TURMOIL IN IRAQ PUTS WORLD'S CULTURAL HERITAGE IN PERIL

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- When I first traveled to Baghdad in 1973 as a foreign correspondent for the old Chicago Daily News, my visit was filled with surprises -- and I love surprises.

First, in my second week in this "totally closed" country, where journalists would tear their hair and shout "AWRRAH!" at the apparent invisibility of any prominent figures to interview, I had the first interview that underground leader Saddam Hussein ever gave to a foreigner there.

So far, not bad!

Second, the Iraqis told me that I would really love taking a trip around the historic sites of Iraq, upon which are so firmly based the Bible, the Koran and the various religious teachings of Greece and Rome. I adore history, which gives me an existential mooring in our otherwise random universe.

Off we went to Babylon, which I, in my shameful ignorance, had not believed to be a literal place. The dark red brick walls of Babylon were extraordinary to see, but the famous gardens are now believed to be farther north, where there is more water. We went next to the circular Shia temple of Samarra, to the antiquities-rich Nineveh province in the north, with its majestic Assyrian lions, and finally, and most memorably, to mysterious Hatra.

This all comes back to me now because this morning I opened my Wall Street Journal and there was an exquisite color picture of the great pink-sand-colored walls of Hatra, which stretch four miles around the city center with 160 towers and a Great Temple still standing. The seldom-seen Greek-style ancient city, 180 miles northwest of Baghdad near the northern Tigris River and whose people spoke Aramaic, is an archeological gem already recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Since that day so many years ago when I joyously climbed about its arched walls with my guide, I had never seen a photo or a reference to the ancient city anywhere. But it stayed stubbornly lodged in my memory, this sprawling, extraordinarily intact city, which thrived in the second or third century A.D. under the Parthian people. There was no place to stay at Hatra, only a little one-room shop selling Arabic coffee and candies. But I swore I would return -- someone would build a hotel in time -- and truly enjoy this treasure in the desert.

But the large Journal photo and the article turned out to be a grave disappointment. I should have known that the reason for the spread was because ISIL, the Sunni radical jihadists who have been closing in on Baghdad, have vowed to destroy all artifacts of the past. They have already padlocked the remarkable Mosul Museum and threatened museum workers; and the destructive passions of these radical jihadists have previously been illustrated in Afghanistan, where the giant Buddhas were destroyed, and in Mali, where jihadists attempted to destroy historic early manuscripts.

Aymen Jawad, the executive director of Iraq Heritage, a not-for-profit advocacy group in Britain, was quoted in the Journal as saying in a kind of benediction for Hatra and for the cultures of the past: "One of the world's oldest cities in the Middle East is about to turn into another cultural desert that radical groups are so efficient at creating, while the rest of the world sits and watches."

There are many men and women, Iraqis and foreigners, who are deeply concerned about the irreplaceable archeological treasures of Iraq, but with the barbaric and destructive ISIL controlling virtually the entire north of Iraq and over into Syria, at this point there is little anyone can do.

This week made the future seem even more morose, as ISIL declared the creation of a formal Islamic state, in effect a restoration of the seventh-century Islamic caliphate, including Iraq and much of Syria. Revealingly, the declaration came on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The United States could have done much more during these last years in Iraq to protect and save the extraordinary antiquities; it provided some security, but did not give protection to the Baghdad Museum when it invaded the country. Now, much of the foundation for Western religions and civilization is up for grabs.

Yet, this is the ground (Iraq never really was ONE country) where Abraham walked down from the city of Ur to found the three great religions of the world, and it will always provide the deepest understanding of from whence we came. Please, someone, care about these speaking stones!

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)

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