on our threatened heritage

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Posted by Lilly from ? ( on Sunday, September 22, 2002 at 12:27PM :

In Reply to: "Christians are Leaving Iraq, but..." posted by Lilly from ? ( on Sunday, September 22, 2002 at 12:13PM :

A quote from this article:

"Cultural heritage has nothing to do with politics," he insisted. "Is this a way to cut off people from their past?"

Yes it is. The US government would like to divorce Iraqis from their land, from their heritage, just as they did with the Native Americans. & then people market the ancient heritage, reaping money off the corpses & wasted lives of the people who ought to be the beneficiaries of the inheritance of their ancestors.

Iraqis are not "humans" in the eyes of the US government - they are considered to be like "pests."
Lost, Stolen, or Sold-- Iraq's Rich Heritage in Jeopardy
Baghdad Diary
July 28, 2002

From my screen at the Ministry of Transport and Communication's Internet Center No. 1, I learn a rather bizarre fact. Via Ebay, I can buy, or at least bid for, a five-inch Mesopotamian cylinder seal in ancient cuneiform dating back to 2000 BC - for 51 US dollars. I explore further. On the Medusa Ancient Art website there are more cuneiform seals and tablets from Mesopotamia, all for under 1000 dollars. The treasures of ancient Iraq are on the market, and they are relatively cheap. Bidding often starts at one dollar.

The story goes that when Baghdad was under threat in 1991 from allied bombs, the authorities removed treasures from the national museum and placed them in the vaults of the Central Bank and in various museums around the country where they would presumably be safe. They weren't. America's so-called 'smart bombs' found a target in the bank, and hundreds of antiquities were destroyed. Meanwhile, in the general chaos and rioting that marked the Gulf War cease-fire, seven of Iraq's 12 regional museums were looted and some 4000 artifacts stolen.

Today the Iraq Museum is an imposing, if dull-looking, structure on the west bank of the Tigris. Brown government buildings surround it and close-by is the glistening new Alawi Bus Terminal. Only a few years ago journalists found here endless halls filled with empty glass cases, an ex-museum struggling to get on its feet. But its official opening in 2000 revealed display cases filled with ancient artifacts and walls lined with the white statues of Hatra. Fully 18 halls are operational and it takes 30 minutes to walk through them all, even with the most minimal perusal.

On the office side of the building, the large corridors are busy with scurrying secretaries skirting around plaster casts of old pillars and Assyrian busts. Donny George, the director general of the Department of Research and Studies at the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, presides over an office in disarray. He apologized for the mess, saying he is still setting up his office after recently taking this post.

"We had a hard time re-opening this museum after the war," he said. "The central government didn't want to, and we had to convince them." The concern, of course, was that any further military aggression by the United States of America and the United Kingdom would devastate national treasures.

"After all, if anything happens to the museum, these pieces are gone for good," said Mr. George.

Iraq's incredibly rich archeology dates back 5000 years and catalogues the beginnings of civilization as we know it. The site of the Garden of Eden is thought by some to be just north of Basra. The first wheel, the first writing, the foundations of modern law and organized religion were all created here. Southern Iraq is where Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, originated.

Since 1990, a major threat to this country's historical riches has been military aggression from American and allied forces. The birthplace of Abraham was bombed during the Gulf War by allied aircraft. Mr. George claims that American soldiers took displayed pottery fragments from an ancient cemetery there.

"I saw a [bomb] crater in Ur and evidence of a tank," he said. "I saw the footprints."

In addition to this destruction in the south, the northern site of Hatra was apparently attacked by aircraft. According to Mr. George, bullets hit the roof of the museum there.

But the real destruction was yet to come. After the Gulf War was a period of chaos. Economic hardship hit all sectors of society, a result of massive damage to Iraq's infrastructure and the economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations. There were also politically motivated uprisings. Some Iraqis resorted to looting, trashing most of the country's 12 museums and picking through archeological sites. Donny George says it was not only poor people looking for a little income, but also involved international cartels.

"The museums were planned targets - one inspector was almost killed when he tried to stop people from looting," he said.

Mr. George thinks this was part of a plan to empty the country of everything that is valuable - books, gold and antiquities. Whether or not there was actually some sinister conspiracy behind the actions, clearly many of the thieves have been successful. Ten thousand archeological items have been recovered from smugglers at the border, but it is estimated that more than 20,000 have made it through - ending up, finally, at an internet auction or perhaps in a private collection in Europe, never to be seen again by the public.

The pieces go first to England for evaluation, says Mr. George. Then they are transported to Switzerland for the duty-free market. Japanese and Americans are among the top buyers, he says. Experts can identify pieces by reading the cuneiform or by comparing the pieces with drawings and measurements kept in museum archives.

"Looted pieces from museums can be traced," said Mr George, "but what about items stolen directly from the sites?"

He and his team decided to tackle this problem head-on. Though thieving activities have been reduced over the last 12 years, they still do continue throughout the country. After all, there are over 10,000 officially registered archeological sites in Iraq.

"We decided to start digging at some major sites because we had to ensure the presence of the government there," said Mr George. "It was a huge step - we had to arrange for guards and we had to have arms ourselves." The effort cost the life of one guard, but it did stop the looting at those specific sites. But there are so many treasure-filled digs, the thieves simply switch sites.

The possibility of military aggression is real even now. American and British aircraft that police the imposed 'no-fly zones' in the north and south of Iraq made a careful check of one site recently, apparently suspecting that the long conveyor belts used to haul dirt may be military in nature. Nothing happened, but bombs continue to fall on Iraqi soil, 12 long years after the Gulf War, as a result of these patrols. On July 18th, five people in the south were reportedly killed by US/UK aircraft fire.

The UN's continuing sanctions meanwhile limit the normal exchange of archeological research and keep international experts from visiting digs. Preservation groups like UNESCO are unwilling to take responsibility for all of the country's endangered sites. Iraqi archeologists are cut off from the world, says Donny George.

As for American threats of renewed war against Iraq, he does not hesitate to condemn the hawks in the US administration. Past aggression meant that "the cultural material of mankind" was destroyed, said Mr George.

"Cultural heritage has nothing to do with politics," he insisted. "Is this a way to cut off people from their past?"

Professor John Russell of the Massachusetts College of Arts has also reflected on the problems facing Iraq's invaluable archeology. Much of his work in northern Iraq has focussed on the palace of the Assyrian king Sennacherib:

"Even if money and expertise could be obtained for the preservation of the palace museum, the sanctions prohibit its expenditure in Iraq. This hostility towards Iraq's heritage reflects a widespread misunderstanding in the west, which fails to make a connection between modern Iraq and ancient Mesopotamia, the 'Cradle of Civilization.' This heritage disaster also highlights the role of the west as a myopic consumer of heritage, rather than cherishing it as a vanishing irreplaceable shared resource."
(Stolen Stones: The Modern Sack of Nineveh, John Russell, 1996)


2002 Mennonite Central Committee

-- Lilly
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