Why Iraq’s archaeology and heritage will continue to crumble

In the past few weeks Ive been writing quite a bit about the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), which is Iraq’s main antiquities state institution. I want to highlight a number of key points that readers may find useful, particularly for those who want a context to understand SBAH’s decline since 2003 and inability to properly address Iraq’s cultural and heritage crisis.

The role of Muhasa’sa. Under the US Occupation of Iraq, a system known as Muhasa’sa (segmentation) was installed to manage the country’s politics. This quota-based system was installed on the basis of political party appeasement and the carving up of Iraq into ethnic and religious blocs. This system facilitated the rapid growth of new state and quasi-state actors working in the field of heritage and religion.

Since 2003, Iraq has had no national ideology and arguably, Muhasa’sa as a mechanism or convention for the allocation of power and resources is Iraq’s new guiding ‘ideology’.

Under Muhasa’sa there is no need any more for SBAH – there is no need for antiquities – especially now there are new, and powerful ethno-nationalist structures (Kurdistan Region of Iraq) and religious structures (Shia and Sunni Endowments) who see SBAH as a direct competitor and have worked to undermine it in so many different ways.

SBAH has been deliberately undermined by Iraq’s post – 2003 sectarian politics. As it does not serve ethno-nationalist and religious purposes, its budget has been exceptionally poor – which is one of the reasons why it has little resources to support Iraq’s cultural infrastructure and rebuilding.

The growth of new and competing religious and cultural institutions. The rapid development of new and competing heritage institutions has severely undermined SBAH. Its main 2002 heritage law has been trampled on both by the KRI and the religious endowments. Backed by religious groups and political parties, these new religious and heritage institutions have extracted significant resources from SBAH – in the form of legitimacy, excavation licensing, land, shrines and historic buildings. The 2002 law pertaining to cultural heritage in Iraq has therefore been rendered useless as it is continually violated.

As a result, we are now seeing the growth of ‘sectarian’ heritage over national heritage structures.

These new religious and heritage institutions have much larger budgets and promote now a sectional ‘sectarian’ heritage – we see the rapid cultural appropriation of many sites up and down the country by them. This is deeply worrying as cultural appropriation is a form of cultural destruction – transferring the ownership (extracted from SBAH mostly) to a new religious or ethnic oriented institution with a view to promoting sectarian narratives.

Poor budget allocation. As Iraq’s new sectarian politics has percolated across its state system, there is simply no need for SBAH – and indeed for Iraq’s pre-Islamic cultural heritage. SBAH continues to be allocated a poor budget by the central government which is controlled by sectarian and religious groups who have no wish or desire to use or promote Iraq’s pre-Islamic heritage or other forms of heritage that are outside their narrowly constructed sectarian narratives. That is why major historic and archaeological sites, such as Babylon and in Nineveh, have been neglected since 2003. They are simply not part of national state narratives anymore. Without a proper budget, SBAH cant even conduct basic conservation work, unlike its neighbours in the region.

Syria is arguably in a much better position as cultural heritage is an important part of its state structures and is therefore afforded protection and support. Syria’s conservation capacity is much stronger than in Iraq. The situation in Iraq is extremely, extremely dire.

Internationals (generally speaking and with notable exceptions) don’t really care much about SBAH. If one reviews international projects and interventions in Iraq, you will quickly realise that building SBAH capacity, presence and reach – basically strengthening SBAH as a heritage institution, is not a major priority.

Internationals are more concerned with the extraction of knowledge from Iraq. They are not concerned with SBAH or addressing the cultural catastrophe unfolding in Iraq. Archaeologists in particular continue to do their work without any interest in supporting SBAH. They merely need a licence to excavate with a view to improving their own careers in US-European countries. In most cases, internationals merely need a stamp of approval from SBAH to conduct their work.  Actively involving people from SBAH and working on its own priorities is generally not a particular concern.

A case in point. The British Museums so called ‘flag-ship’ Iraq Emergency Heritage Scheme – paid for by yours truly the British taxpayer with £3m – was another cover for excavation work – for knowledge extraction. Yes, they say they did a bit of capacity building for 50 archaeologists trained in the British Museum and on excavation sites. Ive heard many complaints about this project that uses the term ’emergency’ but is merely another dig. Imagine if that money was spent on strengthening the Iraq Museum’s conservation capacity by establishing a conservation institute. Unfortunately, the British Museum has clearly shown that any work it does in Iraq can not be divorced from the interests of the large cultural holdings it possesses and its pursuit of more knowledge extraction from Iraq. Very unfortunate.





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

One comment

  1. Joanne McCafferty

    Thanks for this article Mehiyar. Really appreciate your research on this subject.

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