Iraq's Cultural Heritage: Monuments, History, and Loss

By Bahrani, Zainab | Art Journal, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Iraq's Cultural Heritage: Monuments, History, and Loss


Bahrani, Zainab, Art Journal


Between April 12 and 15, 2003, the Iraq Museum in Baghdad was looted, and many of the most important objects in the collection were stolen. Among them were the famous monumental UrukVase of 3300 B.C. that appears in every art survey textbook and is one of the earliest narrative works of art, and the beautifully carved marble female head, perhaps representing the great Sumerian goddess Inanna, also from the sacred precinct at Uruk in southern Iraq and of the same period.1 Thousands of works of Mesopotamian and Islamic art and artifacts were stolen from the Iraq Museum, but that is not all: in the days before and after, the majority of other museums and libraries in the country were also looted, burnt, and destroyed. For thinking people all over the world, this was a great tragedy. For the people of Iraq, however, it was more than that. It was the theft and destruction of our own history, a history that forms the basis of our identity as the people of this very ancient land.

For myself, hearing of the loss was devastating. The Iraq Museum is the first museum I ever saw, and Mesopotamian antiquities are the first works of art that I ever encountered. It was through works such as the Uruk head and vase that I first came to be fascinated by art, that I first encountered sculpture. Unlike many of my colleagues who came to the study of Mesopotamia and the ancient Near East via other and perhaps distant routes, Mesopotamia formed my very first associations with the notions of history and art.

In my own research and writing I have always been interested in the concept of a historical consciousness, a consciousness that I consider to be distinctive of ancient Mesopotamian culture. It seems an irony, given recent events, that the majority of Mesopotamian works of art and artifacts were made with an awareness of the future, with an acute awareness of a notion of historical time and its relationship to man-made monuments. Thus we can say that, for the ancient Mesopotamians, works of art were enfolded with memory and identity. And perhaps we still have much to learn from the ancients today. Was their awareness of the relation of monuments and memory, and their incredible anxiety about the destruction and loss of monuments in war, not an anxiety about the loss of both history and identity?

The Mesopotamian anxiety about the safety of monuments, texts, and works of art was so acute that I would go so far as to say that ancient Mesopotamia can be described as a culture of memory. The concepts of history and memory preserved in commemorative monuments, portraiture, and text, were-like so many other aspects of civilization that we consider to be our own in the West-already well developed in ancient Iraq in the fourth and early third millennia B.C.

In prewar news reports on Iraq we could read or hear descriptions of this country as a desert, a place poor in culture, if rich in oil reserves. But Iraq is also the land that archaeologists refer to by the Greek name of Mesopotamia: the land between two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and the home of one of the world's oldest civilizations. Paradoxically, ancient Mesopotamia is taken to be the past of mankind and even as the place of origin of Western civilization. So, if we remember that Mesopotamia is in fact the name given to the place we now call Iraq, then we should consider this: the ancient history of Iraq has traditionally been claimed as the history of the West, since according to the nineteenth-century model of the progress of civilization, the torch was passed from Mesopotamia and Egypt to Greece and Rome, and subsequently to the Western world. Sites such as Abraham's city of Ur, the Garden of Eden, Babylon, and Nineveh are thus the cultural heritage of the world.

Many of these sites are indeed of particular interest to the Western world, since it derived certain aspects of its own culture from ancient Iraq, but all are valued and well loved by the people of Iraq, regardless of their significance for the world. …

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