IT IS no secret that the Islamic State brought many tragedies. Potentially the most consequential of these is that in Iraq the rule of the erstwhile caliphate encompassed perhaps the world’s single richest trove of cultural heritage.
Now, as ISIS territory disappears yard by yard from the Iraqi map, it is time for the United States to start planning a “cultural surge” for this extraordinary pocket of the Middle East. Genesis locates the Garden of Eden closer to Basra, five hundred miles south. But it is Mosul and the neighboring Nineveh Plain that are the closest things on Earth to an Eden of civilization.
Home mostly to numerous ancient sects of Nestorian, Catholic and Orthodox Christians, but also to Shabaks, Yazidis, Kurds and Mandaeans—and more recently to Sunni and Shia Arabs—Nineveh has, for most of history, been populated by descendants of the ancient Assyrians. Jews were there from Babylonian times until the 1950s. Various Iranian invasions brought Persians. The Ottomans brought today’s Turcomans. There are Armenians and Circassians. The many languages of the Nineveh Plain include the tongues of Mohamed, Zoroaster and Jesus.
Nineveh’s cultural wealth reflects the appeal, to the tides of invaders over the millennia, of its rich agricultural plain. These are almost the only lands in Iraq that yield perennially rich harvests without irrigation.
Today the wheat on the Nineveh Plain is waist high again. Dotted with tidy rectangular plantations of tomato or watermelon, it rolls in golden waves to every horizon. The blackened villages are mostly ghost towns. Inside the churches, the debris has mostly been swept into piles. A few families return by day to sift through the rubble, begin repairs to their houses, or sell Pepsi and cucumbers to their scarce neighbors.
In west Mosul, the ravaged shell of the Mosul Museum is, depending on the day, a few yards or a few streets on one side or the other of the frontline. (Since my recent visit it has changed hands at least twice.) Amidst the rattle and booms of the fighting, Layla Salih stands inside the charred carcass of her office. An employee of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Salih is head of archaeology and heritage buildings for the Nineveh Governorate. The walls and ceiling around her are blackened. Rubble is shin-deep all around.
“We have no budget to fix any of this,” Salih tells me. Amidst the wreckage, there is no sign of her desk. There are no files, bookshelves, or chair. “We can barely protect the archaeological sites. How can we rebuild our country if we cannot save our past? In Iraq, the ancient heritage is the one thing that brings us together.”
As we pick our way out of the building, we pass the throne of Ashurnasirpal II, a noted sadist of the ninth century BC who “washed his weapons” in the Mediterranean and boasted of torturing his captives. “From some I cut off their noses, their ears and their fingers,” the Assyrian empire-builder says in an inscription. “Of many I put out the eyes . . . The young men and maidens I burned in the fire.” Pointing out his massive royal seat, now a knee-high pile of broken gray alabaster, Salih mentions that her salary has not been paid for the last two months.
Also inside Mosul city, but east of the Tigris and liberated in January, is Nabi Yunus—the tomb of Jonah. Here, ISIS destroyed the ancient shrine and dug half a mile of tunnels to loot the Assyrian palace beneath. In the low, narrow, crooked tunnels, it is impossible to tell whether the occasional, deep unnerving thunder is an allied air strike or an ISIS car bomb. A discarded orange jumpsuit, eerily lit by a cellphone, attests the slave labor that performed much of the caliphate’s rough archaeology. According to Salih, of the twenty-odd heritage sites in Nineveh Province administered by the Ministry of Culture in Baghdad, all have been damaged by ISIS, many severely.
The most important of these, and the most destroyed, is Nimrud, twenty miles southeast in the plain. This was Ashurnasirpal’s principal palace, built with war captive slave labor of his own. Picking her way carefully over the broken walls from Ashurnasirpal’s palace, wary of booby-traps and unexploded ordinance, Salih estimates that with bulldozers and explosives ISIS has destroyed about 90 percent of the ancient palace. The ancient perimeter walls once measured five miles around. The site, to the naked eye, is far too large for the handful of bedraggled guards assigned to protect it. Salih says that guards are paid by UNESCO.
“We need security. We need salaries . . . ” she says. “We must retrieve what has been looted. We can fix much that has been smashed. The losses need to be catalogued. We have to document the condition of dozens of sites.”
Where will the money come from for all of this? “Our old budgets were barely enough,” Salih says. “Now Daesh has taken us back to Year Zero in almost everything. Our needs are greater than ever but the politicians in Baghdad seem to be punishing Mosul and Nineveh.”
The Antiquities Board, with four hundred priority locations in Nineveh Province alone, has a budget. But little if any of it, says Salih, comes to the northwest of the country, where the city is dominated by Sunnis and the countryside by Christians and other religious minorities. The Iran-dominated Shia faction of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki controls the antiquities board.
IN TERMS of antiquities, the priorities in Nineveh are to stabilize and document the status of the province’s four principal sites: Nimrud, Nebbi Yunus, Kuyuncik (site of the Biblical city of Nineveh) and Khorsabad (home to Sargon II, who collected tribute from Palestine to Persia). Then will come the more expensive work of restoring these locations and continuing the archaeology.
More recent parts of the heritage, such as the Mar Elia Monastery (closed since the Persians slaughtered the monks in 1743, partly vandalized by Americans in 2003 and destroyed by the Islamic State in 2014) need the same treatment. These plus the Mosul Museum would constitute a priority “action list” of five to ten physical locations.
In terms of living heritage, “There are about fifteen villages and small towns that provide the core of the human ecosystem of the Nineveh Plain,” says Maan Ajaj, director of the provincial council’s Nineveh Reconstruction Project. “These must be brought back to life in a lasting, sustainable way,” he says. At the smaller end in size is Batnaya, with about a thousand Aramaic-speaking Chaldean Catholic families before the Islamic State. At the larger end is Qaraqosh, a Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox town with a pre-ISIS population of sixty thousand.
In each of these, churches and temples need to be restored and services, such as electricity and water, must be brought back. (Thanks to the absence of water and electricity, the provincial government currently does not allow people to stay overnight.) The former residents, eager to return, will do much of the work, Ajaj says. “But first they need to feel safe,” he says. “You will see: this is the only place in Iraq where you can truly say, ‘If this place is healthy, Iraq will be healthy.’”
Security and reconstruction in about twenty-five towns, villages and cultural sites: it is a tall order. But this region has likely seen more invasion and bloodshed over the millennia than anywhere else in the world. It owes its splendid diversity to those waves of invasions and it is good at bouncing back. “We don’t want the Christians of the Nineveh Plain to end up like its Jews,” says Ajaj. The children of the Captivity never returned to Nineveh after being driven out following the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948.
AS WELL as the wheel, government and religion, Iraq has given the world the new meaning of the word “surge”—a planned, coordinated and public dedication of new resources directed towards an urgent task. The last such U.S. project in northwest Iraq, in 2007 and 2008, was based on recognizing the primacy of local sentiment in any counterinsurgency. That surge was immensely successful. Today, as the caliphate dies in Iraq, it is time to start planning a new one for Mosul and its environs.
The new surge—focused on reconstruction rather than counterinsurgency—should be cultural. The project will do much to ensure Americans need not return here to fight again. It would serve two main purposes.
First: for Iraq, even more than everywhere else, cultural heritage is a powerful palliative, harmonizing force. Nothing else in Iraqi public life—apart, occasionally, from the national soccer team—comes close in this way. Antiquities heritage is national. It is nonsectarian. It is morale-lifting, proud-making and, above all, unifying. Cultural heritage that predates sectarian and political divisions ideally serves as bedrock. In Iraq, this heritage is greater and more important than perhaps anywhere else in the world. So are the divisions that it can heal.
Second, Nineveh is Iraq’s bellweather region and the national “cockpit,” in the old sense of that word. As things go here, so goes Iraq. Iraq will only ever be as good as its response to its own diversity, and Nineveh Province, including Mosul, is far more than anywhere else where the nation’s ailment lies, and its cure. That is why this is where ISIS was at its worst.
The tourism potential is extraordinary in this land of Sennacherib, Biblical prophets, the Caesars, and Suleyman the Magnificent. The people are historically industrious. Mosul itself—a Silk Road sister of Aleppo, and home to the eponymous, fine-cotton weave called muslin—has been Iraq’s richest city for centuries. In the Nineveh Plain, Saddam used to marvel at the tidiness and order of the Christian villages. Forcefully expressing the renewed allied security commitment, profoundly unifying in its message, economically stimulating the Nineveh surge should unlock the unusual, age-old wealth and comity of Mosul and the plain.
Rep. Chris Gibson served two tours in Nineveh Province in 2004–06 and led a brigade of the Eighty-Second Airborne here under National Security Advisor, Gen. H. R. McMaster. “In Mosul people were so proud of their community. I used to have help from every corner of society,” says Gibson, who spent six years in Congress after leaving Iraq. “That was our advantage in the Mosul area: the love that most Iraqis have for the diversity of their community. Al Qaeda tried to make it a weakness, but we made it a strength. We won.”
Then, to the surprise of the Iraqis negotiating the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Obama administration in 2010, the United States left. By proposing a U.S. troop level of 3,500 (which the Iraqis considered too small to provide even its own force protection), insisting on parliamentary approval not required for SOFA’s elsewhere, and requiring legal guarantees not available for U.S. troops in other such situations—or for U.S. troops fighting in Iraq since that time—the United States blew up the negotiation and left Iraq. Obama’s key election promise had been kept. But not for long. Within three years, Maliki’s Iran-directed Shia misrule had brought on the ISIS crisis. Soon enough, the United States was back in Iraq.
REVIVING THE venerable prosperity and tolerance of Mosul and Nineveh is clearly an unusually force-multiplying boost for Iraq’s better elements. Doing so with a focus on cultural heritage is not only singularly efficient, but also singularly good for the United States in Iraq.
Post-ISIS Iraq will continue to be an ally of the highest importance. Of all the post-conflict missions available to the United States in this key nation, cultural heritage is unusually influential and cost-effective.
Cultural heritage is by far the best in-country “look” available to the United States in Iraq. Foremost is the key point made above: heritage is the only on-the-ground cause that is truly national in meaning. For foreign supporters, Iraq is a public-relations minefield. A new hospital in Basra is seen as a pro-Shia project, while restoration of the Abbasid mosque at Samarra is a “Sunni” project, and so on. It is specifically Nineveh Province that transcends all of this. That is why, as Gibson says, Iraqis look on the area with rare pride and affection—and why Al Qaeda and ISIS look on it with desire.
If the location of the proposed cultural surge is disproportionately impactful, so is its subject matter.
“Heritage is not oil. It’s not guns. And it’s inescapably about respect,” according to Douglas Ollivant, a former country director for Iraq at the National Security Council.
“I’d much rather see this kind of surge, and not need the other kind,” says Col. Ollivant, who served as Gen. David Petraeus’s chief planner for Baghdad in 2006 and 2007. “When you can find something this selfless that is clearly cross-sectarian, it really deepens Iraqi-American bonds.”
The Mosul/Nineveh cultural surge would be very different from the numerous small initiatives already springing up. An explicit, named initiative led by the State Department or USAID, it would bring to the task publicity, coordination and, most powerfully, the huge morale-boost of American support.
U.S. prestige is currently extraordinarily high in Iraq. In the thirteen years I have spent focused on the country, I have never seen the United States as respected and welcome as I have found recently in Nineveh, Kurdistan and Baghdad. Returning as saviors, we have been excused our calamitous abandonment of the country in 2011. America’s necessity and basic decency here (the Aleppo comparison, where the foreign partner was Russia, has been most clarifying) make the notion of a world without us appalling to Iraq’s peaceful majority.
Fortunately for Iraqi hopes, and American interests, the mood is different in Washington, DC too. As Colonel Ollivant, who served the Bush II and Obama administrations, says, “There’s a growing bipartisan understanding now that the U.S. security commitment to Iraq is long-term.”
Maan Ajaj, the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee director, says the implicit U.S. security support that comes with prioritizing the region’s world-class cultural assets would be the most catalytic development for the local minority communities. “Just knowing that the U.S. understands the security consequences of Nineveh will help the minorities to return,” says Ajaj, the head of a leading Mosul Christian family.
This is not a call for more U.S. taxpayer money. Existing resources can do it. And money, of course, is not ultimately the problem in Iraq. The country will likely always be somewhat violent and corrupt. It will also always be remarkably resilient and important. As long as we are there, Iraq will be stable enough to pay us back many times over. In 2010, the year before ISIS arrived, the Iraqi budget surplus was $140 billion. Since then, despite ISIS, oil production is up 60 percent and increasing rapidly.
The new surge should integrate the activities of three distinct U.S. actors: academia and nonprofits, government and the private sector.
U.S. civil society is moving first. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is providing Iraqi curators with training and equipment for documenting antiquities in Iraqi museums. The University of Delaware and The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore are working on conservation projects in northern Iraq. The Smithsonian is initiating a program to train local antiquities staffers in “first aid”—Salih’s term—for devastated sites like Nimrud.
When this was announced in March, Mark Taplin, the acting assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs at the U.S. State Department, noted that “time and again, we have seen how collaboration in cultural heritage protection and preservation fosters dialogue and understanding within societies under stress.”
Diplomacy is the second element. The U.S. State Department can help ensure that Iraq’s politicians deliver on the federalism promised in their constitution. The 2008 Provincial Powers Act should be implemented, so that local communities here may begin to re-grow their ancient roots with less fear of inefficiency and chauvinism from Baghdad. Archaeologists, scholars and curators headed in both directions need help with visas, with the Iraqi side needing more support under State’s existing International Visitors Leadership Program. The cultural affairs section at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, bringing U.S. figures from the arts and academia to Iraq, should make the Mosul area a priority. The World Monuments Fund’s Future of Babylon Project, strongly supported by the U.S. State Department and some of America’s biggest private non-profits, including the Mellon Estate and the Annenberg Foundation, has done much in southern Iraq. This should be replicated on a larger scale in the far more politically urgent northwest.
USAID, with cultural projects worldwide, should shift resources here, to the true front-of-frontlines of the security interests of the American people. The Nineveh Plain meets two of the six criteria (“exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition . . . which is living or which has disappeared” and “tangibly associated with events or living traditions . . . of outstanding universal significance”) that are sufficient for qualification for cultural UNESCO World Heritage status. The United States and allies, given the vital national-security interests at stake here, should be pushing hard for this.
U.S. diplomacy must also exert pressure on Lebanon and Turkey, the two principal conduits for looted Iraqi antiquities—and the Gulf countries where the loot is bought—to stop this illegal trade. Meanwhile our Baghdad embassy is the largest on earth. Given that Nineveh was the first Iraqi province for ISIS to enter, and will soon be the last for it to leave, a small State/USAID team working on coordination and branding of the Nineveh Province cultural heritage surge will have a strong multiplier effect. Critically, the United States has the influence in Iraq to ensure that the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage never again rests in sectarian hands.
The third leg of the new surge strategy is Corporate USA. Many of America’s largest companies see the value of a growing market with thirty million consumers, and most are members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Iraq. The local Pepsi operator’s new facility outside Baghdad is the largest bottling plant in the Middle East. Additionally, Boeing and General Electric have signed some of their largest contracts anywhere, ever, in Iraq over the last few years. Bellying up once more to Iraq’s epic oil trough, American business needs nonsectarian, national, long-term ways to be seen as giving back.
ExxonMobil, which has a $50 billion contract in the south near Basra, operates legal but controversial fields in the Kurdish north—a constitutionally unhelpful position best mitigated via conspicuous support for unifying institutions. Last year Britain’s BP earned kudos by restoring the Basra Museum. The Mosul Museum is a wreck today, but, according to Salih, only about 15 percent of its best items have been looted or destroyed. It would be a perfect place for ExxonMobil to start.
Bartle Bull sits on the Visiting Committee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. His next book is a history of Iraq. He is a founder of NGP, Iraq’s leading merchant bank.