Cradle of civilisation, graveyard of empires: The persistent pillaging of Iraq's millennia-old treasures

UNESCO series
7 min read
02 February, 2023

Ashur, the religious capital of one of the world’s earliest empires. Hatra, a desert city that survived repeated assaults by Roman legions. And Samarra, the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate in the medieval period.

The heydays of these sites span almost three millennia, from 2025BC-940CE, but today you could drive past all three within three hours of touring through modern Iraq.

Though the cities rose, grew and declined over the course of generations; they were all listed as UNESCO sites in danger within the last 20 years.

"No other land seems to have been sacked and pillaged so completely as was Assyria"

The previous two decades have been a tumultuous period for Iraq and its people enduring foreign invasions, civil war and the emergence of the Islamic State group (ISIS/IS).

While the greatest scars were felt by the population, the heritage sites of the Mesopotamian region did not escape unscathed.

Ashur and the Assyrians

Ashur is the oldest of the three cities with the first recorded settlements stretching back to 2,500 BCE.

The city, located next to the Tigris, is even mentioned in the Bible which references the river flowing "east of Ashur". However, Ashur has its own religious roots due to its close association with one version of the Enūma Eliš, the epic of creation.

The Assyrian account tells of the battle of the god Ashur, as the champion of the young gods, against Quingu of the old gods, following a bloody patricide.

Ashur is victorious and models the heavens and the earth from the corpse of his mother before creating humans to help the new gods maintain order.

According to the Mesopotamian tradition which interwove gods and cities, the Assyrians believed that Ashur lived in his temple within the city walls, robed and holding a bow.

Ashur (Qalat Sherqat) A closer view of the castle, G.Eric and Edith Matson, 1932
Ashur (Qalat Sherqat) A closer view of the castle, G.Eric and Edith Matson, 1932

This typically violent myth of creation may resonate with those familiar with Greek and Roman accounts of warring gods, but it also appeared to have had a role in shaping the warmongering nature of the Assyrians who were long-remembered as an unrelenting destructive force in the region.

That reputation was not entirely undeserved: they did forge an empire that, at its height, included territory in Egypt and the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.

It is said that Ashurbanipal, one of the great Assyrian emperors, after conquering the Elamites and executing their king and prince boasted "with the help of Ashur, their heads I cut off in front of each other."

Even the famous Assyrian friezes celebrate imperial hunting parties and the torture of prisoners captured during their frequent wars.

Ashur museum after being destroyed by ISIS, Fakhri Mahmood, 2021
Ashur museum after being destroyed by ISIS, Fakhri Mahmood, 2021

Yet this risks warping our view of the inhabitants of Ashur. 

As a religious capital for the course of the empire and the actual capital from the 14th century to the 9th BCE, Ashur was an architectural marvel, resplendent with temples and tombs, gardens and gateways.

Built on a sandstone plateau raised above the riverbed and set around a towering ziggurat which stood over 170 feet tall, the city developed through centuries.

The now-shrunken ziggurat is a remnant of Ashur’s temple and was manufactured from 6 million mud bricks which would once have been clad in iron and gold sheets and then inlaid with crystals. This was one of 34 temples, accompanied by three palaces, private houses with basement vaults and numerous magnificent gateways permeating the city walls.

The beauty of Ashur does not negate Assyrian violence, but it helps provide more colour to our understanding of an ancient empire whose battles for survival did not diminish an outstanding cultural output.  

The Assyrians were forged in the heat of battle and their city was baked by the Mesopotamian sun. Located at the southern bound of regional rain-fed agriculture, some sources suggest that a warming event in the second millennium might have necessitated expansion.

Though their God was initially viewed as bound to the city, these rules were rewritten by kings arguing that they had a responsibility to carry Ashur to new territories, literally fertilising the land in the process.

As historian Marc van der Mieroop put it, "the king as representative of the god represented order… where he did not rule there was chaos. The king’s duty to bring order to the entire world was the justification for military expansion."

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Threats to Iraqi heritage

In 2003 order, chaos and military expansion were again shaping Iraq’s narrative. This protracted conflict threatened Ashur, as well as Samarra and then Hatra in later years.

However, it was the fear that flooding might result from a proposal to build a new dam over the Tigris which prompted Ashur’s emergency 2003 inscription to the World Heritage list, and its simultaneous naming as a site in danger.

The war delayed the building of the Dam, postponing trial by water until 2021 when work re-started, but it also obstructed conservation efforts and opened the city’s ruins to looters selling artefacts on the black market.

UNESCO representatives examine the ruins of a meeting hall in HATRA, JoAnn Makinano, 2008.
UNESCO representatives examine the ruins of a meeting hall in HATRA, JoAnn Makinano, 2008.

A new chapter was also added to Ashur’s long history of conquest which begins with its thorough ransacking by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE, then the massacring of the Christian population by Timur in the mid-14th century ACE. True to their iconoclastic aims, IS blew up 70% of the famous Tabira gate in 2015.

Ultimately the site fared better than Hatra one hour to the West where there was a more concerted project of destruction in the same year.

The religious city of Samarra escaped IS but had already suffered from the spill-over of the war when the golden al-Aksari mosque was bombed as part of the civil conflict in 2006 and then attacked again by insurgents in 2007.

An eye to the future

Sidney Smith wrote in 1925 that "no other land seems to have been sacked and pillaged so completely as was Assyria." That pattern has not been broken with over a million present-day Assyrians estimated as having left the country between now and 2003.

With the city crumbling, the artefacts destroyed, and the exodus of its descendants, UNESCO’s award of heritage status to Ashur for bearing unique testimony to a civilisation which has now disappeared seems final.  The tether between Iraqis and their ancestors is fraying.

It is therefore crucial that an effort is made to preserve Ashur, as well as the sites of Samarra and Hatra. Their loss would contribute to the presentation of Iraq as a place defined solely by its violence, as the Assyrians were once characterised by theirs – with the history and beauty unique to the country expunged from the record.

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As Western countries whose own relationship with Iraq is riddled with colonial-era treasure hunting, failed nation-building projects and the military occupation of these sacred sites, there must be an acknowledgement that any plans for European involvement in reconstruction are handled sensitively. Most important, is that the work required is led by Iraqis and has their full support.

Saddam Hussein previously rebuilt parts of Hatra with bricks marked with his own signature, mimicking the Mesopotamian kingly tradition.

He recognised the power of heritage for identity but attempted to centre himself.

Instead, the ongoing Revive the spirit of Mosul project located in the north might prove a more successful test case.

International UNESCO officials are collaborating with the UAE and the Iraqi Ministry of Culture to restore three iconic sites.

Alliances of this sort embed the concept of World Heritage, ground the site within the specific regional context and prevent self-aggrandising distortions of conservation projects that have no intention of forging a connection with the people.

Will Spiers is a policy researcher and writer based in London. Will read history as an undergraduate, then completed a Masters in Political Science at the American University of Beirut