Just a few years ago, the world watched in dismay as ISIS/Daesh publicly and ostentatiously destroyed or damaged structures from ancient Mesopotamia, artefacts in Mosul Museum, and Palmyra’s ancient Roman Tetrapylon and Roman theatre in today’s Syria. At the time, Marina Gabriel, from the American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives (ASOR CHI), is reported to have said, ‘This destruction is almost unprecedented in recent history, and is particularly devastating for a region with extensive history that has impacted the world.’
Watching Notre Dame go up in flames this week manifested similar feelings of a sense of loss, though clearly a fire probably through neglect is different to destruction through a baleful ideology. What is interesting, however, is that a handful of days before the Paris fire, reports emerged from Iraq that the third-century Persian Taq Kasra had partially collapsed. Seemingly similar to Notre Dame, claim critics, neglect of some sort seems to be the reason.
Located not far from Baghdad, the former palace of Taq Kasra is said to be the ‘world's largest brickwork vault’ and a singular architectural structure. On a website dedicated to the ancient monument, Netherlands-based Pejman Akbarzadeh, who in 2018 made a documentary about the site, alleges that Czech conservationists were not quite the experts they appeared and did more harm than good. In this BBC interview (right), Akbarzadeh talks about his film.
Commentators and the general public rightly feel great pain at the loss of irreplaceable artefacts in the Notre Dame fire, and the Iraqi government joined other countries in writing to France to offer heartfelt condolence at the devastation the fire caused. Such solidarity is genuine and understandable, particularly from a country that has suffered so much over so many decades.
Critics, however, are asking why the Iraqi government is not doing more to protect its own – extensive – cultural treasures, such as Taq Kasra. On the one hand, it’s difficult to be overly critical of Iraqi authorities who are struggling to adequate provide water and electricity for all its citizens. On the other, there’s hardly a country in the world that matches Iraq for corruption.
And while such a state continues, the country’s hugely significant cultural legacy continues to decay.
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