Strategic Heritage Interventions in a time of cultural destruction

The spectacular destruction of cultural heritage in the Middle East by armed groups in recent years has been widely covered by the international media. Heritage destruction is also however associated with degradation, neglect and collapse, which is deeply tied to the way politics and life unfolds in a country.

For a long time now, Iraq has faced unprecedented cultural damage and destruction – an onslaught visited on the Iraqi people and the war on the Iraqi state under US-UK led international sanctions. By 2003, Iraq’s state institutions, severely degraded and impoverished, were ill equipped to address the immense challenges brought about by another war on the country. The Iraq War of 2003 ushered in a new wave of destruction as the institutions of the state, already weakened by sanctions, were disbanded and its security forces and the Iraqi Army told to go home. The inability to rebuild those institutions has in large part led to the collapse of Iraq’s cultural groups and minorities, created untold misery and resulted in major damage to Iraq’s cultural infrastructure. In 2003, and again from 2014 under the so-called Islamic State, Iraq’s major cultural institutions, including its national libraries and museums, were looted and destroyed and hundreds of thousands of cultural artefacts – symbols of previous civilisations that for millennia had made Iraq their resting place, were lost and driven outside their home of Mesopotamia.

Iraq’s post-2003 exclusivist politics, dominated by a handful of politicians and political parties, has created the conditions for the aggressive control and appropriation of heritage and cultural resources. Iraq’s national heritage – heritage that belongs to the people of the country – is now, after 16 years of war, havoc and political contestation, deeply fragmented.

Moreover, competition for power, legitimacy and resources have meant that Iraq’s cultural infrastructure has become another platform for the promotion of the country’s corrosive politics. Heritage is now increasingly used for the promotion of sectional political interests. In daily life, this process of state and political group capture has meant that heritage and culture are thought to belong to one group or political party rather than being seen to be accessible to the general public. The expansion and growth of this exclusionary and instrumentalised heritage for elite politics rather than for the benefit of the people of Iraq has created uneven access to Iraq’s cultural resources and neglect.

The absence of effective state institutions has meant that commercial developers have free reign to purchase and pull down historic buildings and even to build on top of significant archaeological ruins. Corruption is rife in these processes and closely connected to Iraq’s politics. Historic buildings in places like Baghdad, Basra and Mosul are being destroyed to make way for shopping malls and commercial properties, culminating in the cultural erasure of large swathes of the country’s historic centres. The situation is particularly worrying in Mosul, where damaged historic buildings – which could be rehabilitated – are being pulled down to make a quick profit.

Given the scale of need and urgency on the ground in Iraq, international programmes and donors have, with a few rare exceptions, not been ready to step up to address the ongoing destruction of Iraq’s heritage. Neglected since 2003, Iraq’s own domestic heritage community have also borne the brunt of years of collapse. Many archaeologists and heritage experts have been driven outside the country or into jobs that are far removed from their real interests. What could have been the frontline force against this destruction has been merely striving to make ends meet. Unfortunately, significant funding has been expended by donors on how Iraq should ideally be, often by introducing ideas, concepts and ways of living and being that are far removed from daily realities.

Moreover, it is quite worrying that conventional liberal peacebuilding interventions  have little if any conceptualisation of heritage and cultural coexistence. An analysis of this is particularly relevant to many post-2003 international programmes which attempted to re-shape Iraqi society in ideal-typical images of how Iraq should be. Those short-lived efforts create little if any continuity because international projects are often imposed from outside and without much consideration for their in-country longevity.  As a corollary to this, large influxes of money — often expended by US-EU interests and donors –  have often been usurped either by political parties or those concerned with profit making. Such large sums of money, which are again beginning to show face in Mosul has also invited an unhealthy international presence of opportunists, cultural bootleggers and the like, to profit from this new external windfall.

In addition to Iraq’s state institutions, which are allocated as windfalls to competing political interests, there are relatively weak international heritage interventions in the country. The international archaeology and heritage community is arguably more concerned with extracting knowledge than offering sustained support to address the country’s heritage emergency. It is perhaps unfair to ask much of the archaeology community as the requirements for rehabilitation, protection and promotion of heritage are beyond their call of duty. Having said that, international support urgently needs to address this situation, especially as the country has experienced in this relatively short period unprecedented heritage destruction.

Iraq’s domestic heritage and cultural constituencies, even if largely unnoticed by the international donor community, are ready to push back against the ongoing destruction. A renewed focus on illicit trafficking of artefacts and international instruments, now increasingly discussed, should be complemented by increased support for local societies to prevent heritage destruction in the first place, raise awareness and build genuine local capacity.

Supporting local heritage experts and activists, in addition to ongoing internationally funded capacity building and training programmes, is a critical course of action in emergencies. Donors however have been generally slow to appreciate that it is local actors – especially working in civil society – who are ultimately the people who do their best to protect and promote heritage.

Newly established projects and funding support, namely through the Cultural Protection Fund, a £30m British Government initiative managed by the British Council, has been one initiative which has provided support to local, civil society and academic projects in the Middle East. This life-line funding has supported critical projects like that of the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) which has provided essential documentation and training support in the region. The Cultural Protection Fund offers important lessons for other European donors and the US in working with local actors on the ground to promote heritage as a cohesive, social force positioned to rebuild what has been so severely damaged by war. Any future continuation of the Fund will need to search for ways of how to engage with the state, which is surprisingly absent or at best marginal. Also, such programmes need to effectively target key local actors working in the field – many of whom neither have a decent level of English language nor the project design skills to apply for funding.

Supporting Iraqi heritage professionals, academics, civil society organisations and many other stakeholders in the fight against heritage destruction should be a strategic priority for international donors. An emergent civil society concerned with culture, heritage and archaeology that the international community has ignored for many years is indispensable to saving, protecting and promoting Iraq’s national heritage. A growing number of cultural organisations and an increasingly active, though under-resourced, Iraqi heritage community – a potential vanguard – are a force for national reconciliation between increasingly disparate and fragmented communities.

It is in this realm of culture and civil society engagement that can help mend broken bridges, heal wounds and address decades of pain and suffering.


Photo: Rashad Salim, Anbar, Iraq, 2019.


About Mehiyar

Dr Mehiyar Kathem is a researcher at University College London (UCL). Mehiyar completed a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he researched peacebuilding interventions and the formation of Iraq’s domestic NGO sector after the 2003 War. During this research, he looked at the gradual evolution of Iraq from totalitarian dictatorship through the country’s emerging domestic organisations. His research interests include statebuilding, civil society peacebuilding and the ways in which development, politics and money interact at a local level. In 2012 and 2013, Mehiyar conducted field research in Iraq for his PhD programme, spending a year meeting with and interviewing domestic NGO actors, political parties, government officials and international donors. Previously, Mehiyar worked on a number of grassroots programmes geared to build the capacity of civil society organisations and continues to advise international donors on the effective design and delivery of projects in Iraq. He tweets at @mehiyar

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