Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 November 2006
Issue No. 818
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Saving Iraq's heritage?

Three years after the US-led invasion, what is being done to secure Iraq's cultural heritage and institutions, asks David Tresilian

Click to view caption
Opening of the old Baghdad Museum building in 1926. The plaque is a memorial to Gertrude Bell, British archaeologist and first director of the museum, "whose memory the Arabs will ever hold in reverence and affection / [She] created this Museum in 1923"; the spiral minaret of the Abu Dayf Mosque (859-861) at Samarra, Iraq, a smaller version of the 52-metre-high minaret at the nearby Al-Mutawakkil Mosque

Milbry Polk & Angela Schuster, eds. The Looting of the Iraqi Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Harry Abrams, 2005.

Largely unknown to the international public despite the great interest of its collections, the Baghdad Museum hit the headlines in 2003 when it was looted during the US-led invasion of Iraq. Objects that had made it intact through millennia, such as the Sumerian Warka Vase, were stolen and smashed during looting that took place on 14-15 April 2003 under circumstances that may never be fully elucidated. US troops, occupying Baghdad at the time, did not intervene, at least initially.

The museum thus became the highest-profile victim of a wave of attacks targeting Iraq's cultural institutions during and immediately following the US-led invasion, with the National Library and Archives in Baghdad going up in smoke, destroying irreplaceable collections of documents, and ancient sites throughout the country, such as those at Babylon, Nippur and Nineveh, being looted apparently with impunity.

As Mounir Bouchenaki, UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Culture at the time, commented in an interview in these pages, having crunched through the 20 cm of ash covering the floors of the burnt-out National Library, or surveyed the wreckage of the Baghdad Museum, his impression was that "the reality [at the Museum] is really terrible. There is not a single door or cupboard that has not been opened or smashed, even the Museum safe that contained the salaries of the staff. Every single piece of equipment has disappeared, even chairs and computers... when you see this terrible situation you feel that people are still in shock."

Bouchenaki added his voice to the rising international protests at what was then happening to the cultural heritage in Iraq. Baghdad, he explained, "contains very important places, such as the Beit Al-Hikma established during the Abbasid period by Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid, which was where scholars from across the Islamic world met to publish books and translate books from Greek into Arabic and Latin into Arabic. It is also the place where Abu Hanifa is buried, a scholar from the second century of the Hegira who founded one of the schools of Islam that spread across the Ottoman region."

"The meaning of Baghdad is very high, since you can see where a very bright civilisation started and go into the Museum and see thousands of cuneiform tablets, some of which have been stolen, and feel that you are there at the root of the history of humanity. To walk on the ashes [in the National Library], and to see objects of great value in fragments [in the Museum], was the most difficult moment for me, as was seeing the faces of my Iraqi colleagues, still in a state of shock at the destruction."

Three years on, the situation is both better and a great deal worse than was initially thought, as The Looting of the Iraqi Museum, Baghdad, a collection of essays by various hands edited by the US journalists Milbry Polk and Angela Schuster, reveals. While initial reports had spoken of tens of thousands of objects being stolen from the Baghdad Museum, this figure was later reduced to some 35 to 40 major objects missing, with some 15,000 other objects, including statuary, cylinder seals and pottery finds, smashed or unaccounted for.

In his foreword to the book, Donny George, director of the Baghdad Museum, says that 50% of the material originally stolen has now been recovered, including major pieces such as the Warka Vase, found at the ancient site of Uruk and dating back to 3300 -- 3100 BCE. This piece, illustrating the ritual and religious practices of the most ancient period of ancient Mesopotamia, was stolen in 2003 and later returned in pieces, from which it has now been reconstituted.

Other priceless gold objects, excavated in the 1920s by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley at a vast cemetery site near the ancient city of Ur (the so-called "royal tombs"), such as the famous golden lyre dating back to 2500 BCE, were smashed and left in pieces on the Museum floor. These, too, have now been reconstituted.

However, while much material has now been returned to the Museum, or reconstructed from fragments left there, the situation of Iraqi heritage sites outside Baghdad remains dire, as this book makes clear. Indeed, their condition has if anything only worsened, as a result of the lack of security and generalised violence that has afflicted the country since the US-led invasion.

Ensuring security at sometimes far-flung archaeological sites is not easy even during periods of comparative calm, and this has been perhaps especially the case in Iraq, which has an estimated 10,000 archaeological sites, only some 1,500 of which have been formally excavated. Yet, what is always a difficult task becomes an almost impossible one in the absence of security in the country as a whole and as a result of widespread poverty among the Iraqi population. Under these conditions, the temptation offered by poorly guarded heritage sites becomes irresistible to looters, who smuggle illicitly excavated objects out of the country for sale on the international antiquities market.

Though international measures have been taken to halt the trade in illegally excavated and exported antiquities from Iraq, such as UN Resolution 1483 of May 2003 which banned the international trade in such materials, as well as the various UNESCO and Unidroit conventions already in place, enforcement of these provisions and the protection of sites has proved almost impossible. As journalists Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carleton write in their contribution to this book, while looting has been widespread at Iraqi archaeological sites at least since 1991, since 2003 it has reached epidemic proportions.

"The toll on the Sumerian city-states located along the ancient river-beds in southern Iraq has been devastating," they write. "Sites such as Isin, Adab, Zabalam, Shuruppak and Umma have been so badly damaged that almost nothing remains of the top three metres... Flying by helicopter over the site [of Umma] reveals an unimaginably grim reality, a scene of complete destruction that unfolds before you as a sea of holes in the desert...Looking down at the succession of holes that was once Umma, one can only wonder at the loss of history, the untold number of looted artifacts and documents of our collective past that will never make it to the Iraq Museum and into the world's consciousness."

One can only wonder, too, at the situation of heritage sites in the rest of Iraq, outside the small number in the south surveyed by these two journalists traveling under the protection of the Italian army.

Aside from an account of the present condition of the Museum's collections, most of The Looting of the Iraq Museum is given over to essays by various scholars on the ancient history of Mesopotamia and on the material records this has left behind in the Baghdad Museum. Founded by the British archaeologist Gertrude Bell, who also played a role in the British occupation of Iraq after World War One and was the Museum's first director, the institution moved to its present two-storey building in 1966. In addition to materials from the successive ancient civilisations that flourished in what is now Iraq, from the ancient city-states of Sumeria, the world's first cities in which writing was used for the first time, to the later larger empires, such as those of the Babylonians (c. 1800 BCE) and Assyrians (c. 900 -- 600 BCE), the Museum also contains later Parthian, Sasanian and Islamic remains.

Since the foundation of the Iraqi state in the 1920s, various foreign archaeological missions have added to the Museum's collections, this history being recounted here in an essay by Lamia Al-Gania Werr, an Iraqi archaeologist. Woolley excavated at the 1920s at Ur, discovering the famous "royal treasure", with a German team discovering the Warka Vase at the same time at Uruk. Later, Sir Max Mallowan, a pupil of Woolley's, carried out excavations at the Assyrian site of Nimrud, his wife, the British author Agatha Christie, spending part of the each year in Iraq in the late 1940s and early 1950s as he did so.

There are good essays in this book on all this material, as there are on the later civilisations of the classical and Islamic periods. Elisabetta Valtz Fino writes interestingly on the contents of Gallery XVI of the Museum, home to finds from the Seleucid period, named after Seleucus Nikator who ruled the area following its conquest by Alexander the Great in the late 4th century BCE. Founder of a Hellenistic kingdom based at the city of Seleucis on the Tigris, he is the equivalent in Iraqi history to Ptolemy, another of Alexander's generals, in Egyptian.

Later dynasties of Parthians and Sasanians from neighbouring Iran also ruled from Seleucis, then renamed Ctesiphon. Fino writes that today the monumental remains of the Taq-i Kisra at Ctesiphon, the ancient throne hall of the Sasanian king Khusrau ("the enormous hall is 48 metres long, and its parabolic barrel vault is 35 metres high with a span of 26 metres, the largest in the world without centering") have been threatened by the 1991 and 2003 wars, damaging the brick structure.

Alistair Northedge, a professor at Université de Paris 1 and the author of a series of works on the 9th-century capital of the Abbasid caliphs at Samarra, is particularly good in his contribution on the archaeology of the early Islamic period in Iraq. He discusses desert forts, such as that at Al-Ukhaydir, "built about 770 by 'Isa Ibn Ali, one of the uncles of the caliph Al-Mansur," as well as the architecture of Samarra proper, including the vast congregational mosque built by Al-Mutawakkil between 849 and 851 with its famous spiral minaret.

"From the 1930s onward, the Iraq General Directorate of Antiquities has continued to excavate," he writes, "culminating in a grand project of excavation and restoration initiated in 1980 by Saddam Hussein, on which millions of dollars were spent and hundreds of workmen employed...authorization was given to the present author to make a detailed survey of the city area, as it had never been properly studied," leading to the identification of 7,000 buildings.

Finally, with the Baghdad Museum still closed to the public and lacking a Website or even a reliable inventory or catalogue, the authors and editors of this book are to be congratulated on providing an excellent survey both of the ancient history of Mesopotamia and of the condition of its remains in modern-day Iraq. The book also contains high-quality photographs of many of the objects and sites discussed, some of them specially commissioned at no small risk to those involved.

Functioning as a kind of "virtual museum", as one of the authors puts it, the book is a marvelous substitute for any possibility of visiting the real thing. However, it is to be hoped that a kind of "virtual museum" will not be all that is left of some of the sites discussed in it, given the prospect of further losses as the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate.

At the mercy of looters

The news that Donny George, director of the Baghdad Museum and president of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), resigned his position late last summer and is now living in exile in the Syrian capital Damascus can only deepen the gloom surrounding the Museum's future and that of Iraq's cultural heritage.

Speaking to the London-based Art Newspaper in August, George said that the situation in Iraq was now "intolerable". There was no money to pay the special police force charged with protecting archaeological sites from looters, the Baghdad Museum was sealed off behind thick concrete walls in an attempt to protect it from attack, and the presence of supporters of Shi'a cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr in the Iraqi government had made it impossible for him to continue his work.

George, who is due to give a public lecture on the challenges facing Iraq's heritage at the British Museum in London on 17 November, particularly criticised the philistine attitude of Al-Sadr's supporters, now in government and controlling several ministries. "I can no longer work with these people who have come in with the new ministry. They have no knowledge of archaeology, no knowledge of antiquities, nothing," he said.

All cultural-heritage conservation work in Iraq has now ceased, and in recent years the main responsibility of the SBAH has been to organise protection of Iraq's archaeological sites.

However, this work too has become impossible, George said, since there was now no money to pay the salaries of the archaeological police, leaving Iraq's 10,000 archaeological sites more than ever at the mercy of looters.

Details of Donny George's British Museum lecture in London on 17 November are available at thepastfromabove/events.html

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