Article

Published in Marres Cahier, ‘The Measure of our Travelling Feet’, Marres, NL
By Wouter Osterholt and Ingrid Hapke

On the outskirts of Maastricht lies the entrance to an old marlstone quarry, known as the Jesuit Caves. Commercial exploitation of the quarry ended in 1880 and in 1860 Jesuit scholars from a nearby college began to use parts of it for recreational purposes, spending nearly a century carving a large number of objects. These sculptures were mostly reproductions of cultural artifacts they had encountered on their travels. The quarry eventually became a museum for this broad collection of objects, including reproductions of Assyrian winged bulls, the Alhambra and the head of Ramesses II. The eclectic selection represents a cultural diversity that offers a necessary counterweight in times of increasing xenophobia.

To us, the most interesting and noticeable depictions in the quarry were the two colossal winged, human-headed bulls (lamassu) flanking the former cave entrance. These creatures were the first large studies made by the Jesuits and are reproductions of statues the Jesuits had seen in the Louvre museum in Paris, excavated by French archeologist Paul-Émile Botta and brought to the French capital in 1846. The originals were the gatekeepers of one of the seven gates in the wall surrounding the palace (completed 706 BC) of the Assyrian king Sargon II. The palace was located in a citadel called Dur-Sharrukin (present-day Khorsabad), located 15 km from Mosul in Northern Iraq.

The lamassu were originally placed at the exterior gate of the city as protective deities, to safeguard the kingdom and its inhabitants from evil forces. They were believed to be powerful creatures, serving both as a reminder of the king’s ultimate authority and as symbols of protection for all people. The sculptures combine the body of a bull, (demonstrating strength), the wings of a bird of prey (symbolizing the king’s power as he looks over his subjects) and a human head to represent the ruler and his intelligence. On the head sits a crown featuring horns, as a symbol of divinity. The sculptures looked fearsome and gave an impression of invincibility.

In retrospect, they have come to symbolize the tragedy of a region marked by geopolitical chaos and power struggles. Most of the remains of Sargon’s citadel, such as statues and reliefs, were removed during the excavations of the 19th century and ended up in various museums, such as the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris and the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Other ornaments, as well as foundations and walls of this Neo-Assyrian Empire remained in place until Islamic State militants bombed the archeological site in March 2015.

But the historical sites had already suffered long before these attacks – from the archeological lootings by the colonial empires in the 19th century to the more recent military intervention of the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ (countries which supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq). They ignored the warnings by organizations concerned with the protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage, which resulted in the destruction of thousands of unique and unprotected archeological sites, places that form the cradle of our contemporary civilization. Especially in times of a growing divide between the East and West it is more worrying than ever that the fundament of our shared Eurasian identity is being erased.

The withdrawal of U.S. military forces from the Iraqi territory at the end of 2011 created a vacuum in which sectarianism gained power in an already deeply divided country consisting of many religious, cultural, and ethnic groups. A state of war ensued, giving religious fanatics, like IS, a perfect platform to fight “the West” and to establish a new Islamic caliphate throughout the region, extending into Syria.

This terrifying scenario forced many people to flee to neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, while others embarked on a dangerous route to Europe. For several years now, the war and its consequences have been daily news for us, testing European politicians’ and citizens’ sense of responsibility and compassion. We (in Europe) witnessed this humanitarian drama not only on our television screens, but also directly in our neighborhoods. The many bureaucratic restrictions and the rise of right-wing groups in the West could not prevent the arrival of migrants in need of shelter. Numerous new asylum centers were opened in the Netherlands, where empty buildings throughout the country were converted into shelters.

In Maastricht, a former prison in the neighborhood of Limmel (Overmaze) is used as a shelter for 600 migrants. During a public consultation session in September 2014, organized by the municipality in collaboration with the COA (the national Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers), Limmel residents expressed their concerns about the arrival of the migrants and voiced their fears of “an attack on the social life in their neighborhood”. One resident expressed his fear by asking “Could there be IS terrorists amongst them?”

During an earlier council meeting in the same month, a representative of the neighborhood council of Limmel stated that “Limmel is one of the most social and welcoming neighborhoods of the city. It’s by far the nicest part of the city. Therefore, we should be extra cautious of the social pressure that might arise when this vulnerable neighborhood suddenly is confronted with the arrival of 600 new residents: people that don’t speak the language and who cannot relate to the western standards.”

By the end of 2014 the temporary asylum center was opened, but only after alterations had been made to the original building structure, as demanded by Limmel citizens in the council meetings. The main entrance, facing the residential area surrounding the prison, was closed. Instead, a small entrance was made into the prison wall on the northeast side of the complex. Thus, the new residents are diverted away from the residential area and led through a deserted industrial area, out of direct sight from the community. This attempt by the local residents to safeguard their territory became the starting point of the project. The video documents the ‘lamassu’s traveling feet’ from their subterranean hideout, through the streets of Limmel, towards their final destination: the new gate of the former prison.