s notoriously difficult to separate facts from propaganda in war. How accurate have reports of ISIS-caused destruction been and how extensive has the damage been?

That’s a tough question. Reports on the ground were often unverified during the ISIS occupation, so any time we had news it was never completely clear unless there was video to back it up, of course. When I saw the videos of the Mosul Museum, that’s when I knew all was lost and when I posted all my photos of the museum online. Chance Coughenour (of Google Arts & Culture) and Matthew Vincent were able to start Rekrei (formerly Project Mosul) to 3D model the museum’s artifacts—using my photos and other crowd-sourced images.

Of course, seeing the destruction of Nimrud, Nebi Younis, the Mosul Museum, and the al-Hadba Minaret was conclusive on all counts, and the extent of the damage clear: they were gone. Nineveh is so big it would be hard to destroy much of the unearthed archaeology but the lamassu (human-headed winged bull) at the Nergal Gate were destroyed.

There was some confusion about whether the artefacts at the Mosul museum were originals or copies but most of the larger artefacts were real and destroyed—a lamassu and colossal striding lion, The Banquet Stele of Assurnasirpal II from Nimrud, bronze bands from the Balawat Gates, and the bronze coffin of the Nimrud Queens.

Winged genie, North-West Palace in Nimrud (From the collection of World Monuments Fund)

And what about destruction by other forces including the Iraqi and US campaign to retake ISIS territory? It seems more extensive and indiscriminate than targeted Islamist destruction.

The other forces were very destructive, as well. Recent reports on NPR by journalist Jane Arraf tell of the terrible destruction in the historic heart of Mosul by the bombing. It reminded me of that quote from the Vietnam War: "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it". It’s devastating. There are few places that have been so systematically obliterated.

The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) supported by the U.S. State Department have been surveilling heritage sites in Iraq and Syria for several years through a program called the ASOR-CHI (Cultural Heritage Initiative) and have been using satellite imagery and information from locals on the ground to verify and catalogue the destruction

But I think back to the destruction of Nimrud by ISIS. When I asked a US military officer why we weren’t protecting Nimrud when it would have been so easy to do, he said US forces hadn’t been asked to do so by the Iraqis. Yet, the Iraqis didn’t invite us in to Iraq the first place, so what would have been the harm in saving listed and "tentatively listed" World Heritage Sites? Pleas to the Iraqi Army and the Americans not to destroy the Old Town of Mosul went unheeded because of the importance of eliminating ISIS. But I also believe we left Iraq in a position of terrible economic and political instability in 2010 that led directly to the rise of ISIS.

North west palace at Nimrud (From the collection of World Monuments Fund)

How much of the ISIS/ISIL destruction do you think was doctrinally driven and how much for propaganda purposes or for cultural cleansing and genocide—ie driving out the Yazidi. Is evidence of cultural crimes being gathered?

Oh, such a good question. I don’t know if anyone’s made any formal assessments yet of the motives and how much came from which perspective. The destruction of the Yazidi has been absolutely ethnic cleansing. I think the Peshmerga were able to keep the centre of the faith in Lalish protected. However, Sinjar is in dire straits; families, children, the elderly and sick, are still on the mountain living in the tents they got four years ago, and they are losing all protection due to the politics in northern Iraq. Cultural destruction is the least of it.


Ancient city of Hatra (From the collection of World Monuments Fund)

Is there a coordinated effort to rescue heritage for prioritized rebuilding or restoration and the like?

No, not to my knowledge. UNESCO has taken a leadership role, but it is a battle of wills between competing interests and priorities for limited funds. The locals want heritage rebuilt but don’t have the resources —even the rubble hasn’t been cleared since the battles. At the same time, there is talk of Dubai-style apartment towers funded by overseas developers along the banks of the Tigris even though the character of some of Old Mosul on the west bank could be recreated. But otherwise very little is capable of being restored—as opposed to being rebuilt; the damage is simply too extensive. The new UNESCO director in Erbil is apparently overseeing master planning but so far there are no funds to implement it.

I always say I’m never going back to Iraq then in the next moment I think I would go back in a minute. Mosul is a very special place. For example, the Mosul museum has to reopen and get school children educated around their common heritage so that they can rebuild a sense of identity and pride. Some people say that the regional cultural differences are too great but I believe the history is one of the best resources for establishing a new vision for a region of peace and greatness.

Detail of the head of a winged bearded genie (From the collection of World Monuments Fund)
Interview by Robert Bevan
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