cais1.gif (153930 bytes)

CAIS Persian Text.gif (34162 bytes)


The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies

 Persian Section.PNG (9914 bytes)


About CAIS


Daily News

News Archive


CAIS Seminars

Image Library





Contact Us


Facebook-Button.jpg (107165 bytes)




Invaders, Looters and Vandals


27 June 2007



Damaged tomb of Ezekiel at Kifl


By Susannah Tarbush

(Photographs courtesy of: British Museum)

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the damage to the country's antiquities has been devastating. Numerous sites of incomparable archaeological importance - which are vital to the study of the many cultures which have been present during Iraq's thousands of years of recorded history - have been ransacked by looters or devastated by foreign troops. The true scale of this tragedy was revealed recently in a presentation in London by Abbas Al-Husseiny, the chairman of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and John Curtis, keeper of the British Museum's Middle East collections. As Susannah Tarbush writes, their assessment of the damage and future threat to Iraq's cultural heritage has had a profound affect on our understanding of this extraordinary cultural heritage.



LONDON, (CAIS) -- For the audience of archaeologists and other experts in ancient civilizations gathered in a lecture theatre at the British Museum in London recently, the images from Iraq projected on a screen were like a horror show. They vividly conveyed the toll that four years of occupation and conflict have taken on one of the world's richest endowments of archaeological sites, ancient treasures, monuments and religious buildings.

The images were shown during presentations by Dr Abbas Al-Hussainy, the chairman of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and Dr John Curtis, keeper of the British Museum's Middle East collections. The damage has been caused by a number of factors: the systematic looting of museums and archaeological sites, bombings and attacks, neglect, and what amounts to vandalism by coalition troops. As an example of coalition damage Al-Hussainy showed a slide of the 10th century caravanserai of Khan al-Ruba. When US troops used its courtyard for the blowing up of bombs and weapons captured from insurgents, some of the Khan's roofs and columns collapsed.

Signs of looting at Isin


Bomb damage at Khudhz


Looted Sassanid graves at Thareb


Parthian female statue from Hatra (head chopped off by looters).jpg (110372 bytes)

 Parthian female statue from Hatra

(head chopped off by looters) 2003


With the war and ongoing conflict taking such a heavy daily toll of lives in Iraq, some might argue that rescuing the country's archaeology cannot be a priority.  But Iraq has an extraordinary cultural legacy of which much remains to be excavated and explored. The damage to Iraq's sites affects not only Iraqis but is a blow to humanity and its culture and history.

The dismay of those attending the British Museum event was increased by their knowledge that at least some of the damage was avoidable. Before the invasion, archaeologists in the UK and the US were vocal in warning of the war's likely impact on Iraq's unrivalled cultural heritage. They alerted the Pentagon and Britain's Ministry of Defence, gave media interviews and wrote letters and articles - all to little avail.


Dr Curtis says the situation "would have been much better if account had been taken of this very valuable cultural heritage and if the military authorities had been willing to consult much more, particularly with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities. That hasn't happened and we've seen military camps established in archaeological sites at Babylon in particular and at Ur." He describes Iraq as "one huge archaeological site: whatever one does in terms of excavation, building work and military activity is likely to damage the heritage in some way."

In its newly-published 2008 watch list of the world's 100 most endangered sites, the World Monuments Fund includes "the Cultural Heritage Sites of Iraq, where ongoing conflict has led to catastrophic loss at the world's oldest and most important cultural sites, and where the damage continues."

Iraq has more than 10,000 official sites of archaeological interest. The earliest Middle Eastern civilization, the Sumer, sprang up in mid-4th millennium BC Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Sumerians mastered irrigated agriculture, and the first literate society developed in the late-4th millennium BC using cuneiform script. Other achievements were the invention of the wheel and the development of mathematics, astronomy and time measurement. The Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian cultures followed, then the Iranian Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid dynastic periods. Islam spread to Iraq in the seventh century after the fall of Sasanian Iran. The Abbasid caliphate built Baghdad in the 8th century as its capital, the leading city of the Muslim world for five centuries until the Mongols destroyed it in the 13th century. Iranian lost Iraq to the Ottomans, and became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century.

These successive eras have left their imprint on the land that today known as Iraq. In terms of religious buildings, there is not only an Islamic legacy but also Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish sites. One of the sites identified by Dr Al-Hussaini as being of particular need of attention is the tomb in Kifl of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, which is sacred to Jews and Muslims. The decaying tomb is in urgent need of preservation, as is the nearby bazaar.

Dr Curtis showed images of some of the 8,000 or so objects still missing from the National Museum. They include a Parthian head from the fabulous desert city of Hatra and an ivory depicting a lioness attacking a Nubian. They were among around 15,000 items that were stolen from the museum during the orgy of looting and destruction that swept through Baghdad after Saddam was overthrown on April 9 2003, while US troops stood by.

Looting of archaeological sites has been rampant since the invasion and the internet is awash with Iraqi cultural property for sale. Looters sometimes use mechanical diggers and bulldozers and are protected by armed elements. Many sites in Iraq have a telltale lunar landscape, pockmarked with holes. Dr Al-Hussaini showed a slide of the site of the ancient city of Isin, which has been stripped of its artefacts and demolished by looters.

Priceless information is being lost in this plundering of archaeological sites. Looters looking for choice items may throw away fragments they find, not realising their importance in piecing together the history of Iraq.  

Religious buildings are being targeted by bombers. The destruction of the two minarets of the Askariya mosque in Samarra in mid-June was followed by tit-for-tat attacks on Sunni mosques. The Askariya shrine and mosque, a place of pilgrimage for Shiites from around the world, had first been attacked in February 2006 when its golden dome was destroyed. The civil war is often dated from then.

Looting of archaeological sites has been rampant since the invasion and the internet is awash with Iraqi cultural property for sale. Looters sometimes use mechanical diggers and bulldozers and are protected by armed elements. Many sites in Iraq have a telltale lunar landscape, pockmarked with holes."


The distinguished Iraqi archaeologist Lamia Al-Gailani told the British Museum gathering that some of the numerous attacks on shrines are not sectarian in nature but are carried out by Salafi Islamist extremists who are opposed to shrines. She drew parallels between their destruction of shrines and the Taleban's demolishing of the Bamyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in March 2001.



The worst examples of damage caused by coalition troops are in Babylon. "This is damage which is permanent, of course," says Dr Curtis. "Once the archaeological record is destroyed, it cannot be retrieved." Trenches up to 170 metres long were dug through archaeological deposits. Much archaeological material was unearthed, including bricks with cuneiform inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar. Around 300,000 square metres of surface was covered with gravel, which was compacted and chemically treated and used as a helicopter pad. The driving of heavy military vehicles around the site caused much destruction, breaking nearly all the ancient paving stones of the 6th century BC Processional Way. Dr Curtis showed a damaged dragon figure from the famous Ishtar gate, and said eight others have been similarly damaged.

In February Dr Curtis visited Ur, another ancient site that has been occupied by coalition forces. The archaeological site with its ziggurat was incorporated within the perimeter fence of the Tallil air base after the 2003 invasion. There is still damage to the brickwork of the ziggurat from the first Persian Gulf war. Neglect of tombs from the late third millennium BC has led to the collapse of a roof.

The large visitor control centre at the main gate to the site has been constructed on an as yet unexcavated suburb of Ur. Its construction included the laying of underground pipes and cables that certainly caused archaeological damage. Dr Curtis says: "It's an example, I'm afraid, of the failure to consult and take advice because any archaeologist or anyone familiar with cultural heritage would have known enough to say ‘don't put a main gate there'".

Dr Curtis had planned to carry out his inspection of Ur jointly with Dr Al-Hussainy, but US soldiers at a checkpoint refused to allow Dr Al-Hussainy to enter. Dr Curtis was incensed by this, and observes that while Ur is popular as a tourist venue for coalition troops, it is off limits to Iraqis. "It is quite galling that coalition soldiers can look around the site, whereas ordinary Iraqis, even the Chairman of the State Board of Antiquities himself, are not granted access."


Nor is this the only difficulty Dr Al-Hussainy has had with coalition troops. During his visit to London he complained bitterly that US troops had tried on three occasions in the previous month to force their way into the National Museum complex, where the State Board is located. He refused them entry, saying their presence would turn the National Museum into a battlefield.

In a long-overdue recognition of the risks to Iraqi antiquities, the Pentagon is issuing 40,000 packs of playing cards to its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of an "archaeology awareness programme". The cards, which are reminiscent of the "most wanted Iraqis" playing cards circulated after the invasion, have been devised by archaeologists at Fort Drum, New York, where troops are prepared for service in Iraq.

The seven of clubs bears a picture of the great arch in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ctesiphon (capital of the Parthian Empire) with the caption: "This site has survived 17 centuries. Will it and others survive you?" The two of hearts states under an image of Samarra: "Ninety-nine per cent of man's history can be understood through archaeology." The five of clubs advises: "Drive around - not over - archaeological sites." Other cards remind troops that they should not take artefacts home.

US soldiers are also practising ways of returning fire coming from archaeological sites without damaging them. Pilots are being trained in how to recognise and identify ruins, cemeteries and other sites so they can try to avoid bombing them.

The threats to Iraq's cultural heritage did not begin in 2003, but erupted during the 1991 Persian Gulf war and ensuing years of sanctions. Previously, Iraq had enjoyed a good record in protecting its sites. Saddam Hussein took a personal interest in the cultural heritage of Iraq, even if the way he went about it made some purists shudder."


The threats to Iraq's cultural heritage did not begin in 2003, but erupted during the 1991 Persian Gulf war and ensuing years of sanctions. Previously, Iraq had enjoyed a good record in protecting its sites. Saddam Hussein took a personal interest in the cultural heritage of Iraq, even if the way he went about it made some purists shudder. In the mid-1980s he started to reconstruct Babylon, intending to immortalise himself as a great ruler. His name was stamped on the bricks of the reconstruction, just as Nebuchadnezzar II's was stamped on the bricks of the original.  A typical inscription read "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq."

During the 1991 war and the subsequent uprisings, many items were looted from museums. Throughout the 1990s, with a general rise in lawlessness, archaeological sites were looted. There was an attempt to tackle the problem in 1999 when the National Museum reopened for the first time since the Persian Gulf war, and armed guards were posted at archaeological sites. Harsh measures were taken against those caught looting or smuggling antiquities, including televised executions.

After the looting of the National Museum in 2003, Dr Al-Hussainy's predecessor as chairman of the State Board, Donny George, became a familiar face on TV screens as he talked about the museum's losses. He had been associated with the State Board and National Museum since 1976 and was a main link between foreign and Iraqi archaeologists. There was alarm when it became known last August that George, a Christian and former Baath Party member, had fled Iraq.  One reason he gave for his departure was that his 19-year-old son had been threatened by a letter containing a bullet. George was also reported as saying that those in charge of running archaeological policy had an anti-Western, Islamist, agenda inspired by radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr. He alleged they were interested only in Iraq's Islamic sites and not in its earlier heritage. George also said the 1,400 strong special antiquities protection force was running out of money and risked further looting. Iraqi officials denied his allegations.

George is now a visiting professor in the anthropology department at Stony Brook University in New York state, where Professor Elizabeth Stone, who has worked for years on Iraqi archaeology, is based. One of his last acts in Baghdad was to seal up the doors of the National Museum with concrete walls. Dr Al Hussainy has now put in a security door with help from the Italian government. Once staff regain access to the museum via the door they will be able to assess the damage to its artefacts and to work on conserving them. Dr Al-Hussainy is particularly concerned about the possible condition of the museum's ivories and cuneiform tablets.


Dr Al-Hussainy was formerly chairman of the archaeology department at Al-Qadisiya University and for three years led excavations at the ancient city of Marad. Despite the generally gloomy news on Iraq's cultural heritage, he gave some positive news. He said a major survey of all Iraqi provinces has begun with two main aims: to quantify Iraq's archaeological heritage, and to ascertain the degree of damage to sites.

He told the meeting at the British Museum that there are now 11 expeditions working in rescue excavations and nine expeditions working in preservation. The State Board's delayed budget started to be paid in March, and there are now armed guards at some archaeological sites. The visiting of sites by teams of archaeologists is helping reduce the incidence of looting, Dr Al-Hussainy says.

The director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor is keen to explore ways of helping the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.


There was frustration at the meeting in the British Museum at how little the British government has yet done to help. In the aftermath of the looting of the Baghdad museum in April 2003, Tessa Jowell Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was supportive. It was reported at the time that her department had pledged £15 million for the restoration of Iraq's cultural heritage. However, Jowell's department now says it did not pledge funding specifically for Iraqi sites. The £15mn Jowell referred to in April 2003 was part of the £744 million that the UK committed to Iraq's reconstruction. "The Iraqi government is, of course, now responsible for preventing damage to such sites and has been for some time", a statement from Jowell's department adds. Jowell has however asked MacGregor to carry out an assessment of what is needed in Iraq to help protect and support the country's heritage. "Once that assessment has been carried out it will be discussed with the relevant parties."

The most immediate need of the State Board is to boost its manpower and training. Dr Al-Hussainy says he has only one specialist in philology, although many thousands of cuneiform tablets have yet to be translated.  And he had only two specialists in coins, but one of them has left Baghdad because of the security situation. Despite the National Museum's holdings of ivory, he lacks a specialist in the preservation of ivory.
MacGregor is drawing up with Dr Al-Hussainy a programme to train staff in the UK, and possibly in Amman or Damascus. He hopes the British government will provide at least £1 million a year for such training and capacity building. In the future, there will need to be a programme of reconstruction of archaeological sites, towards which he hopes Britain will make a major contribution. But unless there is a dramatic improvement in the security situation in Iraq, it is likely to be a long time before Iraq's cultural heritage can be significantly restored.





Extracted From/Source*:


*Please note the above-news is NOT a "copy & paste" version from the mentioned-source. The news/article above has been modified with the following interventions by CAIS: Spelling corrections; -Rectification and correction of the historical facts and data; - Providing additional historical information within the text; -Removing any unnecessary, irrelevant & repetitive information.


All these measures have been taken in order to ensure that the published news provided by CAIS is coherent, transparent, accurate and suitable for academics and cultural enthusiasts who visit the CAIS website.





my_Iran.jpg (13682 bytes)

"History is the Light on the Path to Future"


Persian_NOT_Farsi_by_Shapour_Suren-Pahlav_3D2.gif (177309 bytes)


Encyclopaedia Iranica

BIPS.jpg (15695 bytes)

The British Institute of Persian Studies

"Persepolis Reconstructed"

Persepolis_reconstructed2.jpg (36944 bytes)


The British Museum

The Royal

Asiatic Society

Persian_Gulf_Facebook.jpg (1935028 bytes)

The Persian Gulf

Facebook Page

Please use your "Back" button (top left) to return to the previous page

Copyright © 1998-2015 The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS)