ONE of the unasked questions in the Gulf war is: What is being done to preserve the cultural heritage of Iraq? The problem is a difficult one even in peacetime, as archaeological sites are constantly threatened by pressures of modern development. But the usual threats pale in comparison with war's potential for destruction. Many Americans could probably identify Iraq - ancient Mesopotamia - as part of the so-called ``cradle of civilization,'' but most may not understand how much we owe to its ancient civilizations. Even an abbreviated list of Iraqi ``inventions'' would have to include writing, the wheel, irrigation agriculture, monumental architecture, warfare, organized religion, kingship, the wealthy class, industrial production of goods, and large-scale trade.
Some indication of the cultural importance of ancient Iraq may be gleaned from the first 11 chapters of Genesis, which are set by-and-large ``in the east,'' in the land of ``Shinar'' (Sumer), in southern Iraq. ``Eden'' was the name of a district in southern Sumer. The account of Noah's flood bears striking similarities to a Babylonian legend of a great flood. According to Genesis, the first cities founded in Shinar after the flood were Babel (Babylon), Erech (Uruk), and Accad (Akkad), while the first cities in Assyria (northern Iraq) were said to be Nineveh and Calah.
Except for Addad, there are well-preserved remains of all these cities in Iraq today. The ``tower of Babel'' was the great ziggurat, or temple tower, of Babylon. Though dismantled by Alexander the Great, its foundations are still preserved. Ur of the Chaldees in southern Iraq, the home of Abraham, has spectacular remains, especially its huge ziggurat. The writers of Genesis were not the only ones impressed by ancient Iraq's achievements. Babylon is the only place featured twice on classical lists of the ``seven wonders of the world.''
On the outskirts of Baghdad are two ancient sites with well-preserved architecture: Aqar Quf, with its great ziggurat, and Ctesiphon, with the immense vault of its Sassanian palace. In the heart of Baghdad is the Iraq Museum, with the most important collection of Mesopotamian antiquities worldwide. Throughout Iraq are old and beautiful mosques, and in the north are some of the oldest Christian churches in the world. Erbil, with its medieval city wall, high atop a mound that has been inhabited for thousands of years, is perhaps one of the most picturesque sites in northern Iraq.
But what the tourist sees today is only the tip of the iceberg, for virtually the whole country is an archeological site. The ``Atlas of Archaeological Sites in Iraq,'' compiled by the Iraq Department of Antiquities and Heritage, lists thousands of known sites, and many more have yet to be identified. Archaeologists have had the time and resources to investigate only a small fraction of these sites, but even this limited sample continues to produce significant discoveries every year.
Three of the world's oldest known villages have been explored in the north during the last few years. At Sippar, south of Baghdad, Iraqi archeologists recently discovered an extensive library with hundreds of clay tablets still arranged on shelves. An Assyrian palace was partially excavated by Iraqi archaeologists at Nineveh this past spring.
The destruction of this material would leave a gap in human history impossible to refill. The risks that the Gulf war poses for the record of human development must not be minimized. Many sites, particularly those that are the sources for the earliest stages of civilization, could easily be obliterated without ever having been documented.
Even before the war, urban and rural development was demolishing hundreds of archaeological sites in Iraq each year. The economic embargo and military blockade of Iraq can only hasten this process, as hundreds more sites are bulldozed, deep-plowed, inundated, and irrigated in an effort to cultivate more land and avoid food shortages. With a shortage of manpower, the Iraqi Antiquities Department will be able to do little to document these disappearing sites.
We cannot do much about the indirect threat at this time except to hope for the best. We can do more, however, about the direct threat our bombs pose. We have received vague assurances that cultural sites are not being targeted, but it isn't clear how the Department of Defense has determined which sites are significant, or even if it has tried to do so; no specialists in the archaeology and heritage of Iraq are known to have been consulted by American military planners.
Americans are rightly concerned about Iraqi civilian casualties and deserve to stay informed. We should likewise insist on a full account of the steps that have been taken to protect our irreplaceable cultural patrimony.