Friday, September 11, 2009

War and cultural heritage

What can one say...what can one do? Very little. Iraq is not unique in destruction and looting of archaeological sites and artifacts. Consider Afghanistan or Cambodia.

"Damage sustained in the massive August attack on the Foreign Ministry adds to the museum's challenges. Iraqi officials say a number of key archaeological sites also need urgent international aid for repairs."


Jane Arraf

September 19th, 2009

The Christian Science Monitor


The massive suicide truck bombing outside Iraq's Foreign Ministry last month also shattered new display cases, windows, and doors at the Iraq Museum, underscoring the continuing struggles officials face six years after post-invasion looting stripped the museum of some of Iraq's irreplaceable antiquities.

"Showcases, windows, even the office of the director of excavations was damaged," says museum director Amira Eidan, interviewed on the sidelines of a Tourism Ministry conference on antiquities.

She says it could be several years before the renowned institution can be opened to the public.

"Is it the time to reopen the museum and show these treasures?" she asks. "After improving the security situation, then we can think about reopening."

The bombings on Aug. 19 killed at least 90 people and wounded more than 600. But smaller attacks are carried out almost every day in and around Baghdad. On Thursday, market bombings in Muhmudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, killed four people, while a truck bomb killed at least 19 in the Kurdish village of Wardek, near Mosul in the north.

In Baghdad, Tourism Minister Qahtan al-Jubori said he had called the conference to spotlight several of Iraq's estimated 12,000 archaeological sites that urgently need international aid to prevent or repair damage from environmental erosion, looting, and the proximity of coalition military bases.

Apart from ancient cities such as Babylon and Ninevah, officials highlighted lesser-known sites such as the Assyrian capital of Ashur in the north and Kifel in the south.

Kifel is believed to be the tomb of the Jewish prophet Ezekiel, who followed the Jews into Babylonian exile. The shrine is also revered by Muslim pilgrims.

Officials eye a second museum

In Baghdad, Tourism Ministry officials say they are trying plan a museum of Islamic antiquities in addition to the main Iraq Museum, which houses treasures from ancient Mesopotamia – the beginnings of the world's first civilization.

The museum opened briefly early this year to highlight a restored Assyrian gallery, but it remains closed to the public.

Its most valuable holdings – including gold jewelry and other treasures from the royal tombs in Nimrud – remain in bank vaults.

The Iraqi government is still working with other countries to identify and retrieve thousands of objects that remain missing after the museum was looted in 2003.

Beyond security problems, the museum also lacks a proper security system and air conditioning. Dr. Eidan says foreign countries have pledged to help renovate the museum, but the work is still in the planning stages.

Tourists? Please don't come – yet.

Although tourism could eventually be a major revenue-earner for Iraq, most officials believe that with security problems and lack of infrastructure, that could be a decade away.

"We get a few tourists, but we try very hard to discourage them," says Italy's ambassador to Iraq, Maurizio Milani, one of several envoys at the conference from countries involved in preserving Iraqi antiquities.

In a sign of the political wrangling that often overshadows government initiatives here, the US boycotted the conference because of an ongoing dispute between the Tourism and Culture ministries over responsibility for antiquities.

The Ministry of State for Tourism, which was set up after 2003 and hosted the meeting, is believed by some Iraqi officials to be an illegal entity. Some embassies refuse to deal with the Ministry of Tourism on purely archaeological issues.

"We look forward to the clarification and institution of the framework in which we can work together with the government of Iraq," Ambassador Milani told the conference, seated near an empty chair and accompanying US flag. "We think this would also help involvement of those not here, like our American friends."

"Oldest Human History Is at Risk"


Holland Cotter

February 25th, 2003

New York Times

Iraq has hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites. Some 10,000 have been identified, but only a fraction have been explored. Any of them could change what we know about human history, as past excavations have done. Some have already revealed the world's earliest known villages and cities and the first examples of writing.

The country is also one of the prime centers of Islamic art and culture. It is home to some of the earliest surviving examples of Islamic architecture ? the Great Mosque at Samarra and the desert palace of Ukhaidar ? and it is also a magnet for religious pilgrimage. The tombs of Imam Ali and his son Husein, founders of the Shiite branch of Islam, at Najaf and Karbala, are two of the most revered in the Muslim world.

During the Persian Gulf war in 1991 at least one major archaeological monument, the colossal ziggurat of Ur, was bombed. Shock from explosions damaged fragile structures like the great brick vault at Ctesiphon, and the 13th-century university called the Mustansiriya in Baghdad. These are among the sites most at risk from war:

¶Ur, which flourished in the third millennium B.C. and is identified in the Bible as the birthplace of Abraham. In the 1920's and 30's a British-American team excavated a royal cemetery in which members of a powerful social elite were buried with their servants and exquisitely wrought possessions. Ur's most spectacular feature, though, is its immense ramped ziggurat or tower, the best preserved in Iraq. Although excavation is more advanced here than at most other sites in the country, it is far from complete, with many layers still to be uncovered.

¶Babylon (1700-600 B.C.) is rich in historical glamor. Built on the banks of the Euphrates, it was the capital to Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great. Monumental remains like the Ishtar Gate have been uncovered, and locations for the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens tentatively identified. As home to the captive Israelites, the city is a recurrent and potent symbol in the Judeo-Christian narrative. The site of Nippur, an important religious center of ancient Babylonia dedicated to the god Enlil, is also in this part of southern Iraq, about 100 miles south of Babylon. The spectacular site has yielded an extensive sequence of pre-Islamic pottery.

¶Nineveh, far to the north, the imperial seat of the Assyrian kings Sennacherib (about 704-681 B.C.) and Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C.). Royal palaces with magnificent sculptures have been found, as have more than 20,000 cuneiform tablets from Ashurbanipal's library. The biblical prophet Jonah preached there. After the gulf war the excavated palaces were looted of sculptures. Nineveh is on the World Monuments Watch list of the 100 most endangered sites.

¶Ctesiphon (100 B.C. to A.D. 900) is high among architectural wonders. The audience hall is just a shell, but its graceful vault, 120 feet high with an 83-foot span, is intact. The cracks that occurred in 1991 are believed to have been patched by Iraqi archaeologists, but more or heavier shocks from military sites in the area could bring it down.

While untold amounts of Iraq's ancient material past remains buried, its Islamic art is mostly above ground, and monuments carrying profound cultural and religious significance abound.

Baghdad itself is one of them. Once legendary for its wealth, learning and beauty ? many of the tales in the "Thousand and One Nights" are were set there ? it has been devastated many times. And while nothing remains of its original circular design, superb late medieval buildings survive, among them tombs, mosques, minarets, the university and the revered Kadhumain, mosque and shrine. Baghdad also has the country's largest archaeological museum, with a collection of the finest Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian art in the world.

Samarra, once briefly a dynastic capital, has extraordinary early Islamic buildings. The ruins of the ninth-century Great Mosque of Mutawakkil, one of the largest ever built, lies outside the modern city, its intact spiral minaret an icon of Islamic art. The city also has one of the oldest known Islamic tombs, an early caliphal palace and the only brick bridge in Iraq, dating from 1128.

Iraq's third largest city, after Basra, is Mosul, far north on the Tigris and little studied by Western scholars. It is rich in architecture, including the leaning minaret of the now destroyed mosque of Nur ad-Din. The city also attracts pilgrims to the tombs of Muslim saints and has some of the earliest Christian monasteries, dating to the fourth century. Its museum holds important Assyrian antiquities from excavations at Nineveh, Khorsabad and Assur.

Of the many Islamic monuments outside cities, one of the oldest is the eighth-century fortified palace of Ukhaidhar. No one knows why it is in so remote a spot, but the surrounding land was probably irrigated for crops and gardens, and the palace seems to have been a self-sustaining miniature city. Architecturally, it is also an example of the multicultural impulse that has always defined Islamic culture, in this case bringing together Persian, Syrian and Byzantine influences.

"If any of the holiest Shiite shrines at Karbala, Najaf or Kadhumain are hit, we can only expect a very angry reaction from Muslims everywhere," said Zainab Bahrani, who was born in Iraq and teaches Islamic art at Columbia University. "It would be like bombing St. Peter's in Rome."

Consequences of the War and Occupation of Iraq


Babylon's History Swept Away in US Army Sandbags (December 8, 2008)

Archeologists say the ancient site of Babylon paid an extremely high price after the US used the site as military headquarters for 5 months. British Museum curator John Curtis calls the US action to build a base on the site as "ignorant and stupid" and says the 170 meter long and two meter deep trenches have caused irreversible damage. (Agence France-Presse)

The US invasion of Iraq has seriously damaged the ancient city of Babylon. Iraqi officials state that US and Polish forces, from 2003 until 2005, greatly harmed the archeological site by using it as a military base. A UN report, due early in 2009, will examine the damage caused by the US and Polish military during this period. (Associated Press)

Iraq Reclaims 1,000 Artifacts Smuggled into US over Past Two Years (September 18, 2008)

US customs officials have returned more than 1,000 stolen Iraqi artifacts, found in the US, to the Iraqi embassy in Washington. The scale of the recovered antiquities suggests that illegal excavations and smugglings continue. Suspected involvement by US personnel in the theft of artifacts calls into question previous US officials' assertions that Iraqi "extremists" were to blame for the sale of stolen Iraqi artifacts. (Azzaman)

Iraq's Antiquities Looted (July 31, 2008)

During the 2003 US-led invasion thieves looted and destroyed Iraq's archaeological treasures. Important sites remain unguarded and the country has lost priceless historical artifacts. Director of Oriental Science at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, Margarete van Ess, estimates that illegal excavation in Iraq has caused $10 billion worth of damage. (Institute for War and Peace Reporting)

Iraqi Officials Implicated in Smuggling of Antiquities (May 13, 2008)

A leading expert at the British Museum has revealed that members of the Kuwaiti ruling family, officials from the governments of Iraq and Turkey and regional gangs within Iraq possess antiquities looted during the earliest phases of the US occupation of Iraq. In a show of complete disregard for the importance of culture and history, Norwegian businessman, Martin Schoyen, has even "opened a private museum carrying his name in which he is displaying 6,000 smuggled pieces he bought via mediators." (Az-Zaman)

Iraq's Ruined Library Soldiers On (April 9, 2008)

Often called the cradle of civilization, Iraq was also a major center of early scholarship and home to the world's first library. US troops failed to protect the Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA) from looting in 2003. Although this led to the loss of "as many as 60 percent of the Ottoman and Royal Hashemite era documents, the bulk of Ba'ath era documents and 25 percent of the book collections," the budgets for rebuilding the INLA have been pitifully small. (The Nation)


British and American Collusion in the Pillaging of Iraq's Heritage Is A Scandal That Will Outlive Any Passing Conflict (June 8, 2007)

This Guardian article describes how, four years into the occupation, Iraq's cultural heritage continues to be destroyed. The US has used the 10th-century caravanserai of Khan al-Raba for exploding seized insurgent weapons, and looters continue to systematically plunder some of the thousands of sites of incomparable historical importance. By not protecting Iraq's culture, the US and the UK are in contravention of their obligations under the Geneva Conventions, which state that occupying powers must "use all means within [their] power" to preserve the cultural heritage.

Desecration of the Cradle of Civilization (April 15, 2007)

This Independent article points out that the destruction of Iraq's cultural treasures continues unabated. Looters protected by their own private armies are digging into Iraq's archeological sites in search of artifacts to sell to the US and European markets. The illegal digging is destroying entire ancient cities and, according to a professor at the British School of Archeology in Iraq, "a country's past is disappearing while we stand and watch." In violation of the Hague Convention, the Coalition forces have failed to protect some of the world's most precious archeological sites.


Iraq's Head of Antiquities Quits After Looting of Ancient Treasures (August 28, 2006)

Dismayed by the continuous looting of Iraq's irreplaceable ancient artifacts, Donny George, head of Iraq's Antiquities Board, has quit his post after unsuccessful attempts to safeguard 5,000 years of history. George cited a lack of funding as the purpose for his departure, as well as mounting pressure by Shiite officials to emphasize the protection of Iraq's Islamic heritage over earlier civilizations that pre-date Islam. (Washington Post)

Academia's Killing Fields (February 28, 2006)

As the "cradle of civilization," Iraq is well known for its cultural and intellectual heritage. However, years of turbulence have eroded this legacy. During the 13 years of US- and UK-driven UN sanctions, many Iraqi academics, doctors, and scientists fled the country. Following the US-led invasion and occupation, Iraqi professors have been subject to murder, kidnapping, and arrest. By some estimates, as many as 500 prominent academics have "disappeared" or been murdered. (Islam Online)


Looted Iraqi Relics Slow to Surface (November 8, 2005)

Thousands of Iraq's most famous historical artifacts have been stolen, the Washington Post reports. Widespread looting has continued since the 2003 US-led invasion, and occupation forces have not made protection of Iraq's cultural heritage a priority. Given the value of stolen works and the nature of the art trade, most experts doubt that Iraq's most famous artifacts will ever resurface.

Damaged University Science Labs Are Desperately Short of Equipment (October 9, 2005)

Scientific research and education in Iraq have suffered as a result of the US-led invasion. Many university laboratories lack necessary supplies while others have been completely destroyed. Though legislators have proposed to increase funding for equipment and facilities, security needs take priority in budgetary considerations. (Integrated Regional Information Networks)

For Sale: A Nation's Treasures (July 2, 2005)

The looting of Iraq's cultural treasures continues unabated. While some of the plunder is small-scale, large organized gangs are bulldozing sites and selling artifacts on the black market, and Iraqi officials believe the proceeds end up in the insurgents' hands. In response to the looting, vandalism and military occupation, the World Monuments Fund has put Iraq on its list of most endangered sites, "the first time that it has listed an entire country." (Times, London)

At Least 8,000 Treasures Looted from Iraq Museum Still Untraced (May 24, 2005)

More than half the items looted from the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad have yet to be traced or recovered. The author of this Independent piece describes the looting as "evidence of how quickly and irretrievably a country can be stripped of its cultural heritage." To make matters worse, the full extent of the damage cannot be gauged due to the "deteriorating" security condition.

Halliburton Destroys Babylon (March 28, 2005)

Babylon, one of the world's most important archeological sites, has been badly damaged by terrorist attacks, which began when Halliburton built US Camp Babylon at the location of the ancient city. The Iraqi Culture Minister has called for a full investigation to evaluate the damage caused and the level of reparations the ministry should request. (The Nation)


Troops Vandalise Ancient City of Ur (May 17, 2003)

The city of Ur was vandalized by US troops according to aid workers. Ur is home to many ancient monuments and it is believed to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham. (Observer)

International experts meeting at UNESCO have deplored the looting of Iraq's cultural heritage in the wake of the US-led invasion, and have called upon the occupying forces to immediately secure Iraq's cultural sites and institutions. (Al-Ahram Weekly)

Expert Thieves Took Artifacts, UNESCO Says (April 18, 2003)

According to UNESCO, organized thieves were involved in the looting of priceless artifacts from Baghdad's National Museum of Antiquities. FBI agents are being dispatched to Baghdad to conduct a criminal investigation into the losses. (Washington Post)

Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict

This is a link to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The convention is being breached by excessive destruction of historical artifacts in Iraq.

Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure (April 12, 2003)

Looters vandalized the National Museum of Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein's rule, destroying priceless artifacts from over 7000 years of cultural and archaeological heritage. (New York Times)

Scholars Move to Protect "Priceless" Iraqi Heritage (March 21, 2003)

A statement signed by more than 100 distinguished scholars in the US and Europe emphasized the "grave danger" posed to the priceless cultural heritage of Iraq by the US-led war. The statement calls on all governments to respect the international protocol protecting cultural property in armed conflict. (Guardian)

Iraq War Could Put Ancient Treasures at Risk (March 3, 2003)

Scholars are worried that a US-led war against Iraq could threaten the country's antiquities. The Archaeological Institute of America has issued a statement calling on "all governments" to protect cultural sites both during and after a war. (Washington Post)

War in Iraq will put a halt to archeology in the Middle East and researchers fear post-war looting could cause damage to important archeological sites. (New York Times)

Holland Cotter describes valuable archeological sites in Iraq ranging from Babylon with symbolic importance for Judo-Christians to different Islamic monuments in Basra. These sites could be destroyed during a war or looted during post-war instability. (New York Times)


Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) passed a resolution after the 1990 Gulf War urging all governments to respect the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. AIA now re-emphasizes the resolution out of fear that a war on Iraq would threaten some of the world's most important archaeological sites.


Timothy said...

and the rapes of antiquity go on in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico...into the lands of Mexico, Latin America and South America. strange is it not so much of these antiquities lie in private collections where they cannot be studied. i remember in Mexico taken to a spot in the neotropics where there was a so much lying around and stories of Americans who had spirited out huge carved rocks of turtles to adorn a pool in Florida.....ah humanity how cheap the soul, the loss of the noble mien

Mercury said...

Buddhas of Bamyan