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Cradle of Civilization Under Threat

As if loss of civilian life and a devastated infrastructure weren't enough, many fear the war in Iraq could result in "collateral damage" to unique historical treasures, wiping out thousands of years of history.

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The ruins of the ancient Parthian city of Hatra, north of Baghdad, are a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Thursday saw the U.S. military accuse Iraqi forces of firing rockets at the holy city of Najaf in what Cencom deputy chief of operations Brigadier General Vince Brooks described as the Iraqi regime's "strategy of deliberately putting sacred sites in danger."

Najaf is home to the Ali mosque, which holds the tomb of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib. Reuters reported that as paramilitary fighters loyal to Saddam Hussein hid in the mosque, a crowd gathered outside, apparently believing U.S. troops were trying to seize the building. It was just one of many battles fought around one of Iraq's many sacred sites in recent weeks.

Scholars around the world recognize Iraq as a cradle of human civilization, home to many important landmarks of the Judeo-Christian tradition as well as holy Muslim sites. A succession of cultures and traditions gave Iraq and its region an incredible wealth of monuments of civil and religious architecture, artworks, historic cities, and numerous archaeological sites.

The Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians all had their homeland in Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq. Basra Al-Qurna, just north of Basra, is reputed to be the site of the Garden of Eden -- complete with a gnarled tree known as "Adam's tree."

A black market in cultural treasures

After a decade of neglect and cultural theft, this rich heritage is now in serious peril. Many monuments already sustained serious damage by bombs and low-flying aircraft in 1991.

McGuire Gibson, an Iraq specialist at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, recently told National Geographic that many prominent archaeologists are also concerned about looting -- an ongoing problem in Iraq since the first Gulf War, when the international embargoes on Iraq resulted in massive cutbacks for the Iraqi Department of Antiquities and Heritage.

Iraqi museum curators say that the ensuing lack of funds meant the state could no longer pay guards or investigate reported violations of sites, which paved the way for regular plundering of archaeological sites and illegal trade in Mesopotamian artifacts. Over the last decade, Iraq has been gradually robbed of its antiquities.

Claus Peter Haase from Berlin's Museum for Islamic Art told DW-TV that one reason for widespread looting is that "everyone is preoccupied with issues other than the preservation of cultural heritage."

As the U.S.-led strike on Iraq enters its third week, archaeologists, museums and politicians alike are expressing grave concern over the fate of cultural heritage in Iraq.

Under the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, adopted in the wake of the massive destruction of cultural heritage during the Second World War, cultural property must be respected even when hostilities are conducted. The United States, Britain, Australia and Iraq are all signatories to the convention. Cultural shields

But military sources say Iraq may be using important historical sites to shield its army from attack. Australia's defense forces spokesman Brigadier Mike Hannan said coalition forces had pulled back from attacking Iraqi military vehicles sheltering at Ctesiphon, a third century AD site about 35 kilometers south of the besieged capital Baghdad. Brigadier Hannan said Iraq was using antiquities in the same way that it had used human shields and civilian centers like hospitals to inhibit coalition attacks.

That Saddam Hussein has made strategic use of Iraq's cultural sites is no secret -- the landmark Ziggurat of Ur stone temple, for example, is located next to a military airbase.

Culture as a casualty of war

But the military pounding of Iraq is bound to take its toll on the country's 1,000 recognized archaeological sites. One of the first acts of the war was an attack on the museum in Saddam's home town of Tikrit. The important Shi'ite pilgrimage site Kerbala -- situated near a chemical weapons plant -- reportedly also came under heavy bombardment during fighting earlier this week.

Archaeologists say that if further shrines are hit, the allies even risk alienating pro-American Shi'ites in southern Iraq --indeed, if too many religious sites are destroyed by the war, there would be a huge outcry from the general population.

Claus Peter Haase believes ongoing combat will "fan the flames of those seeking conflict between Islam and western civilization," saying that "it provides ample proof for people who accuse western interests of recklessness in their claim to impose order on the Islamic world."

The United Nations dubbed last year its Year for Cultural Heritage. The year-long event was partly a response to the Taliban's willful destruction of historical treasures such as the giant figures of the Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. It remains to be seen whether the lessons of history have been learned.