Preserving Iraq's Cultural Heritage | The American University of Iraq Sulaimani

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Preserving Iraq's Cultural Heritage

On April 26th, Dr. Tobin Hartnell from the Department of Social Sciences and the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) hosted a special symposium that brought together a community of scholars, politicians, and cultural professionals to discuss the value of cultural heritage to Iraq and Kurdistan Region.

The symposium convened three sessions to consider cultural heritage from different perspectives. The first session convened the leading managers of cultural heritage in Iraq and Kurdistan Region. Gyorgy Busztin, special appointee of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq opened by calling for Iraqis and Kurds to celebrate their cultural heritage. Iqbal Kadhim Aajeel conveyed news of last month’s opening of the Nasriyah Museum, which houses many precious objects from the oldest civilizations of the south. Mala Awat, Head of the Erbil Directorate of Antiquities, highlighted the unique cultural heritage of Kurdistan Region including the Erbil citadel. Hashim Hama Abdullah, head of the Sulaimani Museum, recounted how it was the first major museum to reopen after the 1991 war; the project was made possible with the support of then Prime Minister Dr. Barham Salih and former Iraqi President Mam Jalal Talabani. Finally, AUIS professor Marie Labrosse spoke about her work translating and publishing Kurdish poetry, and the importance of digitizing all forms of cultural heritage, especially manuscripts, as a way to ensure their preservation for future generations.

At the present time, Iraq and the Kurdistan’s cultural heritage is under threat of annihilation from ISIS; the second session convened to discuss cultural heritage in a time of crisis. Ahmed Kamil Muhammad, Director of the Iraqi National Museum, emphasized the Iraqi Museum’s reopening was an important alternative to ISIS’s program of destruction. In questions, he emphasized how secure the new museum is, making it almost impossible to loot. Muayyad Said Damirji, the former Director of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, emphasized that we had been through war and crisis together before, and that it was the heroic actions of dedicated individuals that helped protect the museums through those times. Bilal Wahab, a professor at AUIS, described how the sale of antiquities represented ISIS’s second best source of revenue and how terror networks like ISIS often worked hand-in-hand with criminal networks to profit off of chaos. Finally, Axel Plathe, the director of UNESCO Iraq, talked about how UNESCO works together with local institutions to fund dozens of cultural initiatives across Iraq and Kurdistan Region.

With the value and threats to cultural heritage identified, it was time to discuss what cultural professionals could do to protect and promote cultural heritage as part of a prosperous future for the region. Tobin Hartnell described how it was cheaper and more effective to in-source talent to universities like AUIS to train the next generation of cultural professionals. Kozad Ahmed, Head of Archaeology at the University of Sulaimani described his vision of building the capacity of Kurdistan region to manage its own cultural heritage. Simone Muhl, a professor from Ludwig-Maximilian-Universitat in Munich, described how rich the Kurdistan region is in terms of its cultural heritage, so the government urgently needs to assess which sites are in danger and excavate the most important before they are destroyed by construction. Jessica Giraud, head of the French Mission to Sulaimani Province, described how remote sensing can document hidden traces of past sites to provide a better picture of Kurdistan’s complex past. Finally, Mustafa Ahmed of the Institut Francais du Proche Orient (IFPO) in Erbil described the situation in Syria, where cultural heritage is being systematically erased as part of the civil war there.

The AUIS cultural heritage symposium is unique in Sulaimani Province; it represents the best chance to bring the community together to discuss our strategies for the future protection and promotion of culture in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. As a sign of how important this issue is to the future of Iraq, the symposium was attended by several leading public figures of the region, such as Dr. Barham Salih, the founder and chairman of AUIS, Ms. Hero Ibrahim Ahmed Talabani, Mazhari Khaliqi, Jamal Baban, Izzedin Mustafa, and Ahmed Jalal. Leading figures in cultural heritage were also in the audience: Dr. Abdullah Khorsheed, Director of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH) and Dara Al-Yaqoobi, Head of the High Commission for the Erbil Citadel.

We are building on the success of this symposium to create an annual series at AUIS dealing with cultural heritage. I hope you can join us at AUIS for next year’s symposium. For more information on how to be involved, please contact Dr. Hartnell at [email protected] or Christine van den Toorn, the Director of IRIS, at [email protected]

Article by Dr. Tobin Hartnell, Department of Social Sciences, American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.