Babylon; the Tower of Babel; the Ziggurat of Ur. These are names that have resonated around the world for millennia. These, and many more ancient wonders, were all built in the lush valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in ancient Mesopotamia.
Today Iraq is a still treasure trove of historic wonders that many archaeologists argue is unrivalled in its importance to antiquity. If it weren’t for the current political instability and ongoing violence, this troubled nation would be rightly regarded as the region's top archaeological priority. The "land between the two rivers", known to historians as the cradle of civilisation, is home to the oldest cities in the world. But after nearly 15 years of conflict it seems that the clock is ticking on preserving these wonders from complete annihilation.
In September I visited Iraq as part of a journey around Arabia to document cultural heritage and sites of historical importance to the region. As a historian with a particular interest in archaeological preservation, I wanted to see with my own eyes how bad the reports of wreckage actually were. I spent two weeks surveying antiquities across the country all the way from the Kurdish North, through the Sunni heartlands and lands recaptured from ISIL, to the Shia south.
I had first visited Mosul in 2003 and been awestruck by how well-preserved the old walls of the ancient city of Nineveh were. In April last year, ISIL blew up the gateways and bulldozed much of the 4,000-year-old ruins. Not only that, the group desecrated the famous university library containing thousands of rare manuscripts as well as looting the world-renowned museum. The priceless artefacts were either destroyed or sold on the black market to sustain the terrorists' grip on the city.
ISIL intended to demonstrate its control over the present by eradicating history. It wasn’t merely an exercise in religious ideology but perhaps equally a method of psychological power play over inhabitants, to remove their sense of a pre-ISIL identity. In a world of chaos, it pays to pretend the world was no better before. The senseless destruction also seemed to appeal to the thugs that acted as ISIL henchmen during their reign. Smashing up statues and bulldozing ancient temples gave them something to do in between killing sprees.
ISIL didn’t limit its destruction to pre-Islamic architecture of course. The majority of its sacrilege was aimed towards Sufi shrines and Shia mosques across the country. It was part of a propaganda war to defeat the "near enemy" –namely, anyone who didn’t conform to Salafist fundamentalism. For the group, anything created by the hands of man that didn’t meet its creed was deemed idolatrous and un-Islamic or seen to uphold Iraqi nationalism, which went against its desire for a pan-Islamic caliphate.
Not all the destruction was intentional and deliberate though. "Collateral damage" resulted in the destruction of the Al-Nuri mosque, as well as the levelling of almost the entire old city in Mosul, and you only have to take the road south through to Baghdad to witness the heartbreaking vandalism of countless mosques and holy shrines like Samarra, the medieval former capital of the Abbasid caliphate, on the east bank of the Tigris. Some of the damage dates back to before the current insurgency. During the 2003 invasion both Saddam Hussein's troops and Americans contributed their fair share of devastation. In the southern deserts and plains, often the only raised features were the mounds of clay that represented the ancient cities of Sumerian civilisation. As a result, the Iraqi defenders often used them as defensive fortresses, haphazardly demolishing 7,000-year-old walls and temples. Likewise the American fighter pilots saw them as fair targets and strafed them without mercy.
Some of the sabotage was subtler. The famous city of Babylon, a couple of hours drive south of Baghdad, offers visitors an odd and not entirely welcome surprise. Gleaming orange brick walls rise out of the desert in a shocking way. Saddam Hussein, in a bid to position himself as the more culturally refined dictator, had the palace rebuilt on top of the original site in new bricks. Many historians argue this was nothing more than a tasteless propaganda exercise to demonstrate his legitimacy as the nation's rightful leader. (The new bricks had his own name stamped on them alongside the ones bearing the name of the Biblical king Nebuchadnezzar, who imprinted his name on the bricks of every building project.)
That said, despite the fact it looks like it was built yesterday, there are still plenty of the original structures and reliefs intact. And at least there is a full-time security presence and an entry fee, which goes some way to preserving its integrity.
The same cannot be said for the ancient Sumerian temples of Eridu and Ur that lie in the southern deserts. Eridu, or what is left of it, is thought to be the world’s oldest city. Dating back to the first kingdom, it is more than 7,000 years old and some scholars claim that it was here that the Tower of Babel was actually located. Now it is nothing more than a crumbling mound of brick, rock and shards of pottery. All over the ground lie clay tablets covered in cuneiform writing –the world's earliest script – pieces that really belong in a national museum. What is worrying though is that this place is left unguarded and hasn’t been afforded any protection from looters or vandals since the security situation plummeted with the rise of ISIL. Nearby the Ziggurat of Ur, mentioned in the Book of Genesis, faces a similar threat. Thieves have already stolen many of the cuneiform tablets there and the walls are pockmarked with holes where tomb raiders have made off with priceless slabs.
So what does the future hold? In October the World Bank approved $400 million in additional funding to help rebuild those parts of Iraq liberated from ISIL. A small amount of that money has been pledged to restore cultural heritage sites such as the old city in Mosul and some of the damaged religious sites.
However, it’s unlikely that this money will reach the more remote sites that are equally deserving. The poor security situation, particularly on the fault lines of the sectarian divide, means that destruction will go on and each week that passes means that another decade or century disappears into dust. Until there is stability in Iraq, funds are not going to flow forth to pay for the restoration of mud walls and broken pots or teams of budding archaeologists. But if Iraq wants to preserve its glorious cultural legacy, it must remember that those who neglect history are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
Levison Wood is a historian, documentary maker and the author of Eastern Horizons, recounting his trip along the Silk Road. He will be leading a travel writing masterclass at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in March next year