Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 April 2003
Issue No. 635
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Plain Talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

Mursi Saad El-Din Now that the fire has ceased in Iraq, this is a time of reckoning. I do not mean an assessment of past military action or future political plans. I am concerned, rather, with that country's rich heritage and its archaeological treasures.

Iraq, or Mesopotamia as it used to be known, claims an ancient civilisation dating back to 4000 BC.

I cannot, within the scope of this column, cover the history of Iraq: the Persian invasion, for example, or the country's conquest by Alexander in 331 BC. I will go back, instead, to 1917, the year during which the British occupied the country and Gertrude Bell established the Baghdad Museum. When I saw the mobs running amock in the streets of Baghdad with precious pieces taken from the museum in their hands, I felt a pang in my heart, remembering Bell. During her work in the Iraqi civil service, she implemented a law prohibiting the export of archaeological discoveries. She never thought the country's treasures would be thus snatched and mistreated.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, a group of archaeologists from all over the world had issued an appeal concerning saving Iraq's treasures. The appeal listed all the ancient sites that required protection, a list that was also published in The Independent. Many of Iraq's ancient treasures turned out to be in European museums. Others had been damaged in the course of recent wars. The appeal hoped that American and British forces would make an effort to avoid bombing museums and monuments.

The two richest towns are Karbala and Najaf, both of which are holy to the Shi'ites. Ancient monuments can also be found in Ninevat, the ancient Assyrian capital, which contains some valuable monasteries and churches besides. Babylon is another open museum. It was one of the most famous cities in antiquity and was the capital of South Mesopotamia from the early second millennium to the early first millennium. Herodotus describes the Hanging Gardens of Babylon which, during Hellenic times, were one of the seven wonders of the world.

It was in that fabled city that King Hammurabi drafted the world's first code of laws. Babylon subsequently became Alexander's capital city, and once there he ordered the restoration of those temples that were damaged during Persian rule. While the American and British troops avoided destroying the holy sites in Karbala and Najaf, it was in Baghdad that museums received the worst blows. The Baghdad Museum, the Mosul Museum, the Tikrit Museum and a museum in Al-Zohur Palace were all hit by bombs. The fate of the first of these remains unknown, a crying shame considering that it houses some 100,000 artefacts dating from 7000 BC to AD 1000 and representing the Uruk, Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and early Islamic civilisations. It housed, according to The Independent, "mankind's earliest written documents, world famous ancient sculptures, some of the earliest portrayals of gods, and ancient mathematical texts".

Concerns over the museum emanated from its location being adjacent to one of the city's main telephone centres, just 700 metres from the foreign ministry, which was subject to intense air raids. Around 30 senior archaeologists took up residence within the museum grounds, trying to protect the spectacular sculptures and bas- reliefs with sandbags. These archaeologists continue to live there, combatting the looting with all their might.

David Keys, The Independent's archaeology correspondent, describes some of the museum's treasures: "Some of the ancient texts describe the adventures of Gilgamesh, the figure on which Noah is based." Other texts, he adds, reveal Iraq's mathematical prowess, describing the Pythagorean theorem some 1500 years before the Greek mathematicians.

US military commanders had pledged to honour the 1954 Hague Convention which prohibits the bombing of religious or culturally significant sites. But in spite of this there has been untold collateral damage by the raids on Baghdad and other cities. In the face of this, and at the request of Arab member countries, UNESCO decided to send a committee of experts to examine the situation and act accordingly.

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