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18 September 2014
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The Lost Palaces of Iraq

By Dan Cruickshank
Detail of a carving showing the head of the Babylonian god Marduk
The head of the Babylonian god Marduk ©

Some of the most sophisticated ancient civilisations once thrived in Iraq, but the cities of the Babylonians, Assyrians and Sumerians have become fragile ruins, in a nation recovering from war. Dan Cruickshank travelled to the region before the recent conflict, to document antiquity under threat.

Heritage under threat

The aim of my journey to Iraq in November 2002 was to have a look at what 25 years of war and political isolation had done to the culture of the country. I wanted to investigate its ancient sites, buildings and museums, to discover what had been damaged or destroyed through war and neglect, and to chart what was under threat if military action were to take place.

'...memories of the cultural wonders of Iraq have gradually faded.'

Iraq was once a very important country to Britain. Indeed it was British colonial rulers who, in the years immediately after World War One, created the modern state of Iraq out of a collection of provinces that had formed part of the conquered Ottoman Empire. During the 1920s and 30s British archaeologists flocked to Iraq - which received independence in 1932 - to continue the work of discovery and interpretation that had begun with a startling series of discoveries made in the region from the mid-19th century.

But these remarkable discoveries - which changed the west's perception of its own history and which revealed civilisations, theology and writings far older than those known previously - have now largely been forgotten. This is as dangerous as it is strange. Iraq's political isolation - the result of 25 years under the vicious and tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein - has repelled visitors, so memories of the cultural wonders of Iraq have gradually faded. This is a very alarming state of affairs for it is, of course, far easier to attack a country when its historic and cultural importance has been forgotten.

It is important to remind people in the west of what is at stake, of what could be destroyed, if Iraq is invaded. And it is just as important to consider what the people of Iraq feel about the recent onslaught on their culture - through both external attack and internal civil strife.

Published: 2003-02-16

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