Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 -16 April 2003
Issue No. 633
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A heritage under siege

Countless Iraqi historical monuments have already been destroyed and we continue to hear more reports of damage. Nevine El-Aref traces the steps taken, and not taken, to preserve the country's heritage

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Mosque and mausoleum of Al-Abbas in Najaf, the foundation of which have been seriously undermined
The United States, Great Britain and Iraq are signatories of The Hague Convention of 1954 for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict. This stipulates that mankind should prevent, make impossible, and sanction any state or group of states from destroying, damaging, and desecrating the monuments of culture in the territory of another state. They should also ensure that national agencies should, as far as possible, exercise continued protection and maintenance of such property.

Despite this, and the promise of the US military to be "as gentle as possible" concerning the some 4,000 specific sites of historical interest in Iraq, during the first week of the Third Gulf War American and British forces bombarded Iraq and news came of the complete destruction by missiles of the National Museum of Takrit on the outskirt of Baghdad.

The aggressors justify their attack by claiming the Iraqis are using archaeological sites for their own military advantage. The Boston Globe reported that the Iraqi minister of antiquities was "helping them to do it". And, in a White House letter on the Internet, circulated on 2 January, Peter Grieve wrote: "War is serious business, more serious than Mesopotamian archaeology, I'm afraid. If some sites are given a protected status, guess where the Iraqis will set up bases? The radar installation near the palace of Sennacherib was probably put there on purpose."

Three appeals were made before the commencement of the war. The first was by international scholars, the second by 18 Iraqi archaeologists, and the third by 15 of the world's leading museums and most prominent universities, including American. The first appeal was for the troops engaged in the war to spare Iraq's priceless antiquities and to remind them they were committed to respecting Iraq's cultural heritage. The second was to draw world attention to the richness of that heritage (see neighbouring story) and to fears that it could be plundered as a result of the war, as occurred during the 1991 Second Gulf War. The third appeal was to urge scholars to take steps to prevent the destruction of relics from one of the cradles of civilisation. These appeals, accompanied by a detailed report on the dangers facing Iraqi heritage written by MacGuire Gibson -- president of the American Association for Research in Baghdad -- which raised grave fears about the impact of sustained fighting on Iraqi's patrimony, were circulated on the Internet. The signatories called also on the international community to take on a post-war role in assisting in the protection of antiquities from looting, and themselves pledged to help the Iraqi Department of Antiquities to do its job.

On Friday 28 March a declaration signed by more than 100 distinguished American and European academics entitled "The grave danger to the priceless heritage of Iraq by military action" was published in the Science and Technology News Service. It called on all governments to respect the international protocol regarding the protection of cultural property in armed conflict. The signatories expressed their concern not only about the impact of bombs and artillery on historic buildings and archaeological sites, but also the looting that would inevitably follow any breakdown of law and order in the aftermath of war. A similar plea went out from the Blue Shield Organisation, which represents four international bodies for libraries, museums, archives and monuments.

The Arab Archaeologists Union, headed by Ali Radwan, former dean of the faculty of archaeology at Cairo University, sent an official letter to the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, appealing to him and to all Arab and foreign countries to stop the Anglo-American aggression which would result in the destruction of the birthplace of ancient civilisation.

Last Sunday, in an open letter to UNESCO's Head Koichiro Matsuura, the head of ALESCO, the Tunis-based Arab League's body for education, culture and science, Mongi Bousnina, expressed concern at "the scale of the damage done to Iraq's cultural heritage since the start of the aggression". He urged the UNESCO chief to "remind the invading powers of the utmost urgency of their duties and obligations to conform to international conventions" on the protection of cultural assets in the event of war. He also urged the UN Security Council and the Council of Europe to "act in order to end this aggression on one of the richest and most ancient parts of humanity's cultural heritage".

The Egyptian Permanent Antiquities Committee has also condemned the destruction of the archaeological sites in Iraq.

Jaber Khalil Ibrahim, president of the National Office of Antiquities in Iraq, declared: "We will continue to do all we can to protect the archaeological sites of our country. Before the war started we took steps to protect our museums and sites by packing the objects and placing them in safe underground storage areas, and by identifying historical buildings by placing big placards on them declaring them to be 'Museums' and 'UNESCO-protected' property."

In an effort to protect the contents of the National Museum of Baghdad, which boasts the country's largest archaeological collection and is located a few metres from the Ministry of Culture and Information, Iraq's Ministry of Antiquities took several precautions. They enclosed the building with sand bags and buried treasures beneath ground level. However, it has not passed unobserved that the bombardment could cause craters as deep as 30 metres.

Gibson, who has led archaeological digs in Iraq since 1964 and who heads a consortium of about 30 museums and universities in the United States, went on an inspection tour last January in order to document sites in Iraq. He recorded some 4,000, which include mediaeval mosques, madrassas, churches, and other historical buildings dating from various eras. Many of these are in central Baghdad, including the ninth-century Great Shrine of Al-Mutawakkil on the outskirts of the city. Others are in the area lying between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Before this tour, the Pentagon had listed a mere 150 sites of archaeological importance.

Since the commencement of the war, and according to the Iraqi representative of UNESCO, the Takrit National Museum with its collection of Islamic objects which date back to the time of Salaheddin is not the only building destroyed. Two governmental palaces of historical value, which date from the Abbassid era, as well as the Zohour (flower) Palace and its Royal Museum, which tells the history of the monarchy in Iraq with a collection of official royal wearing apparel, queens' robes, and personal possessions and utilitarian objects, have also collapsed under the weight of the bombardment and been transformed into mounds of rubble.

The 13th-century University of Al-Mustansriya, a 16th-century revered Shi'ite mosque called Al- Kadhimain, and the Arch of Cetesiphon in Baghdad have also been hit.

On day 14 of the war, Information Minister Mohamed Said Al-Sahhaf, addressing the Shi'a community on Iraq's satellite TV channel, announced that the aggressors (referring to Anglo-American forces)in Najaf had bombarded an area close to the mausoleums of both Imam Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Mohamed, and Imam Al-Hussein, his grandson, as well asthe shrine of his brother Al-Abbassi. The bombs had shaken the ground beneath them and weakened their foundations, and threatened the holy buildings with collapse.

It has been rumoured that the National Museum of Baghdad, which houses treasures dating from 700 BC to 1000 AD, has been heavily targeted by US bombs. However, as the telephone connection to Baghdad is down nothing mire has been heard and the current state of the museum is not clear.

Saleh Lamei, member of ICOMOS (International Council of Monuments and Sites) said: "The risk is not only to existing monuments and museums, but to thousands of archaeological sites, many not yet excavated, which lie buried and could be devastated because the armies are fighting on Iraqi territory using bulldozers and heavy artillery. The identity of the nation depends on its cultural heritage. By destroying such evidence, thousands of years of civilisation have been lost." Lamei drew attention to another danger: following the destruction, sites would be open to the activities of looters and antiquities smugglers. "It would become a free market for illegal activities. This was what happened in Baghdad in 1991, when priceless items made their way out of the country and were put up for sale at Ebay's Auction House in the USA."

The historian Dan Cruickshank, who specialises in architecture, claimed on a BBC double- documentary produced when the Iraqi Ministry of Information invited a British film crew to visit the country's "lost cities" that the remains of Babylon would be "in the firing line". He argued in the programme that "defence" was determined to avoid "another Dresden", the mediaeval German city destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945.

A spokesman declined to comment on potential targets, but a well-placed source said: "During the Gulf War, we went to great lengths to avoid hitting important sites, and 'smart' bombs have reduced collateral damage." Nevertheless, the fact remains that the ancient city of Ur did sustain damage during the 1991 war, which, he declared, was a casualty of Saddam's decision to site an air base there.

In his column in the daily Al-Ahram newspaper, Zahi Hawass, the first under-secretary of state in the Ministry of Culture and the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), commented: "When the Taliban set about destroying the great rock-hewn statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, the world was up in arms. America led the campaign of criticism against them through UNESCO and the international media. The Taliban were accused of being morons who willfully destroyed monuments. But now," Hawass went on, "it is the Americans who are destroying a heritage with the use of high-tech military equipment, and where are UNESCO, ICOMOS, or the international museums? Where are the experts and the defenders of culture while the Iraqi heritage is being desecrated?"

Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly he was worried that, as the war continued, "many of Iraq's archaeological sites will fall into oblivion, and how will American professors of archaeology explain to their students that the Americans destroyed a rich ancient civilisation in the Third Gulf War?"

An appeal for the preservation of Iraq's heritage was made on behalf of scholars before the outbreak of war by Mounir Bushnaqi, head of the World Heritage Organisation (WHO) who said that UNESCO and WHO had provided the American army with comprehensive information regarding the actual location of Iraq's archaeological sites and museum, as well as the sites on the World Heritage List, so that they would have all the necessary information on what to avoid. Bushnaqi added that UNESCO had urged the US to take all possible steps "to protect and preserve the outstandingly rich Iraqi heritage for the benefit of future generations".

"We have received many assurances by the US delegation that they have taken into account all the information we have provided on the museums and sites," he continued.

"But," Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, an SCA representative in UNESCO said angrily, "while there was a call for an urgent meeting among UNESCO representatives to stop the Taliban desecration and to restore the damaged statue, such a call has not been made for Iraq. Are not its monuments as important? Why do they not call for an international appeal to save them, or call for an urgent meeting to discuss the situation?"

Abdel-Maqsoud told the Weekly that two weeks ago, when the war started, he was in Paris attending a periodical UNESCO meeting. "Nobody bothered to mention the destruction of Iraq's heritage, or even issue any statement of condemnation," he pointed out. "If UNESCO, WHO and the international community keep silent and no action is taken the missiles could threaten other archaeological sites, in Syria, Jordan, Iran and Turkey.

"During the third and fourth days of the war, two missiles missed their mark and one hit a public bus in Syria where 100 civilians died, and the second hit the Iraqi-Iranian border, fortunately without causing any casualties. What else could be hit with stray rockets? I blame UNESCO and WHO for their unclear policy. Both organisations apparently see, hear and speak no evil. UNESCO's head must call for a halt to the armed conflict."

On the brighter side, Lamei said that all the signatories of the appeals were willing to help in the restoration of Iraq's destroyed monuments after the end of the war, whether by providing specialists or helping to raise funds for restoration.

"As soon as the situation permits, we will evaluate and prepare an action plan," Bushnaqi said. "Our feelings are that this heritage belongs not only to Iraqis. It is the heritage of all humanity."

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