UNESCO chief visits war-battered cultural sites in Iraq

3/7/2023 9:12:05 AM
The head of the UN cultural agency on Monday started a three-day visit to Iraq where many priceless cultural treasures have been damaged or destroyed during decades of conflict.

UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay was to visit reconstruction projects and meet top officials including Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and President Abdel Latif Rachid.

Years of war and insurgency have taken a heavy toll on Iraq's many Mesopotamian, Islamic and Christian treasures including six UNESCO World Heritage sites.

"This visit is dedicated to reconstruction in Iraq," said a spokesman for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization which funds several projects in Iraq.

Iraq's antiquities have been extensively looted, often by organised crime groups, since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

The national museum in Baghdad, which displayed many ancient relics, was not spared during the invasion when many treasures were stolen.

More damage was done during the brutal rise of the Islamic State group a decade later and the battle to dislodge it which devastated large areas in the northern city of Mosul.

UNESCO will examine how to help Iraq maintain its ancient heritage and put the spotlight back on its culture, the agency's spokesman told AFP.

Azoulay will on Monday tour Iraq's national museum and the historic centre of Baghdad, including the famed Al-Mutanabi streets, home to generations of booksellers.

Iraq saw the rise and fall of pre-Islamic civilisations, including Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia -- often dubbed the cradle of civilisation, where writing first flourished.

UNESCO has also declared natural heritage sites in Iraq, including the southern marshlands fed by the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers.

The vast wetlands have also been put at severe risk, including by draining under Saddam's regime and by climate change and upstream dam construction.

Azoulay will on Tuesday visit Mosul where UNESCO funds major reconstruction projects.

On Wednesday she will head to Arbil, capital of the autonomous region of Kurdistan and home to an ancient citadel that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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