Can Iraq’s archaeological renaissance help forge a stronger national identity?

Special Assyrian artefacts originally from Mosul are displayed at Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad. (AFP/File Photo)
Assyrian artefacts originally from Mosul are displayed at Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 02 May 2022

Can Iraq’s archaeological renaissance help forge a stronger national identity?

Could the discovery and preservation of ancient Mesopotamian sites and artifacts help reconcile a divided nation? (AFP)
  • Country is witnessing discovery and preservation of ancient Mesopotamian sites and artifacts
  • Growing number of young Iraqis taking an interest in preserving what remains of their heritage

MOSUL/BOGOTA: On Feb. 26, 2015, shocking footage emerged from northwestern Iraq of Daesh militants smashing pre-Islamic artifacts and burning ancient manuscripts at Mosul Cultural Museum.

The terrorist group, which had seized control of the multiethnic city the previous year, had set about looting everything of value and destroying anything that failed to conform to its warped ideology.

The priceless objects had told the singular narrative of Iraq as a land of remarkable civilizations, from the Sumerians and the Akkadians to the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Yet it took only moments for Daesh to erase the evidence of thousands of years of human history.

The same was true across large swaths of the country seized by the militants intent on symbolic destruction and easy loot.


An Iraqi army soldier walks across the ancient ruins of Nimrud following the recapture of the ancient town on the outskirts of Mosul from Daesh extremists. (AFP/File Photo)

An Iraqi army soldier walks across the ancient ruins of Nimrud following the recapture of the ancient town on the outskirts of Mosul from Daesh extremists. (AFP/File Photo)

“Daesh wanted to show and prove that it could not only destroy the present and future of Iraq but its past as well,” Amer Abdul-Razzaq, head of the Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Iraq’s southern Dhi Qar province, told Arab News.

“They wanted to destroy the mixed civilization of Iraq, which is diverse with different ethnicities, minorities and nations such as the Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians. They brutally destroyed places like Nimrud, Hatra, the tomb of the Prophet Yunus, and they destroyed many places that are holy and symbolic to Muslims.”

On July 21, 2017, almost two years after the pillaging, Mosul was finally liberated by the Iraqi army, ushering in a period of painstaking work to restore the city’s monuments, churches, mosques and archaeological treasures.

Since then, and the subsequent liberation of other areas that were under the group’s control, Iraq has experienced something of an archaeological renaissance, with foreign experts returning to the country and a growing number of young Iraqis taking an interest in preserving what remains of their heritage.

“Antiquities and heritage unite us and let us recognize we all belong to each other, and it is important for us to know we all go back to one root in some point in ancient history,” Falih Al-Shmari, who is studying for a doctorate at the University of Baghdad, told Arab News.

“For example, Assyrian mandates were found in the north, east, west and south of Iraq, which indicates we all were Assyrian at some point and we belong to others as one identity.

“Even in Islamic history, we were the same and there is the same description of Islamic architecture and ideas. We are an Islamic society and we were all educated in Islamic principles and education in the past.”




Numerous sculptures, pottery and cuneiform artifacts, which are estimated to date back to 3,000 BC, are unearthed by British Museum archaeologists in what was once the ancient city of Girsu, capital of the Kingdom of Lagash, now in Dhi Qar, Iraq. (AFP/File Photo)

Among the most recent discoveries is a mosque built from mud dating back to the Umayyad period, about 1,400 years ago, uncovered by British Museum specialists in tandem with local experts at Tell Kabiba in Dhi Qar.

Prior to this, in 2016, an archaeological team led by Sebastien Rey of the British Museum, discovered the Enino temple — also known as the Temple of the White Thunderbird — in the Assyrian city of Girsu, now known as Tello, in the north of Dhi Qar.

Other European-led missions working in Tello have uncovered the temple of King Gudea, the most famous Sumerian king of the Lagash dynasty, who ruled between 2144 B.C. and 2124 B.C.

In the past year, French archaeologists working in the city of Larsa at Tell Es-Senkereh discovered the palace of King Sin Ednam (1850-1844 B.C.), which dates back to the ancient Babylonian era.

Six missions from Britain, France and Italy working in the Sumerian city of Girsu have uncovered a residential area dating back to the Early Dynastic period (2900–2350 B.C.), including the temple of the god of war Ningirsu.

Another major achievement is the restoration of what is perhaps the oldest bridge in the world, in the city of Girsu. The work on the 4,000-year-old structure is taking place under a five-year contract with a British team.

British and German excavation teams have also uncovered the site of the ancient city of Charax Spasinou, the largest city built by Alexander the Great, in southern Iraq near Basra at the modern-day site of Jebel Khayaber.




Among the most recent discoveries is a mosque built from mud dating back to the Umayyad period, about 1,400 years ago, uncovered by British Museum specialists in tandem with local experts. (AFP/File Photo)

Meanwhile, in the north of the country a French team in Mosul is continuing its maintenance of the mural of the Church of Mar Korkis, and working at sites in the city of Ashur, which include the royal cemetery, the Parthian palace, and Walter Andre’s palace.

At the Kirkuk Citadel, also in northern Iraq, the local archaeological authority is working with the Turkish government to properly maintain what some scholars believe is the tomb of the Prophet Daniel.

“We have found empires and states that are unbelievable and we, in this era, can barely imagine how powerful and advanced they were,” said Abdul-Razzaq.

“Iraq lies upon a massive archaeological trove of more than 20,000 sites. It is very hard to protect it all. That is why a lot of it has been stolen and destroyed. The items that have been stolen are in the thousands.

“In my opinion, I see it as a human tragedy because this archaeology is not only that of a specific nation or minority, but all of humanity.”

The looting and destruction did not begin in 2014 with the rise of Daesh, however. Abdul-Razzaq said Iraq’s heritage has been suffering as a result of conflict and official neglect for decades.

“In 2003, during the US invasion of Iraq, there was massive destruction at many archaeological sites and that was due to a lack of protection by the UN,” he said. “American forces protected oil fields, important ministries, defenses and security — not archaeology.”




An Iraqi guard shows broken jars in the ransacked and looted Iraq’s largest archeological museum in Baghdad in 2003. (AFP/File Photo)

The looting of Baghdad Museum was perhaps the most emblematic example of this neglect. For 36 hours, beginning on April 10, 2003, the museum was ransacked by thieves.

It was only later, when the extent of the damage became clear, that the US-led coalition began to prioritize the protection of Iraq’s antiquities.

“Six months after the US invasion, the Americans realized they had to act in order to protect archaeological sites from looting and destruction,” said Abdul-Razzaq.

“Through social activists, and after (Grand Ayatollah) Ali Al-Sistani issued a fatwa, they raised awareness among the people about protecting it. After that, the Iraqis were able to bring back many stolen archaeological items and people started protecting it.

“Nevertheless, we have lost, and are still missing, a massive number of items, even today. We are still searching for them.”

Aamir Al-Jumaili, a lecturer at the University of Mosul’s College of Archaeology for 20 years, said the destruction of Iraqi heritage has been going on even longer.

“We need to go back to 1991, not only 2003, to evaluate the destruction and loss we had,” he told Arab News. “During Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, Iraq lost many archaeological items through robbery, destruction and smuggling at museums in Iraq’s cities.”




A member of the Iraqi forces holds damaged artefacts inside the destroyed museum of Mosul in March, 2017 after they recaptured it from Daesh fighters. (AFP/File Photo)

Although authorities in the country have introduced legislation to protect antiquities, based on earlier laws first enacted in 1936 and strengthened in the 1970s, some experts believe the government should make the penalties for harming the nation’s heritage much more robust.

“In the past, the laws protecting archaeological sites and ancient history were stronger than we had in 2003 and 2014,” Ahmad Qasim Juma, an archaeology lecturer at the University of Mosul and a UNESCO consultant, told Arab News.

“Before 2003, if anyone did anything illegal to an ancient archaeological site, they would be killed by the government. After 2003, and until 2018, anyone would go to an archaeological site and start digging and researching without expert knowledge or a government permit. There are no strict punishments to stop them.”

The problem has been compounded by decades of government neglect and underfunding, dysfunctional administrations, and the continued presence of armed groups in the countryside, including militias backed by Iran.

“There are many different forces and militias controlling the country,” said Al-Shmari. “Sinjar contains foreign forces and militias that control it all. If you want to research or investigate, they don’t allow you to do it. Sinjar is one of the areas that is very hard to get to for archaeologists.”

He believes that investment by the central government could help turn the tide and, in the process, begin to reshape Iraq’s global image.

“We are not happy with the level of government support for Iraq’s antiquities and heritage. It is really low. If it was up to me, I would make Mosul one of the biggest tourist cities,” said Al-Shmari.




Assyrian artefacts originally from Mosul are displayed at Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad. (AFP/File Photo)

“Foreign workers and tourists face challenges and difficulties in terms of security and administration. We need to provide facilities and help them when they are coming to Iraq.

“We have the capabilities to make discoveries at archaeological sites but it requires funds and support to do that. It is the government’s responsibility to fund and support local students and researchers.”

Indeed, as Iraq begins to emerge from decades of crisis, experts believe an opportunity has presented itself to develop other aspects of its economy besides oil to embrace educational partnerships and perhaps even international tourism.

“Antiquities and tourism are one the biggest economic aspects that Iraq should focus on, as it mainly depends on oil, which can fall at any time in the future,” said Abdul-Razzaq. “If we wisely focus on antiquities and tourism, it will play a significant role.

“For example, we in Dhi Qar used to have one or maybe two tourists per month. Now we have three to four tourists per day coming to Dhi Qar. Iraq’s tourism sector can play a bigger role than oil.”

Abdul-Razzaq hopes that in the process, Iraqis will not only begin to feel proud of their history and shared identity but also turn the page on the violence and sectarian strife of recent decades.

“We have to take advantage of our ancient archaeology and history,” he said. “We are known as the cradle of human civilization and humanity. Everything began in Iraq: The first laws, writing, medicines and agriculture.

“I always focus on archaeological development because it will create national identity. We are just like a tree — we have very strong roots.”


Arabs view access to water as most pressing environmental issue, survey finds

Arabs view access to water as most pressing environmental issue, survey finds
Updated 07 October 2022

Arabs view access to water as most pressing environmental issue, survey finds

Arabs view access to water as most pressing environmental issue, survey finds
  • The Arab Barometer interviewed 26,000 citizens between October 2021 and July 2022 in 12 countries that represent about 80 percent of the Arab world
  • Despite broad concerns about climate change and the environment, the survey found many in the region consider other issues to be higher priority

WASHINGTON: Arabs believe the climate change-related threat to water resources is the biggest environmental issue facing the region and its people.

This was a key finding of the latest Arab Barometer Report on the attitudes in 12 Arab countries about the environment, which was published on Thursday.

The Arab Barometer is a research network that gathers opinion and offers insights into the social, political and economic attitudes of citizens across the region.

Its latest survey on the environment found that the majority of the people it polled were concerned about the availability of drinking water, the pollution of water sources, and the quality of the air in their communities.

Tunisia had the highest proportion of people who considered availability and quality of water the biggest environmental challenge facing their country, at 60 percent, followed by Algeria with 50 percent, and Iraq, Palestine and Libya with 47 percent.

The findings are part of the seventh round of polling by Arab Barometer, which has been tracking the views of people in the Middle East and North Africa since 2006. It describes itself as the largest publicly available survey of the opinions and attitudes of citizens across the region.

For its latest report, it interviewed 26,000 citizens between October 2021 and July 2022 in 12 countries that represent about 80 percent of the Arab world: Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan and Kuwait. In addition to the environment, other parts of the survey covered political, social and economic issues.

Issues related to waste management ranked second among the key environmental issues people in region are most concerned about. Recycling is already an important environmental-protection activity in many countries and the survey found that many people in the region already recycle their waste, but that they do so mostly for “cost-saving” benefits or “convenience, rather than to protect the environment.”

Educational background tended to affect people’s views on environmental issues such as climate change, air quality, pollution and trash, with those who were better-educated expressing greater concern about them.

In addition, issues related to climate change were more of a concern among people living in rural location than those in urban areas.

Aside from the availability and quality of water and its quality, other attitudes toward the environment varied.

A previous survey, in October 2020, found that less than than seven percent of citizens in Arab countries believed that reducing pollution should be the top priority of government spending in the coming year. In research carried out in the spring of 2021, less than nine percent said that foreign aid should be used to address environmental concerns.

In the latest poll, less than five percent of people surveyed in the majority of Arab countries said foreign aid donated to their nations should be used to tackle climate change and environmental challenges. In Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, the figure was as low as 1 percent.

Yet the research also found that citizens of the region blame themselves for not being proactive enough on environmental issues, and their governments for failing to take action to properly address climate change and environmental challenges in their communities.

They expressed high levels of support for their governments to take action to tackle environmental issues. But despite broad concerns about climate change and the environment, the study found most people in the region view other issues as being more urgent and of higher priority.


Alexandria Film Festival pays tribute to departed performers

Alexandria Film Festival pays tribute to departed performers
Updated 07 October 2022

Alexandria Film Festival pays tribute to departed performers

Alexandria Film Festival pays tribute to departed performers
  • Festival management remembered Egyptian stars who passed away in 2022 by showing a video clip during the opening ceremony

CAIRO: The 38th session of the Alexandria Film Festival for Mediterranean Countries has opened at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

It is named after the artist Mahmoud Hemida.

Festival management remembered Egyptian stars who passed away in 2022 by showing a video clip during the opening ceremony.

Famous names included Hisham Selim, Maha Abu Auf, Samir Ghanem, Dalal Abdel Aziz, Ahdi Sadiq, Ali Abdel Khaleq, Ahmed Halawa, and Aida Abdel Aziz.

Film critic Amir Abaza, who has a leading role in organizing the event, told Arab News: “We chose to name the festival in the star Mahmoud Hemida’s name because he is of a great cinematic stature who has presented a large number of important works.”

Hemida has also reinvested profits into cinema, as well as participating in the production of a number of films without looking for profit, added Abaza.

The festival also honored a number of art stars, namely director Mohamed Abdelaziz, actress Donia Samir Ghanem, director Saeed Hamed and producer Wajih El-Leithi.

Radio broadcaster Imam Omar was also honored the King of Comedy Medal went to the late Samir Ghanem and Dalal Abdel Aziz.

The festival also honored the Greek star Alexis Protopsalti, the French artist Marianne Borgo, and the Armenian-Egyptian star Nora Armani.

A movie called “Barsoum Looking for a Job” — produced in 1923 and directed by Mohamed Bayoumi — was played at the end of the ceremony.

A publication on the 100 most important comic films in Egypt was among a number of books released on the sidelines of the festival.

However, the inclusion of non-comic films such as “Between Heaven and Earth” by Salah Abu Seif created some controversy and some questioned the lack of high-level comedy movies such as “Kit Kat” by Daoud Abdel Sayed and “Umm Ratiba,” directed by Alsayed Badir.

Critics also highlighted the absence of any Mohamed Sobhi flicks, one of the biggest comedy stars in Egypt.

Adel Imam topped the poll as best actor, Shwikar as best actress, Fatin Abdel Wahab as best director, and Abu Al-Saud Al-Ibiari as best author. Thirty-two film critics and researchers participated in the poll.


Turkey, Israel ties warm with naming of ambassador

Turkey, Israel ties warm with naming of ambassador
Updated 06 October 2022

Turkey, Israel ties warm with naming of ambassador

Turkey, Israel ties warm with naming of ambassador
  • Ankara appoints new envoy 4 years after last was expelled
  • Ambassador knows region, has experience: Analyst

ANKARA: Turkey has appointed a new ambassador to Israel, as both countries move to end four years in the diplomatic wilderness.

Sakir Ozkan Torunlar has been named to fill the role left empty after the two regional powers expelled each other’s ambassadors in 2018 in a row over the killing of 60 Palestinians by Israeli forces during protests on the Gaza border.

His appointment comes weeks after Israel named career diplomat Irit Lillian as its new ambassador to Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was also expected in the coming months to reciprocate a March visit to Ankara by his Israeli counterpart, Isaac Herzog.

Contrary to expectations, Torunlar is not a political appointee and is an experienced career diplomat. He was consul-general in Jerusalem and ambassador to Palestine between 2010 and 2014, and was awarded the Order of the Jerusalem Star by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel is expected to endorse Torunlar’s appointment.

Selin Nasi, a non-resident scholar in Eliamep’s Turkey Program, said that Ankara’s choice was positive for Israel.

“Previously, the foreign ministry was planning to appoint Turkey’s pro-government SETA Foundation foreign policy director, Ufuk Ulutas,” she said, who she added was seen in Israel as a “controversial figure” for his “anti-Israeli views” and lacked diplomatic experience.

Upcoming domestic elections in both countries had accelerated the reconciliation process, she said.

“Given the upcoming parliamentary elections in November, the Israeli side in a way tried to consolidate the process by naming its ambassador in advance, preventing possible interference of domestic politics,” she told Arab News.

“Turkey has also entered the election season. The government is trying to balance domestic concerns with its commitment to restoring ties with Israel,” said Nasi.

Experts say that Turkey and Israel want to deepen their cooperation in tourism, energy, agriculture, water technology, trade and defense.
 

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Nasi said defense cooperation had ground to a halt after the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010, when Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish aid ship headed to Gaza as part of a “freedom flotilla.” Nine crew members died in the attack.

“The docking of the Turkish frigate Kemalreis at Haifa port on the sidelines of a NATO drill for the first time since the Mavi Marmara, indicates a possible thaw in this area as well. It will take time to repair broken trust,” she said.

Both countries’ opposition to the Iranian regime is also expected to push Turkey and Israel closer, she added.

“More importantly, as two militarily strong actors in the region, these two countries have the power to shift the balances on the ground when they cooperate.”

However, Nasi warned that Turkey’s ties with Hamas would be closely monitored by Israel and that domestic politics “may still interfere in the normalization process.”

According to an annual public opinion poll by the Mitvim Institute, an Israeli foreign policy think tank, 72 percent of respondents wanted strengthened relations with Turkey. The figure was up 12 percentage points on the poll last year.

Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, said the choice of career diplomats by both sides was a good start to better relations as careful and skillful diplomacy was needed.

“There are a few challenges ahead: Elections in Israel, growing tensions in the West Bank, elections in Turkey.”

However, she said that a decision earlier this year to discuss an update to a 1996 free trade agreement was “a good opportunity to see where to expand the already flourishing trade relations between the countries.”

Turkey’s resumption of full diplomatic ties with Israel could also improve Ankara’s image in Washington, which has been damaged by its arms deals with Russia and squabbles in NATO.

The rapprochement is also expected to boost the Turkish tourism industry, Lindenstrauss added. “Israeli tourists are once again flocking to Turkey and we will soon see the return of Israeli airlines to Turkey,” she said.


UAE president thanks education workers in World Teachers’ Day speech

UAE president thanks education workers in World Teachers’ Day speech
Updated 06 October 2022

UAE president thanks education workers in World Teachers’ Day speech

UAE president thanks education workers in World Teachers’ Day speech
  • Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed underscored teachers’ role in fostering generations that are proud of their values and identity

ABU DHABI: The UAE President Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed has thanked teachers in a statement on “World Teachers’ Day,” where he outlined the Emirati roadmap for improving the education sector.
Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation and chairman of the Education and Human Resources Council, said the statement on Thursday illuminated the UAE’s commitment to teachers.
Sheikh Abdullah thanked all teachers on the occasion, expressing the UAE’s gratitude for their efforts to ensure that children receive a top-quality education, the Emirates News Agency (WAM) reported.
Noting that educators played a key role in accelerating recovery across the educational sector, Sheikh Abdullah highlighted the great responsibility they bear and their dedication to educate children and youth in the UAE, especially throughout and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
He underscored teachers’ role in fostering generations that are proud of their values and identity, noting that teachers prepare them with the skills and knowledge required to drive development across society and pave the way for a brighter tomorrow.
The minister added that education is crucial for accelerating sustainable development across all sectors. He said that the UAE’s celebration of World Teachers’ Day is an expression of the pride it has in its educators.
Sheikh Abdullah said the education sector has seen a major shift over the past five decades, making great strides in developing and improving its outputs.


US designates Iranian officials over crackdown on protesters, Internet access

US designates Iranian officials over crackdown on protesters, Internet access
Updated 06 October 2022

US designates Iranian officials over crackdown on protesters, Internet access

US designates Iranian officials over crackdown on protesters, Internet access
  • US Treasury Department said it imposed sanctions on Iran’s minister of interior, communications minister, and the head of the Iranian Cyber Police
  • Rights groups put the death toll at over 150

WASHINGTON: The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on seven Iranian officials over the shutdown of Internet access and the crackdown on peaceful protesters following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of morality police.
The US Treasury Department in a statement said it imposed sanctions on Iran’s minister of interior, Ahmad Vahidi; Communications Minister Eisa Zarepour; and Vahid Mohammad Naser Majid, the head of the Iranian Cyber Police, among others.
“The United States condemns the Iranian government’s Internet shutdown and continued violent suppression of peaceful protest and will not hesitate to target those who direct and support such actions,” Under Secretary of the Treasury Brian Nelson said in the statement.
The nationwide unrest sparked by Amini’s death has spiraled into the biggest challenge to Iran’s clerical leaders in years, with protesters calling for the downfall of the Islamic Republic founded in 1979.
Rights groups say thousands have been arrested and hundreds injured in the crackdown waged by security forces including the Basij, a volunteer militia affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Rights groups put the death toll at over 150.
The United States last month imposed sanctions on Iran’s morality police over allegations of abuse of Iranian women, saying it held the unit responsible for the death of Amini, an Iranian Kurd who died after being detained in Tehran on Sept. 13 for “inappropriate attire.”
Authorities have reported numerous deaths among the security forces, accusing foreign adversaries, including the United States, of meddling to destabilize Iran.