Monday, June 11, 2007

Trouble in the Cradle of Civilization



Things are looking increasingly grim in Iraq these days, with the US considering arming Sunni groups that once attacked coalition forces. Soon after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, western journalists visited the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad and reported incorrectly that 170,000 objects were stolen from the museum. More careful reporting soon accurately placed that number far lower, and current estimates seem to indicate that a still alarming 3,000 objects are still missing, with about 47 main exhibition artifacts missing.

Thus I always maintain a healthy bit of skepticism when articles come out detailing the loss of archaeological context and heritage in Iraq. The article last Friday by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian titled "In Iraq's four-year looting frenzy, the allies have become the vandals"even viewed skeptically reveals some very troubling things about the way archaeological sites are treated by coalition forces.

The catalyst for the discussion was a presentation by Abbas al-Hussaini, the head of Iraq's board of antiquities and heritage to the British Museum. He detailed a number of disturbing things. The former head of the antiquities board in Iraq, Donny George, left for a teaching position in New York, fearing for his life. Today the national museum "is not open but shut... Its doors are bricked up, it is surrounded by concrete walls and its exhibits are sandbagged. Even the staff cannot get inside." A 10th century caravenserai of Khan al-Raba was used to explode captured weapons. Looters are better armed than the Iraqi forces seeking to protect the ancient monuments. Two 4,000 year-old cities, Isin and Shurnpak, have been demolished by looting pits. The 11 teams Hussaini has organized travel the countryside attempting to retrieve any artifacts the looters have left behind. Even muslim sites are subject to destruction, with a number of bombings of mosques from the 10th and 11th centuries

When I was in Istanbul in May, I saw some of the glazed bricks from the Ishtar gate leading to Babylon, and they are stunning. The lion image above was very impressive. For me then perhaps the most disturbing claims detail the destruction taking place at the ancient city of Babylon:

Hussaini confirmed a report... on America's conversion of Nebuchadnezzar's great city of Babylon into the hanging gardens of Halliburton. This meant a 150-hectare camp for 2,000 troops. In the process the 2,500-year-old brick pavement to the Ishtar Gate was smashed by tanks and the gate itself damaged. The archaeology-rich subsoil was bulldozed to fill sandbags, and large areas covered in compacted gravel for helipads and car parks. Babylon is being rendered archaeologically barren.


Despite some unnecessary snarking by Jenkins here, the destruction at Babylon is a grave tragedy. He does conveniently overlook some facts though. The coalition forces only seem to be continuing the destruction and disdain Saddam Hussein had for the site when he was in power. This slide show taken by US Marine Gunnery Sergeant Daniel O'Connell in 2003 shows the ancient city, the unfortunate modern reconstruction by Hussein on top of the archaeological site, and the modern palace he built where marines first stayed. The colonel in charge of the site apologized last year, and UNESCO officials are even considering developing the place into a tourist attraction at some point.

It seems very unfortunate that coalition forces, in the face of the looting of so many sites, should have blundered so badly at Babylon, which is in one of the most secure regions of Iraq. The Geneva Convention dictates that forces should treat opposing cultural heritage with care. Also, though the US and UK have failed to implement the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict(because it might restrict their ability to use nuclear arms), they notionally abide by its tenets.

The US is doing a good job of policing its antiquities market, as a Fox News cameraman was arrested for smuggling Iraqi antiquities into the country recently. The UK also has legislation preventing the import of Iraqi antiquities. Jenkins gets a final jab in at the Department of Culture Media and Sport which seems far more concerned with the upcoming London Olympics than the illicit cultural property market. I wonder if the £400,000 recently spent on the unfortunate mascot would have been better served policing the antiquities market. The Met's Art and Antiquities squad has only 3 full time investigators, and is in jeopardy of further budget cuts. But only so much can be done when provenance or a title history is not routinely given during transactions. As long as the market is hidden from view, looters will continue to find purchasers for their ill-gotten gains.

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