ICOMOS and cultural heritage in Iraq


For the attention of the Presidents of ICOMOS National and International Scientific Committees

Paris, 11 June 2003 

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing this letter to you as a follow-up to the letter I sent you on 16 April on the topic of cultural heritage in Iraq. ICOMOS has been very active. Yet, on site, looting and illegal excavations are reportedly still going on and, in the current situation relative to civil order and security in Iraq, cultural heritage seems to have a low priority. A lot more action is needed if we want to truly contribute to the protection of monuments, sites and other types of cultural heritage in that part of the world.

Many National Committees have promptly taken initiative on this topic and kept us informed of their actions and the media coverage of this subject. Already in the first letter I mentioned the efforts of ICOMOS UK to inform the British Government. I would also like to highlight the remarkable initiative of US/ICOMOS which brought together some 22 major institutions and organisations in the United States in the field of cultural heritage, including the National Trust and National Geographic, and established a common position which was communicated to President Bush. Australia ICOMOS, ICOMOS Japan, ICOMOS Bulgaria, ICOMOS Iceland as well as ICOMOS India and ICOMOS Norway have also expressed their views to their governments, insisting on the need to take responsible action to protect all forms of cultural heritage in Iraq.

While a lot of attention is rightly given to major museums, archives or library collections, the monuments of art and architecture, historic buildings and cities, as well as archaeological sites are left unattended, often prey to armed looters or vandals. While the civil administration announced recently that scientific archaeological digs might eventually resume, reports came that military bases and airfields were being planned by the occupying powers near such important sites as Ur. UNESCO has sent a fact-finding mission to Iraq which essentially confirmed much of what had been reported by some of the media. On 5-6 July, after the World Heritage Committee meeting in Paris, the ICOMOS Bureau and members of the Executive Committee will meet. We will work on setting up a financial framework and assign responsibilities to enable ICOMOS to act for Iraq and its heritage. Already, some private foundations have shown interest in supporting ICOMOS. ICOMOS Poland and ICOMOS Germany have tried to start a “Polish-German ICOMOS action for the Safeguarding of Iraq’s Cultural Heritage”. Other National Committees will hopefully also have some success in getting support for initiatives in Iraq, and we will have to see to the establishment of an Iraqi National Committee. In any case, many of our National Committees and members have expressed a will to help. This is very encouraging and in the true spirit of ICOMOS. It needs to be pursued but in a co-ordinated and professional way to ensure success.

As an international family of professional colleagues and friends founded on the principles of international solidarity, ICOMOS owes it to itself to make sure that the world-wide concern for Iraqi cultural heritage is turned into action and that we, as an organisation, become more able 

to play a positive role in such a crisis. Once again, let me stress to you the importance of the Iraqi Heritage issue and encourage you to engage with your national organisations, foundations and governments to find support, resources and other collaborations necessary to contribute through ICOMOS, to its conservation and safeguarding.

To play a significant role in such a context, ICOMOS needs to know who are the Iraqi specialists able to participate in the conservation of this country’s heritage. ICOMOS also needs volunteers who are ready to participate in missions and works, pending security and support conditions are met. Finally, ICOMOS needs resources to accomplish all of this. In planning for the next meeting of our Bureau, I renew the requests I addressed you in my previous note :

-          To identify in your country sources of funding that could support ICOMOS’ actions in Iraq to help save cultural heritage

    To identify from among your members, volunteers who would be ready to take part in ICOMOS missions or actions in Iraq

    To identify through your members and colleagues, people who have contacts with Iraqi professionals and conservators.

Despite the complexity of such a situation, ICOMOS can play a very significant role. Keep telling your government to put a priority on help for monuments and sites in the reconstruction of Iraq and keep the ICOMOS Secretariat informed of what you do. Thanks to all of you who have done so. Help ICOMOS accomplish more.

Yours sincerely


Michael Petzet (President)