Building a positive future through cultural heritage

Text of speech by Gyorgy Busztin, Deputy Secretary of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), at the First Annual Cultural Heritage Symposium hosted by The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.

Building a positive future through cultural heritage

Dear Mr. Chairman,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Distinguished Guests,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to represent the United Nations at this important conference together with Mr. Axel Plathe, the director of UNESCO in Iraq. The UN is following with great concern the fate of Iraq’s cultural heritage, now under unprecedented threat, because we believe that Iraq’s heritage is inseparable from Iraq’s future, as the title of my address also suggests. The UN’s concern for Iraq’s cultural heritage was reflected in the two recent visits of the General Director of UNESCO, Madam Irina Bokova, to Iraq, as well as being highlighted during the UN Secretary General’s recent visit to Baghdad.

Iraq has a rich heritage almost unparalleled in age and variety. Sumerian, Assyro-Babylonian, Achaimenid, Hellenistic, Parthian, Sassanid, Christian and Islamic heritage with the latter segmented into Abbasid, Mongol and Ottoman layers provide a unique amalgam, together with the heritage and tradition of a plethora of ethnic and religious groups.

This cultural heritage translates into a host of civilizational achievements identified first with ancient Mesopotamia (such as the wheel, writing, mathematics, astronomy, temple architecture) and later with the Abbasid Golden Age (such as advances in philosophy, jurisprudence, medicine and chemistry), complemented by magnificent artefacts plus a built heritage hardly known and appreciated in its fullness even by the Iraqis themselves.

The past and the archeology of Iraq captivated the imagination of Europeans since the 19th Century in large part due to the Toraic, and Christian Holy Scripture references.

It was archeological heritage that first reconnected what is today’s Iraq with the modern world after centuries of isolation.

(It is worth remembering here the pioneering work of Henry Layard and Hormuz Rassam on Assyrian archeology…which first opened a window on this magnificent heritage).

How heritage connects to nation building

Iraq’s birth as a modern nation connected the people of the new country with the spiritual and political currents of the contemporary world. Iraqis no longer viewed themselves simply as “millet”, as ethnicities of an expansive Empire like before, but rather a people with a distinct identity. That nascent identity was further forged and strengthened by the anti-British revolution of 1920. This period coincided with the infiltration of different strains of nationalism. The Kingdom of Iraq espoused an Arab identity originally forged in the struggle of the new ruling Hashemite dynasty against Ottoman rule. However this identity was as yet not exclusive. It has drawn on multiple cultural identities under the aegis of an Arab/Islamic predominance. The notion of Mesopotamian civilization was incorporated into this amalgam…with a tolerance of all religious identities. Iraq had a rich repository of ethnicity and religions living in peace side by side.

How heritage was employed subsequently to serve the designs of the totalitarian regime

Totalitarian ideology infiltrating into Iraq in the 1930s has bred the first instances of intolerance towards this diversity and not only degenerated into the active persecution of targeted minorities – Iraq’s Jews being the first victims of politically motivated campaigns of marginalization – but with the arrival of Baath Arab Socialist ideology, a watered down form of Nazism into power, the campaign of intolerance expanded to included Kurds, Shia, and gradually all religious or ethnic groups seen as a challenge to Baath ideology and a threat to Baath power monopoly.

This era also saw the arbitrary politicization of the entire Iraqi heritage to conform to Baathist cultural policy that envisaged Iraq as the center of a new Arab world dominated by Baathism. With this the entire cultural heritage of Iraq was linked to the ideological project of the Baath and not unlike the cultural policy of Nazi Germany, Saddam’s also initiated a practice of rewriting history and reshaping the notion of heritage to suit the objectives of the dictatorship. Noteworthy is Saddam’s predilection for Mesopotamian grandiosity, but also his basking in the light of the Abbasid Golden Age. The Baath inspired architecture drew heavily on ancient Mesopotamian motif and architectural grandeur as much as the glory of medieval Arab architecture, however in a megalomaniac way not any different from the architecture of other totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century (Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin all espoused styles of grandiosity that largely drew on Graeco-Roman architectural tradition). Moreover Saddam rebuilt entire structures of the Mesopotamian heritage stamped by his personal hallmark, much as he also epitomized himself in works of art along the lines of Arab/Islamic tradition as conquering Arab/Muslim hero.

How heritage was then made subservient to a sectarian agenda

Sadly, the predicament of Iraq’s rich cultural heritage did not end there and then.

The termination of Baath dictatorship and the ensuing chaos ushered in yet another phase of intolerance, however this time motivated by narrow sectarian ideology. This new ideological drive was likewise inimical to diversity and wanted to place its exclusive imprint on the entirety of Iraq’s culture, including its heritage. Some observers maintain that this new drive was also complemented by what they term “the victory of village over city” with cultural sophistication of an urban educated class – that largely fled dictatorship and chaos – submerged under the sway of a roughshod new elite of rural origin with little understanding and respect of other than narrow sectarian values.

The victim was the spiritual as much as the physical heritage of Iraq, as most of it was condemned to gross neglect. The precarious security situation was a convenient excuse. In fact for the duration of a decade hardly anything happened to sustain, protect or popularize Iraq’s cultural treasures. The “Baghdad, Cultural Capital of the Arab World” project was a disappointing failure in the shadow of narrow sectarian cultural policies, as pointed out by Minister of Culture Faryad Rawandoozi in one of his recent public addresses.

In the meantime Iraq’s heritage became increasingly the victim of deteriorating security with the sole exception of the Kurdistan Region, where a stable security environment opened the way for the salvaging, and later the professional rehabilitation of built and other archeological heritage. Nothing proves to be a more shining example of the success of Kurdistan in restoring its rich heritage than the formal granting of UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE status to the Citadel of Erbil, painstakingly restored in the last years. Likewise, the Slemani Museum is unique in providing a window to the past of the Region, also expanded with UNESCO assistance. I am heartened to see more important archeological restoration and preservation work unfolding in Kurdistan, with the help of foreign missions, the latest arrival among them he Hungarian Archeological Mission, soon to start its work. 

The developments in the Kurdish Region are in stark contrast with the tragic fate of heritage in the Western Provinces of Iraq after June 2014.

Why does takfiri ideology seek the elimination of heritage

The systematic and wide scale destruction of Iraq’s diverse heritage by the takfiri elements is the implementation of a clear and pre-meditated policy of subverting Iraq’s diversity by eliminating its common past. These despicable acts of targeted destruction are a conspiracy not just against the nationhood and unity of Iraq but also against the cherished cultural heritage of universal humanity. The United Nations has consistently and repeatedly condemned in the strongest terms the rampage of the takfiri terrorists. The takfiri objective on the face of it is confronting what they term “idolatry”, however in fact its true aim is to destroy Iraq’s social fabric by eliminating all vestiges of its rich history. This campaign of ruin goes hand in hand with the mass murder and the uprooting of entire minority communities over areas under the control of terrorists.

Can restoring heritage become an element of restoring Iraqi national identity and respect for diversity?

In the past months it has become evident that the takfiri plan has backfired. The pictures from Mosul museum provoked revulsion worldwide but also in Iraq. An unprecedented increase in the consciousness of Iraqis, as reflected by social websites, links the protection and the restoration of cultural heritage with the survival of Iraq as a country and a nation proud of its diversity. This new founded understanding of the importance of heritage and diversity must contribute to laying the foundations of the new, inclusive Iraq, drawing heavily on its rich heritage. It is not accidental that the notion of “citizenship” – “muwatana” – is seen as inseparable from an inclusive, non-sectarian Iraq and from Iraqi heritage. This attempt to link heritage to a future of democracy and inclusiveness has prompted a proposal recently to change Iraq’s coat of arms from eagle to the winged bull of Mesopotamia (Lamassu).

How cultural heritage can help coin an image of an inclusive and democratic Iraq

Nothing but the cherishing of Iraqi heritage can be a succinct and powerful answer to the Wahhabi - takfiri rampage. Beyond protecting and restoring the treasures of Iraq’s past it should serve as a powerful symbol and a rallying call to the unity of the people of Iraq. The Government of Iraq should draw on the dedication and enthusiasm of thousands of university students and scholars in order to initiate a wide campaign to protect Iraq’s common cultural heritage, physical and spiritual. UNESCO has already suggested such an initiative. The uprooted communities need to return to the liberated areas with a firm conviction that their religious and cultural landmarks will be rebuilt and sustained. Moreover, only heritage restored can keep the people on the ground.

What are the urgent tasks in safeguarding heritage

I am heartened by the wide turnout for this conference where the new young generation of Iraq’s future archeological community is represented. Restoring and subsequently protecting your country’s heritage from evil will be your task. The UN is standing firmly with you. I am keenly interested in your plans and together with Dr. Plathe will convey your ideas on the future of Iraqi heritage to the UN and the international community. Why cultural heritage is a tool of major importance to building a positive future, is clearly indicated by countries that drew on their rich past not just in support of their national identity – which is inseparable from heritage – but also in realizing a firm basis of sustainable income through heritage based tourism. With the increase of the general level of knowledge among the people of our planet, cultural tourism is overtaking recreational and gastronomic tourism and Iraq looms large on the horizon as one great untapped source of this potential. In order to realize this potential, I suggest the setting up of an Iraqi Heritage Society: it should be created to connect civil society and NGOs to professionals who in turn should be supported by Government, academia and business. A Heritage Society could be the ideal tool for introducing the notion and importance of heritage into the educational curriculum on all levels and into the public consciousness with the help of the media.

Mr. Chairman,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish this conference all the success in plotting the way to a better future for Iraq based on its glorious past.