More than 18 years since the invasion of Iraq, the country is still in disarray — and much of its cultural patrimony is still missing. The initial loss of objects smuggled out during the conflict, exacerbated by the lack of concern from much of the world, is debilitating. There are generations of young Iraqis who are far removed from — and have no access to — their history, collective memories or national identities. With such loss, how will they shape their future?
Iraq, with its rich history spanning back to the earliest days of humanity, is often labeled the “cradle of civilization.” Its soil is loaded with layers of historical evidence in the form of archeological sites, many unexcavated. Yet their integrity has been under constant threat, damaged by military machinery under occupation and looters operating openly.
Since 2003, ancient works stolen from museums or archeological sites have surfaced and been traded in different parts of the world. Every once in a while, there is news of stolen works that have been apprehended, such as the 4,400-year-old stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash, which was recovered in 2006 and returned to Iraq in 2010.
The reality, however, is that most looted objects have not been found or returned. And Iraqis are not just deprived of ancient Mesopotamian heritage. Objects from Iraq’s glorious, but mostly overlooked, Islamic and modern periods have also disappeared.
This has implications for Iraq’s present: The 20th century, when the modern state of Iraq was established, witnessed a nation negotiated in part through its art. Iraqi artists of the 1950s, particularly members of the Ruwwad Group and the Baghdad Group for Modern Art, succeeded in forging a distinctly Iraqi iconography and helped to visualize a new national identity.
How can we ever quantify the loss of so many artifacts, recent and ancient? Along with objects, archives and records disappeared, making it impossible to gauge the precise amount and impact of loss. Some museums, such as the National Museum of Antiquity, kept better records. But in the case of the National Museum of Modern Art, the exact number of works of art — likely more than 7,000 — cannot be verified, beyond the works by the most famous Iraqi modern artists. This, too, is a loss: Visual records and archives provide access to various kinds of knowledge — about people, institutions, technology and the nation itself — anchoring cultural change and helping us present our identity and diversity in a rapidly changing world.
As it recovers from brutal years of despotic rule, lethal economic sanctions and several wars, Iraq needs to be able to understand and reassess its heritage and identity. Access to the past would provide Iraqis with crucial tools to know who they are and where they want to go. The loss of these objects and archives only further contributes to the loss of their collective and cultural memories, and erasure of their identities — a process that was intensified in 2003 and continues to this day. In practice, it deprives them of the ability to reflect as they are told how divided they are based on sectarian, ethnic or religious discords.
This issue is not just of the antiquities acquisition process, nor some other procedural oversight. This world has a long history of the colonial robbing of cultures in the name of civilization and religion. The legacy of depriving cultures of their histories is conjured every time a nation tries to repatriate stolen objects from one of the world’s famous museums. We might think such acts of plundering are unfathomable today, in our age of “decolonizing,” but the looting from so-called conflict zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria proves otherwise.
For Iraq, sadly, the cultural disaster that began in 2003 has been mostly forgotten. And after nearly two decades, I am left making the same pleas I made then, for attention and collective action. Today, small victories are celebrated, but the magnitude of loss seems to pass by with impunity — and it is the Iraqi people who are paying the price.