Iraqi NGO leads uphill battle to preserve country’s cultural heritage

The Iraqi government lacks a nationwide strategy to preserve, protect and rebuild sites that contribute to the country’s cultural legacy of being the cradle of civilisation.
Saturday 17/08/2019
Activists rest near an old building in Baghdad.(Courtesy of Burj Babel)
Landmarks in focus. Activists rest near an old building in Baghdad.(Courtesy of Burj Babel)

BaAGHDAD - “There is no limit to our ambitions. All that we are seeking is to preserve Iraq’s rich cultural heritage,” said Zikra Sursom, deputy president of the Burj Babel Association, which has begun an initiative to raise awareness about the importance of salvaging Iraq’s historic features.

“The extent of dilapidation of Baghdad’s historic quarters and old buildings is frightening. Many sites and structures are on the verge of collapsing unless we act quickly to salvage them,” Sursom said, describing the endeavour as an “uphill battle” to preserve Iraq’s cultural identity.

The group’s members take weekly visits to heritage sites across Baghdad to discover, document and inform people about the sites’ history.

“The tours take place on weekends and holidays. We make it a point to drive around the city’s old quarters on bicycles to attract public attention,” Sursom said. “The aim is to put in focus the historic landmarks and expose their poor condition and to urge the government and the people to join efforts in preserving our invaluable heritage.”

At risk. Baghdad’s landmark Sheikh Suhrawardi cone-shaped dome.(AFP)

Sursom said there has been a positive reaction to the initiative, which has attracted large numbers of volunteers. “We were mostly encouraged by the enthusiasm of young people who showed great interest in discovering and preserving heritage and historic sites,” she said.

Tours are announced on Burj Babel’s Facebook page. “Every week, we announce the location that we want to inspect as well as the time and place of departure. Our Facebook activists post photos and historic facts about the places we visit to encourage followers to share information and engage in conversations on how to conserve heritage,” Sursom said.

The group’s activism prompted the government to restore Al Suhrawardi minaret, a historic Baghdad landmark built 850 years ago.

“The task is huge,” Sursom said. “Whole quarters in old Baghdad are losing their historic features. The government’s failure to apply conservation laws compounded with corruption and greed is causing the loss of unique buildings dating back to the Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman eras.”

While the law prohibits the demolition of old buildings still standing, their owners intentionally neglect them until they collapse. Then they can sell them to developers who build high-rise and modern buildings.

Iraq’s cultural history spans some 10,000 years and more than 10,000 heritage sites. Conflicts over the past three decades robbed Iraq of some of its past by stripping the country of its tangible cultural heritage.

Cultural heritage in Iraq faces additional threats through looting, vandalism, government neglect and political infighting. The Iraqi government lacks a nationwide strategy to preserve, protect and rebuild sites that contribute to the country’s cultural legacy of being the cradle of civilisation.

Discovering sites. Burj Babel activists on a tour in the old quarters of Baghdad.(Courtesy of Burj Babel)

Preserving Iraq’s cultural heritage is essential and urgent, warned Falah Hassan, an activist and professional photographer who has been publishing photos of historic sites.

“I want to show the pretty face of Baghdad and introduce Iraqis to our country’s rich cultural heritage,” Hassan said.

“We need to act quickly. One of my greatest fears for instance is to witness the collapse of Al-Khulafa Mosque’s minaret, which dates to the Abbasid era and which is leaning dangerously.”

Hassan noted that Iraq lacks the expertise to conserve old buildings and the government is not willing to allocate funds to protect heritage sites.

“We need to have a strong local will coupled with foreign support to avoid the catastrophe. Otherwise we will lose Baghdad’s most iconic landmarks that go back hundreds of years,” he said.

In addition to Burj Babel, various platforms and initiatives have sought to raise awareness and call for Iraqis to join in celebrating their cultural diversity and stop the damage done to cultural heritage.

The Let Us Save What Remains initiative organises educational trips for youth groups to visit ancient rock reliefs in the Zawa Mountains and to view active excavation sites. Plans are under way to begin visiting schools and youth centres to develop an education system to teach young Iraqis about the importance of cultural heritage sites.

Hassan said he was confident that greater knowledge of the issue will help maintain the country’s identity from fading away by destruction, whether

by conflict, deliberate damage or negligence.

He noted that the numbers of participants in Burj Babel’s tours are increasing constantly, especially since they expanded to regions such as Babel and Samarra.

“We could see how enthusiastic and dazzled the young people were, especially those who were not aware of Iraq’s history. It was so delightful and so sad at the same time,” Hassan said.