Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 April 2003
Issue No. 635
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'Cultural catastrophe' hits Iraq

International experts meeting at UNESCO last week deplored the looting of Iraq's cultural heritage in the wake of the US-led invasion, calling upon the occupying forces immediately to secure Iraqi sites and institutions, reports David Tresilian from Paris

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An Iraqi boy watches a US soldier from behind a barbed-wire fence in Baghdad
As the full extent of the catastrophe that has befallen the Iraqi cultural heritage in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq became apparent last week, blame was being laid firmly at the door of the US occupying forces in Iraq for failing to prevent the disaster.

According to a group of international experts meeting in Paris last week at the behest of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, in addition to the widely reported looting of the Baghdad Museum, the Iraqi National Library and Archives in Baghdad had also been looted and burned, as had the library of Islamic manuscripts attached to the Ministry of Al-Awqaf [Religious Endowments], destroying irreplaceable artefacts of Mesopotamian and Arab civilisation.

The Gulbenkian Museum of modern art in the Iraqi capital had been destroyed and its collection of paintings burned. According to Mounir Bouchenaki, assistant director-general for culture at the UN agency charged with the protection and safeguarding of the world's cultural heritage, it was not known what had befallen the thousands of Islamic manuscripts kept at the Saddam Centre for Manuscripts in Baghdad.

However, at the same meeting Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum in London, said that it was believed that some of the most precious objects from the Baghdad Museum had been placed in bank vaults for their protection during the conflict by the Iraqi authorities. It was not known whether these bank vaults had also been looted, MacGregor said.

Some 170,000 objects, including the best-known ancient Mesopotamian artefacts kept in the Baghdad Museum, are believed to have been looted in the disorder following the entry of US forces into the city. These objects include many of the most famous works of ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian art, including the Uruk vase, dating from 3500BC and artefacts excavated from the ancient Sumerian city of Ur.

The museum's entire collection of cuneiform tablets, clay tablets bearing the oldest recorded writing, is believed to have been lost.

While the US occupying forces, which entered the Iraqi capital Baghdad on 9 April without the predicted resistance from Iraqi forces, moved swiftly to secure strategic locations in the capital, such as the Ministry of Oil and the Ministry of Information, they left other sites, including Baghdad's cultural institutions, banks, homes and businesses entirely unprotected against the waves of looting and chaos that followed, despite the pleas of officials and members of the Iraqi public.

According to McGuire Gibson of the American Archaeological Association (AAA), speaking at the press briefing following the expert meeting at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, little information was available on the situation in Iraq, since the country's borders were closed.However, it seemed that the looting of cultural institutions had been worse than first thought, since not only did it seem to have been in part professionally organised from outside of the country, but the Iraqi authorities had also moved objects from provincial museums to the country's main museum in Baghdad before the conflict, believing them to be better protected there.

The looting had been of two kinds, Gibson said. First, armed gangs had moved into the museum in the hours following the entry of US forces into Baghdad, and these gangs, who seemed to have had keys to the museum's vaults where the bulk of the collection had been placed for safekeeping, had known what pieces were the most valuable and would fetch the highest prices on the international illegal art market.

Following this first, "very professional" stage of looting, Gibson said, amateur looters had moved in to the museum's premises, stealing or smashing whatever was left.

Gibson said that the AAA, acting on requests from the US State Department, had been supplying the US government with information on Iraq's cultural heritage sites and institutions since January 2003, in order that these might be avoided in the event of armed conflict. Bouchenaki said that UNESCO had also supplied the US with lists of key sites and institutions in Iraq well before the conflict started.

Though the Coalition forces seem to have avoided these sites during the military campaign, they had made no effort to protect them from looting, Gibson said, adding that this was despite the specific warnings that had been sent to the US State Department regarding the threat of looting to the Baghdad Museum and other sites.

"What the Iraqis did made perfect sense," Gibson said, regarding the Iraqi authorities' decision to send material from the provincial museums and from various archaeological sites to the museum in Baghdad for safekeeping before the outbreak of hostilities.

Many of these provincial institutions had been looted following the 1991 Gulf War, and the Baghdad Museum, clearly marked as a cultural institution and its whereabouts and significance signalled to the US forces, "should have been safe", he said.

Last week's UNESCO meeting, which brought together experts in ancient Mesopotamian art and history from across the world, also made recommendations on what measures should now be put in place either to retrieve the objects or to repair the damage.

Illicit trafficking of cultural objects from Iraq has long been a problem, the experts said, and it was essential that an immediate international prohibition be placed on the export of all such objects from Iraq. International trade in such objects should be banned and a call made for the voluntary return of any stolen objects. The export of cultural-heritage objects from Iraq has been illegal under Iraqi law since 1958.

Last week it was reported that illegally exported objects from Iraq had already begun to turn up for illicit sale abroad.

Gibson painted a terrifying picture of the looting of archaeological sites in Iraq in recent years, with armed gangs, sometimes of up to 400 men, descending on sites and stripping them bare before selling on their finds to international dealers. Such looting had been caused by the impoverishment of the population during the decade-long sanctions imposed on Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War, as well as the very high prices objects from Iraq could fetch on the international illegal art market.

Given this history and the millions of dollars items from the Iraqi museums were likely to fetch even if sold illegally, the protection of Iraq's cultural sites and institutions should have been a priority for the occupying forces, he said.

The experts at the meeting also called upon the occupying forces in Iraq to guard and immediately secure all museums, archives, monuments and sites in the country, calling for a fact-finding mission to go to Iraq under UNESCO's coordination as soon as possible, in order to assess the true extent of the damage.

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