Simone Mühl studied Near Eastern Archaeology, Assyriology and Proto- and Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Heidelberg (Germany). After achieving her Master of Arts-degree there in 2007, she started working on her PhD-thesis entitled, “History of Settlement in the central Trans-Tigris area – from the Neolithic to the Late Assyrian period”. In 2011, she received her PhD and started working as Assistant Lecturer at the Institute of Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Munich. Presently she is the archaeological director of the Shahrizor Survey Project (Iraq), where she started working in 2009.
Briefly describe your personal research and outreach background in regards to Iraq?
I have worked as an archaeologist, investigating the ancient cultures of northern Iraq since approximately 2007. Like many people around the world, the happenings in Iraq create a feeling of helplessness regarding this humanitarian disaster, but also the destruction and harm in the cultural sector. In order to keep track and sort the news reports, initially published primarily by Iraqi Arabic and Kurdish news networks, but later also by international agencies, I started trying to approach the problem more systematically, to find a way to separate inaccurate news (copy and paste journalism) and relevant material. Since such work is best done together with other people who work in the area of cultural heritage preservation or who are interested in it, social network platforms such as Facebook are perfect to keep things simple and to reach different groups of people all over the world.
Why do people need to know about endangered sites in Iraq?
The cultural history of the landscapes within the borders of modern day Iraq goes back to the Paleolithic period (ca. 500,000-100,000 BCE), with sites from this period discovered in the Haditha region (al-Anbar province), Mosul region and in Iraqi Kurdistan. Starting with earliest prehistory, there are several archaeological sites within Iraq that represent benchmarks within human prehistoric and historic chronologies. Within the now conquered and contested areas in northern and central Iraq lie more than 4,000 archaeological and historical sites that we know about, mainly from archaeological surveys. Excavations were restricted in this area to the flood zones of the large dam projects north of Mosul and near Haditha, as well as to the Assyrian capitals, Nineveh, Nimrud, Ashur, and Khorsabad.
For decades, Iraq has been shaken by conflicts and wars. Therefore, nearly no archaeological research could be carried out apart from very small, targeted examinations at Nineveh in Mosul for the training of students of archaeology at Mosul University, or pre-war excavations by German, British and Italian missions.
It is known from the ongoing situation in Syria, and from past conflicts in Iraq, that looters, smugglers and art dealers are working in organized networks to fill art markets all over the world with antiquities from both nations. Objects that come from famous sites such as reliefs from Nimrud, which were reportedly stolen in June, will vanish unseen and undetected in collections of people who can afford to pay large sums for them, and who probably arranged “looting on demand” with prior knowledge of which objects are stored where and what they represent. But the looting of large and famous sites is only one facet of destruction on the much broader scale. Smaller, unexcavated and archaeologically unexplored sites lie next to villages and cities without being monitored. Sites in rural areas of contested regions are also endangered because the rural population is the one which is hit first economically: it is dangerous to grow crops, livestock is being stolen, and markets have shifted. Often digging for “treasures” is seen as easy money to support one’s family, but as can be seen around the world, it is these “subsistence diggers” who get the least money.
Militant organizations such as ISIS (or ISIL/IS/Da’ash/Da’ish) put taxes on smugglers and partially sell looted objects directly to customers. Looted and stolen antiquities become part of the bloody chain of weapons acquisition; the profits gained by dealing in antiquities provides money to pay the salary for their fighters, to pay equipment for their propaganda machinery and much more. It is important to make the criminal intentions behind the art market public, also to appeal to the ethical consciousness of the ones who can control the business, the ones who pay for it.
The destruction of cultural heritage is not a bagatelle. After the Hague Convention (first protocol 1954, second protocol 1999) it is considered subject to criminal prosecution in the Criminal Court of the country whose national territory such crimes were conducted, or at the International Criminal Court.
How many known sites are currently threatened? Which areas are seeing the greatest threats?
An area of about 100,000 sq km (nearly as big as Iceland) is not under the control of the Iraqi government in Baghdad or the Kurdish Autonomic Region. We know of about 2,000 archaeological sites in the regions of Sinjar and Mosul and another 2,000 sites in the wider region of Ashur (near the modern city Qal’at Sherqat), Kirkuk and down to the Diyala river. The number of sites in al-Anbar province, where Haditha lies, goes well into the hundreds. All of them are threatened. Among the threatened sites are three of four sites in Iraq that were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List: Ashur, Hatra and Samarra. The first image below is of the ruins of Ashur, seen from across the Tigris, while the second represents the current dig house with the Temple of Ashur in the background (courtesy of M. Herles, 2001).
Ashur and Hatra were overrun by militant forces in the beginning of June, while Samarra is on the front line at the Tigris since the beginning of July. At least in Samarra it was possible for the General Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad to establish ground forces for the protection of the site.
Nevertheless we can differentiate threats: First are finance related risks, second is cultural destruction as part of “ideological” programs, and third are damages as the result of armed conflicts. Dealing with antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums is not new to Iraq’s recent history. Everybody remembers the looting of Iraq’s largest archaeological museum in Baghdad, and some provincial museums like the one in Mosul, even though precautions were taken by the staff members of these institutions to safeguard many movable pieces. Sites of great antiquity were turned into moonscapes by some local and predominant professional looters equipped with weapons and heavy construction equipment.
We know that many activities of looting are related to an organized antiquity market. Most buyers choose not to engage with information about where their money goes to or what it contributes to. While mafia-like structures will also prevail during the ongoing conflict in Iraq, information gained about the illicit traffic of antiquities in Syria, and information found in digital files secured near Mosul early in June 2014 shows that direct selling of looted antiquities is a major source of financial funding of groups such as ISIS (or ISIL/IS/Da’ash/Da’ish).
Cuneiform tablets, stone objects such as cylinder seals, and metal antiquities are jackpots for looters, because these objects can be sold as items of “art” as if they were produced only for glass cabinets in galleries. Historically speaking they are items of daily use, and if preserved in their context and documented by professional archaeologists they can reveal a plethora of information about ancient societies.
We would know nothing about, for example, the earliest efforts at crop cultivation and animal domestication, or the Mesopotamian mathematician who authored a clay tablet with geometrical exercises that is sold at an auction or by a black market dealer. With contextual information such as the mudbrick architecture of surrounding buildings, crude and fine ceramic vessels, food remains, and his burial place, we can reconstruct the mathematician’s life from the cradle to grave. We know how children were raised, what schools looked like and how they were organized, we know how handcrafts were coordinated by an administration or family business, how important astronomy was for the organization of calendars, and we know about individual and communal treatment of the dead and what the dead can tell us about the living. But what we know from excavations is also still incomplete. The knowledge varies from region to region, period to period. It was impossible to carry out archaeological excavations in Iraq for decades. Since then new methods were developed and applied, but mostly at excavations in Syria, Turkey and the Levant, leaving a great gap of scientific knowledge in Mesopotamia, a heartland of earliest writing, scholarly traditions, deployment of economic strategies and mechanisms.
But historical sites are not just valuable for the scientific community only. People in Iraq are much connected to their cultural heritage. They live on and near the sites, profited from tourism or worked in cultural sectors. Children are taught the material and intellectual history of Mesopotamia and the people are proud of it. Many shops and companies were named after famous kings and ancient cities of importance, the famous winged bulls that guarded the entrances of the Assyrian palaces were chosen as business logos, amongst other Mesopotamian symbols. The ancient history of Iraq is omnipresent.
But the region’s history is also of importance for many branches of Islam, since important historic events during and after the life of the prophet took place along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Later, during the medieval period, Islamic religious and scientific scholarly tradition was blooming. Remnants from this time period include manuscripts, scientific equipment and buildings with unique architectural features. Many buildings and architectural remains are still preserved from this time, and the architectural tradition continues to this day. Next to it, mostly in northern Iraq, Assyrian Christian, Ezidi/Yezidi and smaller branches of Islam add cultural traditions and material heritage to the diverse ethnic and religious life of today’s Iraq, each of which is part of the millennia-long circuitous course of history in the region.
Another threat, which cannot be underestimated, is the destruction of heritage sites and movable items as “collateral damage” in war activities. While modern military weapons systems seem to be able to aim at targets very accurately, public reports of errors and failure mostly are not available, but to be expected.
The ancient settlement mounds, also known as ‘tells’ (from the Arabic word for mound) bear the remains of numerous episodes of ancient building construction superimposed on each other. But due to their elevation they are also important landmarks within war zones. Gun emplacements, guard houses, and tank positions are often dug into such mounds, as well as mines being placed on and around them to harm opponent parties if the station is captured.
Some sites are also bulldozed to get building material for street barricades; others are cut for fire trenches or barrier trenches around cities. In several cases such destruction has been complete as in the case of a site visited by our team in 2013 not far from Halabjah. The ancient settlement mound was used as a tank emplacement during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) and was completely bulldozed from within to make it still look like a normal landscape feature to the enemy. The first image below is of an ancient settlement mound near Halabjah, bulldozed to serve as a tank emplacement during the Iran-Iraq War. The second image is from the top of the same mound, that has been hollowed out, destroying all archaeological context (courtesy M. Herles, 2001). A more recent example from sites cut near Kirkuk can be found in a crisis list from 2005.
What is the motivation behind these attacks?
The motivation for targeted attacks at mosques and sanctuaries at first seems to be religious. In strict interpretations of the Kur’an it is forbidden to build mosques on top of graves to avoid worshipping the dead and ancestors respected by the community. The destruction of ancient sites, such as Hatra, was threatened in a recent statement released by ISIS/Da’ash. I do not know if the explanation given in the media was part of the original statement, but it is said that the site was supposed to be destroyed, because it was a place for the worshipping of false gods, demons or devils. In Syria, Assyrian statues and reliefs from the archaeological site ‘Ajaja in the lower Khabur region were smashed, all photographed, videotaped and broadcasted on various social media. This arguably also served a propagandistic purpose. We might also assume that both the religious aspect of destroying images of heathen gods, but also the outreach and recruitment potential of such attacks goes far beyond this.
Destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime as laid out by the Hague Convention; thus it is subject to criminal prosecution. It aims to eradicate the cultural identities of people and reshape history according to radical dogmatic and political aims.
In Iraq, this often accompanies ethnic cleansing and the elimination of any structure that is part of Iraq’s multiethnic/-religious society. Once the destruction of living and visual memories is completed, only fading shades of what is lost will prevail, leaving nobody behind to mourn the loss, leaving nothing to remember what was lost. Children growing up in such territories are not taught about the ancient history or diverse religions of Iraq or the world, but only the condemnation of pluralistic societies.
The recent history of wider parts in Syria, now under control of radical religious/political groups amongst which ISIS is one, already shows the outcome of such rule: a young generation that has no place to call home, that has lost its traditions and the family bonds which carry these traditions and memory, a new generation who will be trained in weapons and destruction and the maintenance of industrial facilities of strategic and economic importance, but not in the preservation, reconstruction and building of cultural values.
Where can people learn about the illicit trade of materials from Iraq in Germany?
Some information is provided by the German Homepage of UNESCO, governmental initiatives are mediated on the homepage of the Ministry for Culture and Media. A Red List for cultural heritage has been set up by the International Council of Museums to inform institutions like police, border control, Interpol and to help to identify looted objects more easily. Several newspapers have published reports about the current situation. Nevertheless the public impact of the current events in Iraq and threats to its globally significant cultural heritage still seems to be less in comparison to the last Iraq war, when the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad was plundered and archaeological sites were destroyed by looters, which caused furor worldwide.
Finally, can you explain the goals for your website overall? Its primary audience? Any plans for the eventual translation of content into Arabic and/or Kurdish?
Endangered Heritage Sites In Iraq offers the possibility to include friends and colleagues from European countries, the United States and Iraq, most of them also involved in archaeology, history or the cultural sector. Many group members feel connected to Iraqi cultural heritage in some way or another, be it by their family background, religion, or cultural or historical interest. I intend the website to be another forum to discuss and try to control the authenticity of news reports together, as well as a place for field archaeologists, architects, historians, etc. to provide more contextualized background to breaking news events as they happen. Modern media allows “normal users” to check with local sources or even with “informants,” most of them friends or family members who live in Iraq. Much can be done from the desk right now, also because it is much too dangerous for any of us to do on-the-ground background check given the violence of the situation. Another advantage of Facebook is instant translation from English into Arabic and vice versa. Kurdish dialects are still not supported, but maybe this is only a matter of time.
Nevertheless, since several weeks there are basically no reports coming from the conflicted areas. This partly might be due to the tactical pressure that is put on ISIS/Da’ash and its allies by coordinated air and ground assaults by the US Army, Kurdish, governmental and self-organized forces. Additionally, the conditions of daily life became very difficult (lack of electricity, internet access). It became very dangerous to keep contact with people outside of the contact zones, but also amongst each other. Therefore information structures are not or only little functioning.
In this phase it is important to keep up posting news and articles about the cultural heritage in the conflicted regions such as Iraq and Syria in order to keep the focus of public awareness on the topic. As we all know: no news is usually not good news and the destruction of sites and the illicit traffic of antiquities have certainly not stopped.