OCCUPATION FORCES CAUSE IRREVERSIBLE DAMAGE IN IRAQ’S ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES
While Iraq's historical sites have largely slipped from the headlines, an international meeting was held this month in Paris to try to save them, writes David Tresilian
On 14 November this year, a meeting of the International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding of the Cultural Heritage of Iraq ended in Paris with a grim warning about the challenges still facing Iraq's heritage.
At the meeting, organised by UNESCO, the United Nations agency responsible for education, science and culture, it was reported that more than 4,000 Iraqi antiquities had been seized between 2004 and 2007, most of them on the Iraqi-Jordanian border, with other objects seized elsewhere in the region. In Italy, 86 clay tablets bearing cuneiform writing had been seized, with a further 21 tablets and other items seized in Spain.
The illicit excavation, theft and export of antiquities from Iraq was a problem even before the 2003 invasion, as the impoverishment of the Iraqi population during the decade-long sanctions imposed on the country after the 1991 Gulf War had exacerbated attacks on archaeological sites.
Since the war, however, the situation has worsened despite the passage of UN resolution 1483 in 2003 banning international trade in Iraqi antiquities, and the Paris meeting ended with an appeal to the international community to step up its vigilance in this regard.
It was known well before the 2003 US-led invasion that should government authority collapse in Iraq as a result of war, museums, sites and monuments, usually heavily guarded, would be defenseless against the chaos that could follow.
with the existence of an international agreement on the protection of cultural heritage in wartime, the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict managed by UNESCO, to which Iraq, though not Britain or the United States was party, led to the belief that in the event of invasion steps would be taken to protect Iraq's heritage.
Nothing, however, could have been further from the case: as is now well known, following the sudden fall of Baghdad in April 2003, waves of looting hit the country, with museums, libraries, universities, heritage sites and other institutions being among the targets.
Reports circulating after the invasion spoke of 170,000 objects looted from the Baghdad Museum following the entry of US troops into the city.
The Iraqi National Library and Archives was also burned, destroying records from the country's Ottoman and post-Ottoman periods, as was the library of Islamic manuscripts attached to the Ministry of Awqaf, or religious endowments, and the Iraqi Museum of Modern Art.
TERRIBLE HISTORY: In an interview with the Weekly in 2003, Mounir Bouchenaki, UNESCO's Assistant Director-General for Culture at the time, spoke of his horror at the destruction following the US- led invasion.
What had befallen the country was a "real cultural disaster," he said, the situation at the Baghdad Museum in particular being "really terrible".
"There is not a single door or cupboard that has not been opened or smashed," Bouchenaki said. "Every single piece of equipment has disappeared, even chairs and computers... when you see this terrible situation, you feel people are still in shock."
At the National Library and Archives, the situation was even worse. Virtually the entire collection had been destroyed by fire, including archive material relating to the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in the 1920s, and Bouchenaki spoke of his pain at crunching across the 20 or 30cm of ash from the burnt collections.
UNESCO sent the US government a map of key archaeological sites in Iraq before the conflict started, together with a list of museums and other institutions, asking that these be protected in the event of invasion. The American Archaeological Association also supplied information on Iraq's heritage sites in order that these might be avoided in the event of conflict.
However, US soldiers stood by as the looting took place following their entry into Baghdad on 9 April, having moved swiftly to secure strategic locations such as the Ministries of Oil and Information. Cultural institutions, banks, homes and businesses, were left unprotected in the chaos and waves of looting.
Though the scale of the destruction at the Baghdad Museum was later scaled down, with 170,000 stolen items -- virtually the Museum's entire collection -- being reduced to some 35 to 40 major objects missing, and some 15,000 others smashed or unaccounted for, nothing can erase the memory of the failure to safeguard the Iraqi Museum and National Library, described by scholars as perhaps the greatest cultural disaster to hit the country since the Mongol invasions in the 13th century CE.
THE ANCIENT SUMERIAN, Babylonian and Assyrian civilisations once based in Iraq, making it the Middle East's "cradle of civilisation," are perhaps the best known of the many that have flourished in the country, and they have received the lion's share of archaeologists' attention.
However, Iraq also has some of the world's most important Islamic sites, the country having been the seat of the Abbasid caliphs from the 8th to 13th centuries CE, among them Harun al-Rashid (reigned 738-809) who figures in the tales collected in the Thousand and One Nights (the Arabian Nights).
Ruling from their capitals at Baghdad and Samarra, the Abbasids presided over a vast empire, a sort of Islamic golden age, that stretched from what is now Iraq and Iran down through the Levant and far across North Africa.
They built cities that rivaled those anywhere in the world, and the civilisation that flourished under their rule is remembered in the work of the many scientists, philosophers, theologians and literary writers that lived in the period, among them the poet Abu Nuwas.
However, despite their great interest Abbasid sites have never been completely excavated, and it seems that one of them, the city of Samarra founded by the caliph al-Mu'tasim in 836 CE and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is being damaged by military operations.
Photographs posted on the Internet by American journalist Jeff Emanuel show construction work at an Iraqi police barracks at Samarra in the shadow of the famous spiral minaret built by the caliph al-Mutawakkil, apparently supervised by US forces.
The Samarra site, stretching 50km along the Tigris river and over an area of 150 square km, has already been damaged at least twice since the US-led invasion in 2003, once when a surrounding earth wall was created by US forces, and once when the minaret became a target for military operations, having apparently been used as a look-out post by the US military.
According to Alistair Northedge, professor of Islamic Art and Archaeology at the University of Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne, and an expert on Samarra, Emanuel's photographs show an area to the north of the modern city, home to the shrine complex of the 10th and 11th Shia imams that was itself bombed in 2006, and towards the centre of the site of the ancient city.
Speaking to the Weekly in Paris, Northedge explained that he had stayed at the barracks site, then a government campsite, when excavating at Samarra in the early 1980s.
The great interest of Samarra lay in the fact that it is "the largest archaeological site in the world where you have the details, where you have the plan, and where the heaps of earth surviving at the site can be identified as the palaces of specific people and attached to specific historical figures," he said.
"Its cultural importance can hardly be overstated," Northedge said , emphasising both the scale of the remains and the city's enduring place in Arab history, with much Abbasid poetry, for example, having been composed at Samarra.
In Northedge's view, a police barracks on the site of the Abbasid city is "quite unnecessary" and risks destroying material that, once gone, can never be regained.
Contacted by the London-based Art Newspaper earlier this month, a spokeswoman for UNESCO's office in Amman said that the organisation had not been consulted on the construction of the barracks.
"To our knowledge, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which manages the site and is UNESCO's main partner in Iraq, was not consulted either," she said.
Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2007/873/cu1.htm