Heritage Sites in Kurdish North Iraq Being Vandalized

Judith Neurink – RUDAW – 2.8.2013 – In Iraqi Kurdistan vandalism has hit art and heritage. Ignorance seems to be the main drive behind the destruction.

Look at the noses of the statues of Kurdish poets and writers in one of the parks of the Kurdistan capital Erbil: most of them are broken. Some even lost their ears when vandalism hit the park. Who is responsible for the damage to these works of art, made to remember some of the influential brains of Kurdistan’s past?

See the graffiti that is covering the King’s Grave at Qizqapan, one of the main remaining treasures of the Assyrian history in Iraqi Kurdistan. The new stairs that were built to the grave in the rocks no longer allow visitors to get near enough for this kind of action, but it also deprives them of the visit to the cave itself.Someone recently built a house right above Khanis, the place from where the Assyrian King Sennacharib in 700 BC had one of his famous aqueducts constructed that carried water to Nineveh. The concrete skeleton of a building near the river is left unfinished, as an ugly reminder of the lack of respect for history of whoever planned to set up shop here.

I took a group of Kurdish journalists to a new excavation site in Duhok, where graves and five statues have been found. I was appalled to see the journalists wandering through the exposed graves, and leaning against the statues. Archaeologists tell me about ancient rock carvings that are being used as targets in gun practice. They show sadness about the damage the bullets caused that never can be repaired.

Just a few of the many examples of the difficult relationship the Kurds have with the remainders of their past. I can make an even long list here, as I visit many of the ancient places regularly with guests and tourists. These foreigners are disappointed by the centuries-old gate at Amedi, as they have to wade through plastic bottles and past human waste to reach it. And they stand guessing in front of it, as there is no good explanation about the age of the gate or its main features. Kurdistan’s history is definitely one of its treasures when it comes to tourism — and the Kurdistan authorities say they want the tourists badly.

After years of Saddam Hussein prohibiting archaeological research in the Kurdistan region, a lot needs to be done to be able to compete with the rest of Iraq. My guests mourn over the fact that, because of the bad security situation, they cannot visit Nimrud, Hatra, Ashur, Nineveh, Ur and Babylon, just to mention the main sites. Kurdistan needs more interesting sites to show off its great past. And archaeologists are eager to help find them. Yet the American team that I met recently had been bogged down in Kurdish bureaucracy for over a month, being sent from one office to the next and back again, and all the time not being able to start the work.

The Dutch/German team I interviewed some time ago about their excavations near Taqtaq also had a hard time, being caught in a political fight between bureaucrats of the two main Kurdish parties. They lost much of their precious time because of workers striking as a result of that, and because of owners of houses on the excavation site demanding loads of money.

What if these foreign archaeologists move to countries where working is easier and they are welcomed with open arms? Kurdistan and history, is it really a bad combination? How is it possible that so few people understand the importance of treating the treasures of the past with respect? At the same time, if sites are constructed, it is usually overdone and they look as if they are newly built. Some of the castles that were reconstructed in Kurdistan have in reality been rebuilt. In that way, you lose the feel and the atmosphere of the past.

Kurdistan could learn from those countries in the region that have learned to deal with their precious heritage. They reconstruct it in such a way that the monuments remain, but still show the wear and tear of the time.Perhaps we are waiting for Kurdistan to discover its own Nimrud or Nineveh. Perhaps then the message will get across. Because then the world will be interested, stories about it will hit all the media, busloads of tourists will come, and more archaeologists will sign on to dig for Kurdistan’s past.I hope that does not mean that until then Kurdistan’s heritage remains unprotected. Clearly, the first thing that is needed is to at least keep what we have got, and in the best order possible.