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WHERE IT WAS BORN

That civilization is a word with many meanings has been re-affirmed through the damage to Iraq’s ancient heritage wrought by the war in its name

“For religious scholars across the Muslim world, this is a time of mourning,” said the director of Iraq’s National Library. The looting and burning of the National Library and the Awqaf Library have meant damage to the enormous repository of royal court records and documents from the earliest Islamic periods, thousands of books, many handwritten, on Islamic law and practice, handwritten Qurans, religious manuscripts and calligraphy, a collection only outstripped by Cairo’s. And this is only a fraction of the damage done to Iraq’s heritage. In the land of ancient Mesopotamia, the earliest cities rose 6,000 years ago on and around the fertile ground between the Tigris and Euphrates. Through time, the Sumerians, Assyrians, Abbasids and Mongols, the Persians and Ottomans gradually built up the history of this region, and it is what they left behind that is Iraq’s greatest treasure. Although Hatra alone is listed among the world’s heritage sites, there are Baghdad and Babylon, Nineveh and Ur, and numerous ancient churches and monasteries, minarets and mosques scattered all over the land. All of these, together with priceless artefacts, some going back to 3200 BC, and yet undiscovered histories at archaeological digs, have been put at the mercy of a battle in the name of civilization.

Civilization is a word with too many meanings. Reportedly, the poor oppressed Iraqi, even through the rule of Mr Saddam Hussein, took an extraordinary pride in his heritage. The dictator himself was particularly attentive to the preservation of this heritage, for he believed in the building up of Iraqi national pride even as he massacred Kurds. At the head of a secularist party, his attitude was very different from that of the taliban, whose great contribution was to destroy the Bamiyan Buddhas and devastate Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic treasures.

Protection for Iraq’s heritage had begun declining after the 1990 war. Apart from actual damage during warfare, sanctions in the aftermath drastically slashed the budget of Iraq’s department of antiquities, once the best antiquities department in west Asia. Researchers, scholars and experts left the country in hordes, while ongoing archaeological digs were left incomplete. Armed guards were dismissed from museums and Iraqi antiquities began to appear for the first time in the world’s antiquities black market. One of the things that has most dismayed experts is the frighteningly systematic way that museums have been looted this time. It is believed that private collectors from Syria, Jordan and Iran had people, sometimes lower-grade museum personnel, to remove the most valuable things. The guarding and sealing of museums and borders may have come too late in many cases. As antiquities authorities try to find out what has been looted and what successfully hidden away, make lists of what is gone — like a golden lyre from Ur, or the headless statue of the Sumerian king, Entemena — and pray for the safety of things like what is possibly the world’s oldest calendar — a 10,000-year-old pebble with 12 notches, the world must again ask itself the old but simple question. Can civilization be remembered only through its destruction'

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