Iraq's precious relics decimated by thieves

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Posted by andreas from ( on Saturday, January 04, 2003 at 1:33PM :

Sahel Mhoustefa stands near an ancient statue in Nineveh, one of the world's most important archaeological sites, which is unguarded. These vulnerable sites attract looters, who have stolen tens of thousands of relics.

More nice pics at URL below.

Punchey, what's the name for URL in Assyrian ?


Iraq's precious relics decimated by thieves
Ancient sites lie vulnerable since Gulf War

By Cameron McWhirter / The Detroit News

Max Ortiz / The Detroit News

Ten men were executed for stealing this stone head and chopping it into pieces to make it easier to smuggle.

Previous reports
Iraqi voters must support Saddam or risk death
Detroiter works for Iraq peace
Bloody purges, religious strife mark history of modern Iraq
How control of Iraq has changed over 200 years
Fear, anger grip Iraqis as talk of war escalates
Ethnic, religious and tribal tensions slice through society
'Love Saddam,' media preaches
A long, bloody history

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MOSUL, Iraq -- At the height of Nineveh's power as capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire, spear-toting guards would have challenged strangers approaching the walled city's gates. If enemies approached, Nineveh's king could have mustered an army of tens of thousands to defend his royal seat.

Today, visitors walk up to one of the few remaining gates to find a flimsy mesh fence, lashed together by a rag and an old wire for a bicycle lock.
After a few minutes, a 12-year-old girl walks up and unties the lash to let visitors into one of the world's most important archaeological sites. The girl is the daughter of the site's guard, who went into town for the afternoon.
Inside, statues lay exposed to the elements. A royal courtyard is a makeshift soccer field for children, with ancient bricks piled as goalposts. Famous Assyrian winged bulls, enormous stone statues with human heads, stand covered with chalk Arabic graffiti.
The gate is on a mound that looks out over what once was Nineveh, and today is just 7.2 square miles of dusty fields and farmland. All one needs to raid this once-impregnable capital now is a shovel.
Since Iraq's defeat in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, thieves have been stealing anything they can -- estimated by experts to total tens of thousands of clay tablets, statuettes, pots, pieces of jewelry -- from open or poorly guarded sites throughout the country. Items have been smuggled out of Iraq with relative ease to reach auction houses and private collectors in London, Geneva and New York.
Because Iraq's antiquities bureaucracy collapsed after the war and even today only is a fraction of what it once was, the country's 10,000 known ancient sites -- plus many more yet to be documented -- have been easy targets for the last decade. The frenzy of looting has panicked experts on ancient Mesopotamia, long seen by scholars as the cradle of the first civilizations.
"It's a disaster. It's hard to know where to start," said John Malcolm Russell, an art historian at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and author of "The Final Sack of Nineveh."
Here in the fertile land of the Mesopotamian valley, some of the world's earliest cities evolved. These early cultures developed writing, astronomy and even fermentation of beer, and gave rise to the Babylonian and Assyrian empires.
For decades, these sites were the pride of Iraq and looting was extremely rare -- largely because the government ran one of the best antiquities departments in the Middle East.
The antiquities bureaucrats kept tight control over the sites and worked closely with excavation teams from universities around the world, said McGuire Gibson, a professor and Mesopotamian expert at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.
That all changed with the 1991 war and subsequent United Nations sanctions against Iraq. Gibson said he knows of examples of antiquities bureaucrats heading out to sites these days and catching 150 intruders with picks and shovels.
The chief culprits are wealthy collectors abroad, eager to get for a pittance what used to be priceless.
"To them, this is the golden age of collecting," Gibson said. "They hire professional experts to catalog it for them. It's on that scale. Iraq is now having many, many things ripped off and there is very little they can do."

Thieves executed
Donny George, director general of the Iraqi Department of Research and Studies of Antiquities and Heritage, walked through a hall crowded with Assyrian statues and other art at Baghdad's national antiquities museum. He stopped at a large stone head lying on the ground. The statue, which once must have looked spectacular, now is carved crudely into 11 pieces. His shoulders slumped as he leaned over and patted the head.
"This is what I call the crime of the 20th century," he said. "When I heard about it, I just got in my car and drove all night to find out the situation."
The head was part of an Assyrian winged bull discovered in 1994 at Khorsabad, north of Mosul. In 1998, 12 looters drove to the site and stole the head. They cut it up to make it easier for smuggling, then buried it in a back yard.
Unfortunately for them, the ring was discovered and the damaged head was recovered. Ten of the 12 were caught and executed -- a punishment George says was carried out because the Iraqi government considers smuggling ancient items a threat to national security.
The case of the Khorsabad head was unique because the thieves were caught.
And Iraq's antiquities department is much less capable of protecting and cataloging priceless pieces than it was before the Gulf War.
George said his staff recently increased from postwar lows, but the department still only has about 35 people to cover all of Iraq, an area about the size of California. Before the war, the antiquities bureaucracy had about 250 employees.
Pay for the remaining staff is low, opening the door for bribery. George, head of the department, only makes about $50 a month.

Dam threatens sites
Little help is available from outside. American archeologists, who formed important teams in Iraq before 1991, have not been allowed to dig since then because of the U.S. ban on travel to Iraq.
The United Nations food-for-oil program also blocks the Iraqi antiquities officials from receiving equipment that also could be used by the military. Banned items include global positioning systems and radiocarbon dating machines.
Iraqi officials lay much of the blame for the current looting spree on the United States and the U.N. sanctions.
But while the regime has constrained financial resources, it still funnels billions annually for the nation's enormous war machine and Saddam's pet projects, such as private palaces or large mosques bearing his name.
The government also recently announced plans for a dam at Makhoul, north of Mosul.
Despite protests from archeologists, the government is going ahead with a project that will flood about 60 ancient sites -- including Ashur, religious center of the Assyrian Empire. George now is scrambling to alert international excavation teams to come and salvage what they can.

Reducing demand
Because the antiquities bureaucracy at its current funding levels can't stop the flow of stolen objects, a group of professors and art experts across the world have been working to try to reduce the demand. They are trying to raise awareness with art collectors and museums that much of this material showing up for sale is stolen and, under international law, rightfully belongs to Iraq.
Shortly after the sanctions, most of the thefts occurred from museums in smaller cities, such as Mosul and Kirkuk. The material was documented, so proving it had been stolen was relatively easy.
Now, thieves are excavating sites themselves. If they find material before the archeologists, chances of recovery are slim.
Under international law, a nation has to prove that an item came from a specific place at a certain time. Samuel Paley, a classics professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo and an expert on art of the Assyrian Empire, said he and a group of professors are cataloguing and publishing all the known material so that potential buyers can be alerted.
"We've lost a considerable amount," he said.
Galleries across the world have seen an increasing number of questionable pieces from Mesopotamia since the Persian Gulf War.
"We try to be very cautious about the objects that we are acquiring," said William Peck, Curator of Ancient Art for the Detroit Institute of Arts. "We are very aware of the situation now in Iraq, so we are being doubly careful to make sure that items are not the fruits of that crisis."
Staff at the Metropolitan Museum in New York recently took custody of a copper statue found on a person trying to enter the country. The item was documented, so it was seized.

Max Ortiz / The Detroit News

Nadia Mhoustefa lets visitors into unguarded Nineveh, once the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire.

Endangered areas
At Nineveh, theft has become so bad that the New York-based World Monuments Fund placed the site, as well as two others in Iraq, on its 2002 watch list of the 100 most endangered sites in the world.
Located directly adjacent to the bustling city of Mosul, the enormous ancient city is open to trespass except for only a small area that has the mesh fence.
Earlier this year, thieves even climbed into the fenced area and stole corrugated iron off a roof protecting a winged bull. The roof has yet to be replaced.
The site has produced some of the finest examples of Assyrian art in the world, as well as important writings on history, religion and life in the ancient Middle East.
But the city of Mosul is full of people impoverished by the sanctions. The city also is close to the border with Turkey and the porous borders of Kurdish-controlled Iraq, notorious for black-market smuggling.
With United Nations sanctions hobbling the economy and threats of war, desperate people in cities such as Mosul have taken to looting the country's past as insurance against an uncertain future.
Paley at Buffalo said only a concerted effort by various governments can stop the pillage.
"They are world monuments," Paley said. "They are part of world history, particularly of Middle East history. Without them, we have lost enormous amounts of information about our history and culture."

You can reach Cameron McWhirter at

-- andreas
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