The Art World: Preserving Iraq's patrimony

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Posted by andreas from ( on Wednesday, November 27, 2002 at 12:11PM :

The Art World: Preserving Iraq's patrimony

From the Life & Mind Desk
Published 11/27/2002 10:55 AM

NEW YORK, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- War is hell for people as well as for their past as represented by cultural remains of ancient civilizations in museums and at archaeological sites both excavated and untouched.

No antiquities are more vulnerable today than those of Iraq, whose borders include the core of Mesopotamia, the so-called cradle of civilization that thrived between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. If Iraq is engulfed in war, can they be saved? Will unexcavated sites believed to be storehouses of cuneiform tablets, the earliest written records of mankind, be preserved for future generations of archaeologists?

Fortunately fine examples of artwork created by Mesopotamian cultures and major cuneiform holdings can be found in museums in the West, notably in Berlin, Paris, London, and New York, acquired years ago when the Middle East was under the control of European powers and there were no legal barriers to exporting antiquities.

What remains behind in Saddam Hussein's realm are important museum collections, fine examples of Islamic architecture, and some 10,000 important archaeological sites, some of them adjacent to military installations and factories that may be producing weaponry. Such sites suffered in Iraq's 10-year war with Iran and in Desert Storm in 1991 and face an even greater risk today if the nation is attacked by an American-led U.N. force.

It is known there was considerable damage to archaeological material as the result of Allied bombing of Iraq in 1991, but the Pentagon did seek information from archaeologists familiar with Iraq about vulnerable sites after Desert Storm was under way. Although the Defense Department is mum about plans to avoid destruction of cultural sites in Baghdad and throughout Iraq another time around, it does have a list of sites drawn up 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, more such information along with maps are being submitted to the Defense Department by concerned specialists, and the U.S. government is being bombarded by museum curators, collectors, arts patrons and attorneys with pleas to take archaeological sites into account in planning military strategy. Most of these pleas include reminders to the government of The Hague Convention of 1954 prohibiting the targeting of cultural and religious sites in times of war.

The United States never signed onto the Hague Convention but gives it lip service. For example, the Defense Department issued orders during Desert Storm not to bomb fighter aircraft stationed near the Ziggurat at Ur, said to be the oldest city in the world, because the site might be damaged. Even so, some other areas of the Ur site were damaged by bombing the Tallil airbase there.

According to The Art Newspaper, a monthly publication known as the bible of the international art community, the U.S. Army "now goes into battle with attorneys who advise them on what they can and cannot bomb, while still remaining on the right side of the Hague Convention." If so, this is a step in the right direction, all the more so because of new weapons that can carry out pinpoint destruction without harming nearby structures, amply demonstrated during the Afghanistan invasion.

However, if the war begins with a saturated bombing attack on Baghdad, as expected, what is to prevent the destruction of the National Museum of Antiquities, the Abbasid Palace, the Martyr's Mosque and the archaeological sites of Jemdat Nasr and Abu Salabikh? And what of Babylon, Iraq's chief tourist attraction 60 miles south of Baghdad, where Saddam might have secreted some of biological warfare laboratories among the semi-restored ruins?

Other monuments that must be taken into consideration are the site of the Assyrian capitals of Ninevah, Ashur, and Nimrod, the city of Mosul with its important museum of Assyrian and Islamic artwork and four historic mosques, the Roman city of Arbil, the old caliphate capital of Sammara with its many architectural treasures, the royal Abassid dynasty capital of Al Fallujah, and Kerbala where the most sacred of Shiite Muslim shrines is located.

An initiative to save these sites is being headed by Arthur Houghton, an authority on Middle Eastern antiquities and former curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. It is advising U.S. Air Force attorneys who in turn advise military commanders planning the attack on Iraq on what should not be bombed in the name of saving mankind's most ancient patrimony.

Another ad hoc group, the American Council for Cultural Policy," head by former Metropolitan Museum attorney Ashton Hawkins, has come forward with assistance to the U.S. government in rebuilding Iraq's cultural institutions should the invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam take place.

Hawkins claims he is working with the Iraqi Antiquities Service, a tricky operation considering that the service is an agency of Saddam's government. Could it be that even Iraq's dictator is interested in preserving evidence of his nation's glorious past?

Copyright 2002 United Press International

-- andreas
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