Unesco planning response to cultural destruction in Iraq

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Gary Noakes,
Unesco is to meet next month to decide how to respond to the destruction of world heritage sites in Iraq by Islamic State (IS).
Unesco spokeswoman Susan Williams said a meeting had been scheduled for 1 April at its Paris headquarters to work out a coordinated response following the latest damage to antiquities around the northern city of Mosul.

It will bring together government and non-governmental organisations, archaeologists, historians and other interested parties, including Interpol.

On Friday IS reportedly bulldozed Nimrud, the Assyrian city established in the 13th century BC, although reports have yet to be verified.

Nimrud is around 20 miles south of Mosul and was capital of the world’s first empire and the location of several palaces of Assyrian kings. Damage here followed similar destruction of artefacts in Mosul museum and at the Nergal Gate, which stands at the entrance to the ancient royal city of Nineveh.

Reports emerged this week that the group has also demolished the ancient trading city of Hatra, which lies southwest of Mosul, and Dur Sharrukin (now known as Khorsabad), another ancient Assyrian city.

Unesco has alerted the International Criminal Court but admits information is “difficult to come by”.

However, one area where the organisation believes it can be effective, through the involvement of Interpol, is stopping the illicit traffic of plundered items.

Unesco director general Irina Bokova called the destruction at Nimrud “a war crime”. She made a direct call to the cultural sector to play a role: “I appeal to all cultural institutions, museums, journalists, professors, and scientists to share and explain the importance of this heritage and the Mesopotamian civilization. We must respond to this criminal chaos that destroys culture with more culture.”

Bokova also confirmed Unesco’s commitment to fighting the illicit trade in artefacts “which directly contributes to the financing of terrorism”.

“At stake is the survival of the Iraqi culture and society,” she added.

The extent of the damage is still unclear due to a lack of air surveillance by coalition forces. Iraq’s tourism and antiquities minister Adel Shirshab has called for air strikes by the US-led coalition to protect the country’s heritage.

Some reports indicate that damage to items in the Mosul Museum may not be as extensive as feared. Al Jazeera reports 1,700 of the 2,200 items in the museum, Iraq’s second largest, were removed to Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq for safekeeping before the acts of destruction.

The Mosul Museum has four halls and according to reports, officials recognised two of the halls, the Assyrian and Hatrene, as being where the damage was done.