x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Iraq guards crumbling treasures as fighting rocks cradle of civilisation

Despite hardships including low pay, power cuts and bombings, the country's museums strive to save cultural heritage

MOSUL // The museum in Mosul is cold and unlit. Electricity is unreliable, and during one morning visit, a bomb exploded outside the building. But through the gloom, shadows form into shapes: statues whose stance and draped dresses are straight out of ancient Greece but with the conical crowns of the ancient Parthian civilisation. The three-headed dog which guarded the Roman gates of Hades jostles next to the Assyrian goddess Ishtar. Giant winged lions stand stonily, scrawled all over in cuneiform writing, the world's earliest script.

This is the capital of Nineweh province, which is rich with the region's ancient history; the Sumerians, the Assyrians and the Parthians who built cities which crumbled but left marvels; and its present, where bombings, kidnapping and terrorism still rage. "The museum was built in 1972," said Saba Amari, a curator, "and it was in very good condition until the end of 1990s." It used to receive tour groups from France, Italy, Germany and even the United States, she said. She is standing in a gallery, where US soldiers are taking pictures of each other - they are providing security for a state department visit - the closest thing the museum has had to a US tour group for a decade.

Now, she says, security is a problem, electricity is a problem. "We are always at sixes and sevens, and not in a stable place to develop ideas or to work." Mosul was on the front line of the invasion in 2003 when Kurdish forces advanced from the north along with coalition troops, although the museum was not very badly looted, unlike the Baghdad museum. The smaller pieces had been packaged up and sent away, and the massive stone statues, friezes and inscriptions left were largely untouched, although there are still scars where people tried to lever plaques from the wall.

Rather, it is slow decay - as the city has succumbed to long, wearying insurgent battles - that is killing the museum. Without environmental control, or even functioning air conditioning, ivory artefacts are rotting and stone sculptures are crumbling. A tablet from the ancient city of Nineweh is more than 2,500 years old and might be the world's first menu, a description of what King Ashurnasirpal II ate at a banquet (whole fried sheep, kibbeh, qusi, imported vegetables), disintegrates at the edges in the winter damp.

Ms Amari says she would love to bring children here and teach them about their past but "most have been suffering in their daily lives, so it prevents them from getting an education". Despite the hardships, the staff of the museum are trying to look after the area's cultural heritage for future - hopefully more peaceful - generations. This part of north-western Iraq is frequently called the "cradle of western civilisation," as some of the earliest people with urban centres, writing and structured society lived here.

Many ancient sites remain, among them a huge city in al Hadra, an hour's drive south of Mosul. The museum's director, Hickmet al Aswad, tells the story of the city: its rise on the western edge of the Parthian empire more than 2,000 years ago, its place on the Silk Road, its vaulted temples and intriguing carvings - from camels to pipe-players - and its fall at the hands of the Sassanids. The majority of the city is buried underground, and records indicate there are royal tombs and a huge library to be found, if there was only money for excavations. The site manager says that he is paid US$400 (Dh1,469) a month - not a lot even in rural Iraq - and just one or two guards sit on fallen pediments as protection against people who would steal antiquities. "From 2003 until now," said Mr al Aswad, who under Saddam's regime was jailed for stealing antiquities, "the place has been very seldom worked on." Funding for cultural heritage has been hard to come by, he said, and to prevent walls of the temples and palaces form falling down, they need to be reinforced.

A similar situation prevails in the citadel at Nimrud, east of Mosul, which has been occupied since 6000BC, and at which the giant winged oxen and lions, called lamassu, stand guard at what would once have been a royal palace. A ziggurat, or pyramid temple, stands alongside, covered in dust. Ten state-provided guards live in one caravan. In 1989, the Iraqi archaeologist Muzahim Mahmoud Hussein discovered more than 50kg of extraordinary gold jewellery in a tomb in Nimrud. Necklaces made from finely worked golden leaves, diadems and anklets were hailed as the greatest discovery since the tomb of King Tutankhamun. But there is nowhere in Nineweh safe enough to display them; they are locked in a vault in Baghdad, pending peace.

Now, pigeons roost in a reconstructed royal hall, and their acidic droppings eat into 2,500 years old friezes depicting Assyrian mythical figures known as winged genies. Their bulging muscles, carved deftly out of the stone, stand in contrast to their decorations of deer-headed bracelets and the Assyrian signature camomile flower. The finest example is pointed out and admired. A dead pigeon lies at its great stone feet.

On a nearby wall, deep grooves around the head of a frieze bear witness to the attempts of a thief to steal the priceless ancient art. One of the underpaid men who guards the site said that they chased the thieves away. Despite the looting, the underfunding and the feeling that everyone in Iraq has more important things to think about than Assyrian art, the guard says they have protected and will keep protecting the remote site. "There's nobody in the world," he says, "who has what we have here."

* The National