Confucius said: “Study the past if you would define the future.” In Iraq, the past is glorious and long.
This is where the world’s first cities were built and where writing and organized government were first developed more than 5,000 years ago. This is the land that gave the world its first great literary work — the Epic of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk — over 1,000 years before Homer, and over 2,000 years before Christ.
ISIS, like so many iconoclastic extremist groups through history, seeks to destroy the record of the past. In the past week, video has circulated showing neatly dressed figures wielding rather new-looking sledgehammers and destroying archaeological objects in the Mosul Museum.
The spectacle would be ridiculous and pathetic if it were not so tragic.
Although there are suggestions that some objects destroyed are only copies, many are said to be unique and irreplaceable objects that had survived thousands of years — until now.
ISIS has been busy trying to damage the famed Nergal Gate entry to the ancient city of Nineveh — a city with a history reaching back thousands of years — and most recently it is reportedly bulldozing the site of Nimrud, capital of the 9th-century B.C. Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II, and source of the famed Nimrud ivories. These ivories were first cleaned by none other than Agatha Christie while accompanying her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, during his excavation.
All attacks on archaeological sites and artifacts are brutal assaults on our collective human memory. They deprive us of the evidence of human endeavors and achievements.
The destruction eloquently speaks of the human folly and senseless violence that drives ISIS. The terror group is destroying the evidence of the great history of Iraq; it has to, as this history attests to a rich alternative to its barbaric nihilism.
Worse, these acts of destruction supposedly in the name of religion are dishonest and hypocritical: the same ISIS also is busy looting archaeological sites to support its thriving illegal trade in antiquities, causing further incalculable harm.
The smashed artifacts of the Mosul Museum and the destruction at Nineveh and Nimrud speak to a wider ignorance of archaeology and the meaning of the artifacts that archaeologists recover, study and preserve. These objects are the material record of humanity. They are not just for scholars, they are for everyone. They are the text of the past that helps define our future.
Archaeologists clearly need to do more to expand a global understanding of, and appreciation for, the heritage of the past. But it is not just a question for teachers, professors and museum curators; there needs to be much greater awareness and protection of the past across society, in Iraq, in the United States and around the world, from the government to the public.
We need more archaeology education globally; in Iraq and in other ISIS-affected countries, but also among people everywhere in order to help communities — from children on up — understand the fragility of the archaeological record and its critical importance to understanding the human story.
Ancient Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, is at the heart of the human story: home of the first cities, states and empires. The law Code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon over 3,700 years ago, is the first great legal text of the world; it begins a heritage leading to Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.
The heritage of Iraq is our heritage, too. What can we do in response to this assault on our heritage?
Providing educational opportunities and empowering communities to learn more about their cultures and histories, and those of others, is one of the best ways to eradicate destructive hatred and violence.
Sturt W. Manning is director of the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies and chair of the Department of Classics at Cornell University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.