The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, has ambitious plans to reconstruct universally important heritage sites in Iraq. 

Many historians see ancient Babylon, which was located in modern Iraq, as the cradle of human civilization. During a recent three-day visit to Iraq, beginning on March 6, UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay vowed to restore the war-ravaged country’s looted historical sites. 

“We all know what Iraq has been through over the last decades,” Azoulay told the press. “And we also know what the civilizations of this world owe to Iraq.” 

In 2018, Azoulay launched the “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” initiative in partnership with the European Union and the United Arab Emirates. On her Iraq visit, she emphasized that UNESCO “is very committed to assisting Iraq in the recuperation of the cultural goods and artifacts that have been looted over the last decades.”

While recognizing that a considerable amount of work remains unfinished, Azoulay said UNESCO was proud to have assisted in recovering almost 18,000 historical artifacts for Iraq over the last two years. 

Many of these artifacts are now stored at the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, and Azoulay visited the museum during her trip to the country last week.

The UNESCO chief said among the artifacts returned to Iraq by the United States was “the famous Gilgamesh tablet.” The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world’s oldest surviving works of literature.

Azoulay visited Baghdad, Mosul and Erbil during her time in Iraq, meeting with and speaking to local Iraqis in the three cities.

“What an exciting first day in Iraq. It was a great pleasure for me to walk the streets of Old Baghdad, to see its monuments which testify to the rich history of Iraq and to have direct talks with the Baghdadis,” the UNESCO chief said.

In Mosul, Azoulay visited various places where UNESCO, with local partners, is working on restoring cultural and religious sites, especially those that have strong connections to Mosul’s history and people. The work includes the rehabilitation of the Great Mosque of al-Nouri and its leaning Al-Hadba’a Minaret, the Al-Saa’a Convent (Conventual Church of Our Lady of the Hour) and its bell tower. The restorations also encompass the Al-Tahera Church, the Al Ekhlas International School, and 124 Heritage Houses in the Old City of Mosul. 

“In Mosul, I was honored to lay the first stone at the reconstruction site of Al-Hadba minaret with the Minister of Culture of #Iraq and the Sunni Waqf. I thank the United Arab Emirates, main partner of UNESCO to #ReviveTheSpiritOfMosul,” Azoulay wrote online. 

“Like Al-Hadba Minaret, the bell tower of Our Lady of the Hour Church is a landmark on the Mosul skyline. After visiting the foundry to see the new bells removed from their mold, it was an honor for me to be in Mosul to ring them for the first time after 20 years of silence,” she stated. 

The reconstruction of Mosul’s important heritage sites is not only important for cultural and religious-heritage reasons, but also because they are creating much-needed jobs for the locals, including workers, engineers and architects. Azoulay made a point of meeting with the workers and engineers at UNESCO’s sites and especially congratulated women workers on March 8, International Women’s Day.

The director-general also met with students at the University of Mosul, where UNESCO has contributed to the establishment of a cinema section. During her visit to the university library, Azoulay signed a new agreement with Italy worth 2 million euro for the procurement of new digital equipment and training at the university library. 

In the northern city of Erbil, Azoulay visited the famous Citadel, which has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2014. 

@UNESCO is leading a program that combines the restoration of historic buildings of the citadel and the creation of local jobs, including for minorities. #Erbil #Kurdistan #Iraq,” Azoulay tweeted. 

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