Iraqi heritage damaged by all sides of the conflict – even U.S.

March 10, 2015
Iraqi children run in front of a temple in the historic city of Hatra, 350 kilometres north of Baghd..

Iraqi children run in front of a temple in the historic city of Hatra, north of Baghdad, Dec. 6, 2002. Reports say Islamic State destroyed at least parts of the city, REUTERS

Iraqi officials are investigating reports that Islamic State militants destroyed Hatra, an archaeological site that dates to the 1st century B.C., only two days after the group bulldozed another site nearby, the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. There is information that an archaeological site near Khorsabad is the latest to be desecrated. There no doubt will be more.

Destruction of historical sites is indefensible. Like an extinct species, once they are gone, they are gone forever. The casual destruction of the world’s shared heritage is too often a byproduct of war, as well as a symbol of its senselessness. Unfortunately, Islamic State’s wanton destruction reminded me of another example that I witnessed in Iraq while embedded with the U.S. Army in 2009.

On the edge of Forward Operating Base Hammer, where I lived, were several small hills, raised lumps on the otherwise frying-pan-flat desert. These were “tells” — ancient villages. For thousands of years, people in Iraq, as throughout the Middle East, used sun-dried bricks to build homes and walls. The bricks lasted about 20 years before crumbling, at which point the people rebuilt on top of the old foundation. After a couple of rounds, the buildings sat on a small hill.

For our archaeological site, there had been so much erosion over the years, along with the digging the Army had done, that an area two football fields in size was covered with ancient pottery shards. They were just lying on the ground; you couldn’t help but find them. Where holes had been dug, you could see larger pieces — even most of a semi-intact large pot or two. There were walls and building foundations exposed.

The problem was the vacant, flat area attracted soldiers, who would sometimes drive the SUVs used to get around on base there, doing “donuts” and enjoying kicking up dust plumes. No one officially seemed to mind much — kids blowing off steam — until one reservist lieutenant colonel, a school teacher back home, took it upon himself to try and preserve what was left of the site. He set up poles with red streamers, both as a warning and as a way to make driving impossible, and the donuts stopped. A decent man with a noble adopted cause, though most soldiers saw him as a pain.

People said that when the U.S. Army first built the forward operating base and dug up truckloads of dirt, soldiers found ancient skulls and long bones. You could sometimes still spot old bones in the earthen barriers protecting the base. The Army used one ancient tell nearby for artillery practice, blowing off most of its top. As one soldier said, “If it’s old and already broken, why does it matter if we shoot at it?” That same area was turned over to the Iraqis, who use it today as a live-fire exercise zone. Forward Operating Base Hammer is still open for business, now as a depot for the M1A1 tanks the United States is selling to the Iraqis. I’m not sure of the status of what’s left of the on-base archaeological site.

Sadly, other sites were damaged during the U.S. occupation. Early in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. Marines built a helicopter pad on the ruins of Babylon. They filled sandbags with archaeological fragments, pulverized ancient pottery and bricks engraved with cuneiform characters and christened the place Camp Alpha.

The scale and intent were obviously different from what Islamic State is doing, but a loss is a loss, in big bites or small ones.

Thousands of tells are scattered all over Iraq. You could see them in the desert from the air, especially in late afternoon when the sun was low, as they were the only things that cast a significant shadow. Some of the pottery and bricks on our site were possibly Sumerian? Assyrian? Babylonian? None of us knew enough to know. But we wondered, had the dust we dug out of our ears been part of some ancient city wall?

At night, the tell area was dark, and you could imagine how the earliest inhabitants of what is Forward Operating Base Hammer must have seen the night sky. It was beautiful — awe inspiring — with stars flashing almost to the horizon. It was a reminder that we were not the first to move into Iraq from afar, and a promise across time that someone might sit atop our own ruins one day and wonder whatever happened to the Americans.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

What a totally anarchist, anti-American, article. What the Islamic State does intentionally out of hate, out of theft, rape, the joy of harm and destruction that is Islam is NOT what others are doing. Peter Van Buren needs to pull up his stakes out of decent society and go live with the animals that make up the Islamic State and ALL of their supporters.

Posted by SixthRomeo | Report as abusive

“People said…” You lost me there, unconfirmed, unsourced BS.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

ISIS is in Iraq because we removed the central authority there. We should have never invaded Iraq. They had nothing to do with 9/11.

2 trillion taxpayer dollars. 4,000 young American lives. For a Halliburton catering contract.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“The scale and intent were obviously different from what Islamic State is doing”

And therein lies the difference.

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive

A country with no history has no future. Period.

Iraq and Syria have been effectively destroyed forever. Tragic.

Posted by Greg_Edwards | Report as abusive