The Lost Palaces of Iraq

By Dan Cruickshank
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.
The head of the Babylonian god Marduk 

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.

Birth of civilisation

The Tigris and the Euphrates from an atlas by Al Istalhry (10th-11th century)
The Tigris and the Euphrates from an atlas by Al Istalhry (10th-11th century)
Just getting a visa to enter Iraq was a major problem, requiring much explanation about my interest in the subject, and patience. Once in Baghdad, life became punctuated by paperwork and peopled with government minders as we sought permission to travel outside the capital. After some days spent negotiating in Baghdad, I headed north to Mosul - the second city of Iraq - and to the heartland of the ancient Assyrian Empire, the most powerful force on earth when it reached the apogee of its glory 2,800 years ago.

'...people here had discovered the wheel and key aspects of mathematics...'

As I was driven northwards I passed through a landscape that revealed much of its remarkable past. This was the ancient land of Mesopotamia - the 'land between the rivers' as the Greeks termed it - whose geographical position was the key to understanding some of the extraordinary and pioneering developments that occurred here, 8,000 years ago.

Between the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates was a great alluvial plain - Mesopotamia - and the soil, although sun-baked, was immensely fertile. The people that dwelled here 8,000 years ago had learned to irrigate the land by means of canals and ditches, and had mastered the arts of agriculture. From this came plenty, which relieved man of the need to fight for survival, and thus gave his creative energy the chance to flourish. Civilisation was born.

By about 5,500 years ago the first ever form of writing - cuneiform - had evolved in the region, and people here had discovered the wheel and key aspects of mathematics (the concept of zero, the division of a circle into 360 degrees). They had also developed the crafts, arts and many aspects of theology now familiar in the Judaic, Christian and Muslim religions. And although it was the Assyrian Empire that evolved and refined these achievements, it is known that civilisations and empires flourished in Mesopotamia even before the rise of the Assyrians.

World's first city

The ziggurat at Ur
The ziggurat at Ur has been reconstructed by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities
The oldest civilisation we know is the Sumerian - located in the far south of present-day Iraq. Around 6,000 years ago the Sumerians built the world's first city - Uruk - and, for good or ill, introduced urban civilisation. The oldest book we now know, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was also written in Sumeria, around 4,500 years ago. The book describes how Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk, set out on a quest for knowledge and immortality, and how in the end he found them through architecture. Only by building could a king honour his gods and obtain immortality. To the Sumerian kings, who stamped their names in the bricks of their buildings so they would live in the memory of man forever, city building - architecture - was divine.

'Ziggurats were the focal and spiritual centre of the city...'

Persians and then Romans resurrected the city, but it was finally abandoned in the fourth century AD, and it was only rediscovered in the early 20th century, by German archaeologists. It now consists of a vast number of mounds - the remains of ancient buildings - covering acres of land, dominated by the huge bulk of a ziggurat. This is a stepped pyramid, formed with a series of terraces and ramps, a form of construction that seems to have been evolved by the Sumerians around 6,000 years ago, and was taken over and developed by succeeding Mesopotamian civilisations such as the Assyrians. Ziggurats were the focal and spiritual centre of the city, the earthly dwellings of the gods, and their ramps were the stairways to heaven up which priests would ascend to converse with their deities.

Much could be learned from Ashur, as archaeologists have not yet fully excavated the site, but it seems that its secrets are soon to die with the city. One of the more destructive policies of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq has been to dam the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flow south into the Persian Gulf, to an extent that is both ecologically and environmentally disastrous. Construction work has now started that will dam the Tigris at Ashur, so that a large portion of the ancient city centre will soon be submerged.


Assyrian mythical beasts stand guard close to the palace at Nineveh
Assyrian mythical beasts stand guard close to the palace at Nineveh
Mosul is a sprawling city, which has a medieval core formed by closely packed courtyard houses that cascade down to the Tigris, and which boasts a curious 12th-century minaret that was built so that it leans to one side in a cheerful manner. Around the core are soulless developments and ugly roads and bridges, reminiscent of any western city. On the edge of Mosul stands the vast ruined city of Nineveh, which - along with Nimrud, just to the south - was enthusiastically excavated by British archaeologists from the 1840s onwards. These were thrilling times for the archaeologists, because the exploration of these Assyrian cities meant no less than the discovery of a long lost - almost mythical - civilisation that was known only from brief, enigmatic and far from flattering descriptions in the Bible.

'Particularly striking are the large-eyed Sumerian gods...'

From Nineveh, Nimrud and nearby Khorsabad, British and French archaeologists acquired (thanks to the Ottoman authorities) vast libraries of clay tablets, as well as the gigantic winged-bulls and finely sculpted panels of Assyrian kings, courtiers, gods and warriors that now grace galleries in the British Museum and the Louvre. This was rare booty indeed. But not all was carried abroad. The museum at Mosul - like the Iraq Museum in Baghdad - is packed with artefacts of international importance, including world-famous objects dating back 7,000 years or more.

Particularly striking are the large-eyed Sumerian gods, with their patient and benign smiles. But all the most precious and vulnerable items have now been packed away and put in store to protect them from attack. The ghastly question is, will they ever be seen again? If there is an invasion, it is likely that Iraq will be plunged into lawless chaos, and those museum items not destroyed will be looted and lost forever in the international art market - a market that has recently swallowed much of the culture of other countries, such as Afghanistan, recently torn by war. The prospects are grim indeed.

A desecrated cemetery

On the edge of Mosul stands a cemetery that contains the bodies of soldiers - Christians, Muslims and Sikhs - of the British army, killed mostly during World War One in a series of battles fought with the Turks. My Iraqi minders discouraged me from visiting the cemetery. They were right to. What I saw shocked me. It also shocked them. The cemetery had been ruthlessly desecrated. Each headstone uprooted and smashed - with their fragments used to build a hermit's hut in one corner of the cemetery compound - and the lawns reduced to beaten and bare earth.

'My Iraqi minders discouraged me from visiting the cemetery.'

Exactly when this happened is not clear, although the cemetery is recorded as being in reasonable order in 1989 and it seems likely that this orgy of vandalism took place soon after the Gulf War of 1991. This extraordinary and shocking attack on the dead - an act especially repugnant to Muslims, who traditionally show great respect for burial sites - is likely to be an expression of the intensity of the rage that some Iraqis felt in 1991, when British armed forces participated in the attack on their country. It must be assumed that such terrifying passions will be unleashed once more, if Anglo-American forces invade Iraq again.

Samara and Babylon

The Great Mosque at Samara
The Great Mosque at Samara
The Great Mosque at Samara is the most memorable architectural image in Iraq. The minaret was built in about 850 AD and is a 52m-tall spiral, which looks rather like a medieval image of the Tower of Babel. And that is the point - in its infancy, Islam embraced the forms of the sacred buildings of earlier religions, and this minaret is in effect an Islamic ziggurat. It is also an astonishingly powerful, elemental and mystic structure. If anything happened to this minaret it would be an act of barbarism of the highest order. The prelude to a new dark age.

'And then came Babylon - the mythic Biblical city.'

And then came Babylon - the mythic Biblical city. It was rebuilt in about 600 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar, who sacked Jerusalem and drove the Jews into exile, and it is described in great and lurid detail in the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation. Here I explored the remains of the Hanging Gardens and the site of the massive ziggurat of Babylon - the latter is sometimes said to be the legendary Tower of Babel - but all is horribly transformed.

'Saddam has had his name stamped upon the bricks...'

Since the 1980s Saddam has worked on the rebuilding of Babylon, in an attempt to build himself into the fabric - the history - of the nation. To imply that he and his regime are a continuation of the great empires of the past, Saddam has had his name stamped upon the bricks of 'the third reconstruction of Babylon' just as Nebuchadnezzar stamped his name on the bricks used at Babylon 2,600 years ago. The result is dreary and destructive in the extreme. To achieve a short-term political end the authentic ruins of Babylon have been obscured or destroyed by new building in poor quality pastiche - inauthentic in scale, detail and construction techniques.

Adam's tree

'Adam's tree' in what is believed to be the site of the Garden of Eden
'Adam's tree' in what is believed to be the site of the Garden of Eden
The final stage took me further south to the land of the Sumerians, to the 6,000-year-old Uruk - which was the first city in the world, and of which Gilgamesh was king - and also to Ur. In both, mighty ziggurats still command the mounds that mark the sites of the various buildings of the two cities. But the ziggurat at Ur, which is the best preserved in Mesopotamia (and much reconstructed during the 1960s), is marked by the cannon fire that raked it during the 1991 Gulf War.

'I finished my journey through modern Iraq at Paradise.'

The military airfield that attracted the attack of 12 years ago still adjoins the ancient site, so the prospects for Ur - in the line of fire and on the route of invasion from the south - are far from good. I have been told that the US military have drawn-up a list of historic sites in Iraq, and passed their co-ordinates to attack teams, to prevent accidental damage. This is a thoughtful gesture, but could, paradoxically, lead to greater damage. The Iraqis, aware of these 'safe havens', will surely be tempted to place their forces within them in an attempt to avoid attack. If this happens then history will, literally, be in the firing line and Iraq's historic sites will become the targets of attack.

I finished my journey through modern Iraq at Paradise. Al-Qurnah, near the southern borders of Iraq at the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates, has long been regarded as a likely site for the Garden of Eden, and it certainly fits the Biblical description of paradise on earth. The town is now a quiet, decayed and desolate place but, in a small garden by the Tigris, stands what locals call Adam's Tree. Ominously, though, this Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is dead, and the Tree of Life is nowhere to be seen.

'...what is certain is that, as in any conflict, history will be the loser.'

Standing at this tranquil place, where the two great rivers converge, war seemed a terrible prospect. Can the removal of Saddam and his evil regime be justified by the infliction on the people of Iraq of what could prove an equal evil - war, violence, and a prolonged period of civil unrest? Future generations will be able to answer this question, I cannot. But what is certain is that, as in any conflict, history will be the loser. In a country as culturally rich as Iraq - where every square foot is steeped in memory and archaeological sites abound - war can only ever be a catastrophe.

Dan returned to Baghdad after the conflict to investigate the reported lootings at the Iraq Museum. Read his follow-up article. [/history/recent/iraq/iraq_after_the_war_01.shtml]

Find out more


A History of Iraq by Charles Tripp (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Mesopotamia by Julian Reade (British Museum Press, 1991)

Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East by Fred Halliday (IB Tauris, 2003)

Babylonians by HWF Saggs (British Museum Press, 2000)

Mesopotamian Myths by Henrietta McCall (British Museum Press, 1990)


United Nations News Centre []

UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office []

The White House []

Places to visit

The British Museum [] , Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG. Telephone: 020 7323 8000. The British Museum holds a collection of art and antiquities from ancient and living cultures. Housed in one of Britain's architectural landmarks, the collection spans two million years of human history.

Musée du Louvre [] , 75058 Paris. Tel. (33) 01 40 20 50 50. Fax (33) 01 40 20 54 42. One of the oldest museums in Europe. The collections span millennia, dating from the birth of the great antique civilisations right up to the first half of the 19th century.

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Published on BBC History: 2003-02-16
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