Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on the role of cultural heritage in the reconstruction of Iraq, 2 October 2019
On 3 October 2019, The Nahrein Network organised a round-table discussion on the role of cultural heritage in state-building, as part of Chatham House Iraq Initiative’s conference, Iraq in Transition.
Ms Alice Walpole, Deputy head of mission for the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq, spoke about the role of international organisations in supporting heritage for state-building.
In September 2016, while I was working in Mali, the International Criminal Court in The Hague handed out its first ever sentence for cultural crimes. An Al Qaeda commander was convicted of involvement in the destruction of nine mausolea and a mosque in Timbuktu. This case gave rise to renewed international debate on the significance of culture in conflict. Why do parties to conflict target cultural heritage, and should an attack on a cultural artefact – building, manuscript, statue – constitute a war crime?
Throughout history, culture, ethnicity, religion or language have been leveraged to promote, intensify or justify conflict. Our cultural heritage describes who we are; it sets us within our historical context; it links us to our ancestors and will, in due course, link us to our descendants. An assault on our cultural heritage, then, is an attempt to deny our very identity. Da’esh’s physical destruction in Iraq and Syria of archaeological sites, places of worship, schools, cultural centres such as theatres and museums, and historical artefacts are a recent violent example of that urge to erase history; the desire to obliterate all narrative that runs counter to their world view; to deny human rights and freedom of expression with the imposition of a restrictive ideology.
An imposition against which many have fought back over the centuries. Our cultures make us proud. And protective. I suspect it was that proud and protective impulse that compelled my friend Father Najeeb, now Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul and Akra, and others to load the priceless library from a Dominican monastery into vehicles, and remove them, at considerable personal danger, from Mosul to a safe house in Erbil in the face of advancing Da’esh forces. The library comprises a unique collection of ancient manuscripts dating back to the 9th century, and printed books from as early as 1515; in addition to Christian texts, there are works on geography, history and mathematics, as well as Islamic, Jewish and Yazidi literature. We start to understand the value placed on cultural heritage when we learn what risks our fellow citizens will take to protect it.
Those of us in a position to be able to support the rehabilitation of cultural heritage post-conflict, are eager to tap into that popular pride and affection. Because while culture can be exploited to cause conflict, in the aftermath of conflict, it can also play a vital role in reconciliation and inter-communal understanding. In fact, many of us believe that culture sits at the heart of all sustainable recovery and rehabilitation of societies.
Disputes over political access, land rights and the distribution of wealth and resources often remain unresolved in post-conflict environments and then serve to exacerbate future community tensions. But culture – the product of historical interactions between individuals and communities, representing shared understandings of the world – can serve as an entry point to a resolution of these disputes by reminding all parties of their religious, literary, linguistic or philosophical links to each other; or even simple commonalities such as a shared traditional dress, cuisine or dance.
This is culture as a unifying power. It is the reason the United Nations believes that the work of UNESCO is integral to the comprehensive, complex UN-supported rehabilitation programme currently underway in Iraq’s governorates liberated from ISIL.
Today, the United Nations in Iraq is seeking to promote a counter-narrative to Da’esh. A narrative of peaceful co-existence, reconciliation, respect for diversity and creativity. At the heart of this is the project ‘Reviving the Spirit of Mosul’, constructed around three pillars: rebuilding historical, cultural and religious infrastructure; strengthening education and returning children to school; reviving the cultural life of the Old City. It is important to note that the project goes beyond physical infrastructure – the EU has just approved a 20m euro project for urban rehabilitation in Mosul’s Old City, targeting youth and other returnees to provide them with skills and job opportunities. A similar project will be rolled out in Basra, again with a focus on urban regeneration. It will be important, in the longer term, that the Iraqi state takes full ownership of these projects, along with a strategy to protect, maintain and promote access to Iraq’s rich cultural heritage in all its forms for future generations.
I have long viewed culture as a driver for reconciliation. In 2009, I was appointed British Consul General in Basra, on the heels of the departing British Army. One of the items I inherited from them was an assessment, by the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, British Army Royal Engineers and British Museum, that Saddam Hussein’s former Lakeside Palace in Basra would make an ideal new antiquities museum for Basra and southern Iraq.
Accordingly, in 2010, a small group of us, including a renowned Iraqi archaeologist, a former British Ambassador to Iraq and former Iraqi ambassador to Britain and a senior curator at the British Museum, formed the Friends of Basrah Museum to help bring this idea to life. BP made a very generous donation to get the project off the ground and other donors, including international companies active in southern Iraq, chipped in.
After much consultation between Baghdad, Basra and London, a constructive dialogue with the Basra Provincial Council, and sustained, resourceful and dedicated activity led by the Museum Director Qahtan al-Abeed, the first gallery of the Basra Museum opened in September 2016 and three more galleries (displaying some 2000 Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian artefacts) in March 2019.
Strikingly, since the museum’s opening, some 600 historical artefacts have been handed over by private citizens to the Basra Museum. Six hundred historical artefacts that families kept safe during times of war and instability. And which they are now eager to share with the wider community.
It’s this human dimension that is key if Iraq is to repair and sustain its cultural heritage. When I was in Erbil recently, I called on Father Najeeb. In the front room of his home, a young woman was repairing a damaged historical manuscript. I could see from her dress that she was Christian. The manuscript was an Islamic hadith. I commented that she was working on a Muslim text. Of course, she said; I am an Iraqi, and this document is part of my Iraqi heritage.
This event is part of a project funded by a UCL Public Policy Expert Engagement grant.