Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—It seems the only thing that Iraqi insurgents—whether they are affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or otherwise—share in common is their preoccupation with a dark side of history and their refusal to acknowledge the aesthetic and historical value of statues and memorials created by prominent Iraqi artists and sculptors over the past six decades.
It is not just the Iraqi people who are paying the price for the wars and crises that have afflicted their country for more than 20 years. Monuments, shrines, tombs and churches have also been, and continue to be, targeted by those wishing to erase the country’s rich historical and cultural heritage.
For some, these monuments represent symbolic enemies through which to settle old scores. That was apparent when the statue of the Abbasid caliph, Abu Ja’afar Al-Mansour, the founder of the city of Baghdad, was destroyed upon the US occupation of Iraq in 2003—with some seeing it as a representation of “polytheism and slavery.” Similarly, in Mosul, ISIS has destroyed the statues of renowned Abbasid-era poet Abu Tammam and musician Abu Osman Al-Mosuli, as well as the famous ‘Spring Girl’ monument, and also disentombing the grave of the 12th-century CE philosopher, Ali Ibn Al-Athir.
Iraq’s historic and cultural icons have suffered every time the country has experienced regime change. Following the ouster of the Iraqi Royal Family in July 14, 1958, angry mobs targeted public statues and signs associated with the Hashemite line and replaced them with monuments dedicated to army general and coup leader Abdel Karim Qasim. These and other monuments and symbols have suffered similar fates, with successive regimes seeking to blot out the memory of those who preceded them.
Following the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, several attempts were made to remove all reminders of Saddam Hussein’s rule—despite vociferous objections from intellectuals who considered these monuments to be historical artifacts that should be preserved as part of the country’s collective cultural memory—no matter how painful. A controversial dispute now rages between those who contend that past monuments should be removed so as not to be regarded as a kind of victory that further adds to a tyrant’s political domination and mystique, and those who see their destruction as a violation of the country’s memories, a frenzied campaign to wipe out all symbols of the painful past.
Artist and sculptor Khaled Al-Mubarak says: “The most important characteristic of Baghdad is its squares, its yards and its memorials that reflect an episode in history experienced by the Iraqi people.” Mubarak calls upon the relevant authorities to put their political allegiances aside when considering such monuments and to “understand the significance of maintaining memorials and statues and of protecting them for generations to come, in the same manner the authorities preserve them in history books.”
Architect Bilal Essam, however, believes that sometimes the motivation for the destruction of such monuments is not always the result of regime change. A number of memorials and statues unrelated to the Ba’ath Party have also been vandalized, and a statue of Abdul Mohsen Al-Saadoun, a prime minister during the Royalist era, was removed from a street in Baghdad that also carries his name. The situation prompted an Iraqi artist to produce a duplicate of the statue.
Iraqis now fear that this type of vandalism will befall other monuments, such as ‘The Monument of Freedom’ (1958) by Jawad Salim, a landmark in the middle of Tahrir Square in downtown Baghdad. There is also concern for the international-award-winning ‘Shaheed Monument’ (1983) (also known as the Matyr’s Memorial) by Ismail Fattah Al-Turk, and the iconic ‘Monument to the Unknown Soldier.’
Saget Fadhel, a teacher of contemporary history, says the structures are part of Iraq’s history and should be preserved in order to remind future generations of various aspects of past regimes, whether positive or negative. “In France, for example, there still exists the Arc de Triomphe that was built during the Napoleon Bonaparte era, although Napoleon drove France to destruction,” he says. “In Germany, Berlin Brandenburg Airport was originally Hitler’s presidential headquarters.”
Iraqi artist Zekra Sarsam agrees. She sees these deliberate attempts at blotting out the past as cheating future generations out of knowing their country’s history. “Present-day Iraq lacks historical documentation because each era tries to wipe out the preceding one, so we become skeptical about what happened,” she says. “Other countries protect their art and their documents because they are evidence of past events. Our identity is disappearing completely as a result of such repeated attacks on memorials and statues.”
In Babylon province, artist Fakher Mohammad says the phenomenon is not a new one, as major cultural artifacts from the Babylonian, Assyrian and Sumerian civilizations have been similarly attacked. Mohammed sees such attempts conflating political preoccupations with artistic ones. “These attacks come as a result of backward mental perceptions that these symbols are part of the political existence of a certain period and that their removal constitutes the removal of that period.”
The post-Saddam period saw another concerted government campaign to eradicate notable memorials in Baghdad, including the grand statue depicting the Iran–Iraq War from Celebration Square, where the current government headquarters are located. The memorial depicts two huge swords crossing—held by arms modeled on Saddam’s own—forming an arch. Underneath are 5,000 helmets of dead Iranian soldiers, collected under Saddam’s orders from the battlefield.
Iraqi Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Liwa Smaysim recently expressed fears over in light of the conflict currently raging across the country, demanding that international organizations take all necessary measures to provide sufficient protection for the Iraq’s rich and varied archeological sites. “Nearly 5,000 archeological sites in Mosul, Diyala, Kirkuk, Anbar and Salah Al-Din are all in danger of being vandalized, looted and prone to systematic smuggling by international, regional and even local gangs, in addition to the damage caused by military operations,” he said.
And with ISIS publicly flaunting its raison d’etre—the erasing of national boundaries created following the Sykes–Picot agreement—this latest dark chapter in the country’s history is another in a long line led by actors looking to silence those they hope to replace.