Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
& CULTURAL NEWS OF THE IRANIAN WORLD
Looters and Vandals
27 June 2007
tomb of Ezekiel at Kifl
courtesy of: British Museum)
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
(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.
of looting at Isin
damage at Khudhz
Sassanid graves at Thareb
Parthian female statue from Hatra
(head chopped off by looters)
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.
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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