Heinous Heist: The looting of Iraq’s History

History Facts

>The 2003 historic lootings
>Ancient Mesopotamia to modern Iraq
>Ancient Sites
>Mysterious Treasures


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April 2003

The ancestral spirits of old Babylon are weeping. As well as anarchy and destruction on the streets of Baghdad, now simmering yet not tempered, the symbols and heritage of the most important civilizations of mankind are being smashed up and shipped out, invariably never to return to their motherland. Vital beds and medicines have been stolen from hospitals, intelligence documents and civil records turned to ashes, the School of Ballet and Art in Baghdad is wrecked; only the sound of a broken piano and the choking tears of its teachers echoes through its empty rooms. The museums and historic sites of Iraq have been decimated, thousands of years of history blasted away in an instant. Many glass caskets were either smashed or pilfered, taking with them bejewelled lyres, ancient manuscripts and the four thousand year old head of an Akkadian king. One of the oldest copies of the Quran was set afire at the Baghdad National Library. Within a day, the library was just a smouldering pyre of historic and cultural book ashes. Ironically, although the historic sites were largely safeguarded against US military attacks, it has been Iraq’s people who have wrecked their own heritage, aided and abetted by the absence of the allied military. An estimated 170,000 items have been plundered, 400 times those of the ‘culture catastrophe’ seen during the 1991 Gulf War. These thefts contravened the Hague Convention outlawing the trading of Cultural Property.

A Cultural Catastrophe

Anger at the US military’s failure to preserve the National Museum of Antiquities lead to several White House members resigning, “The tragedy was not prevented due to our nation’s inaction”, proclaimed Martin E. Sullivan, a White House Cultural Property advisor. The FBI sent out agents to assist in recovering stolen antiquities, but this was too little to late, the horse had already bolted with lorry loads of smuggled artefacts, heading for the borders of Iran, Turkey and Jordan. The professionally organised heist took advantage of the chaos after the fall of power to make good their rich bounty.

Despite pressure beforehand by UNESCO and immediate calls after the fall of Saddam Hussein byIraq’s National Museum, little immediate action was taken by the US military. In their defence, the Pentagon stated that the swift collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime made protecting national treasures impossible and their first priority was to protect the Iraqi people with the limited amount of troops available. Several hundred thousand troops were in actuality need to safeguard the major cities and sites.
“We didn’t allow it to happen,” retorted Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “It happened”.

Even the British Museum, former benefactors of plundering Iraq condemned the inaction, “it is clear that a catastrophe has befallen the cultural heritage of Iraq,” states Neil MacGregor, British Museum director. The British Museum has also fallen foul of criticism that they should have returned Iraqi antiquities stolen during the 18th and 19th century. The museum in London is now thought to house the most complete collection of Iraqi treasures since the lootings.

But war history is soon forgotten. The US knew full well the extent of street anarchy and looting which would take place as the same state was experienced just 12 years ago after the first Gulf War when the National Museum collection was plundered. 4 volumes cataloguing some 4000 Lost Heritage treasures were submitted to UNESCO after the conflict. Smugglers were even caught red handed with a 4 tonne head after chopping it into pieces. Although informing major art dealers likeSotheby’s and The Met in New York, only a fraction of these stolen priceless treasures were ever returned. Items occasionally appear on the international antiquities market and other objects illegally excavated since 1991 now also appear, making the familiar route to Israel, then Switzerland and on to London. Prove of ownership to Iraq is fleeting and these objects can far too easily be sold on. The Lost Heritage items are also hard to identify due to poor quality photos and gaps in documentation. Items such as a basalt door were offered to the Merrin Gallery in New York and dealers in London, which were shipped overseas as freight and went undetected by customs. A number of stolen sculptures have probably been plastered over or hidden behind temporary walls to avoid detection and later these will be illegally sold on the black market or over the internet.

Looting has been a constant problem through the recent 2 decades of unrest. Donny George, Iraq’s leading archaeologist and National Museum director, spent many years excavating Ummaarmed with a semi-automatic and trowel, fending off looters who arrived with mechanical diggers and AK37s. He spent many months packing away exhibits and tying down pieces to prevent looting. Fears of looting forced the curators to close the doors of the National Museum in Baghdad for 9 years until it was re-opened in April 2000. The then Iraqi Culture Minister Abdul-Khaleq believed it was the Iraqi peoples right to see their Heritage again, “You can contrast our civilization with the uncivilized aggression against our people.”

The museum was hailed as one of the greatest museums in the Middle East. Donny George believes it is unique in the world in offering “a complete chain of civilization”. Pieces on view then included artefacts and antiquities from prehistory including the Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonianand Islamic ages. Its prize attractions were a Neanderthal skeleton, pottery from the first agricultural villages, artefacts from the royal tomb of ancient Ur and statues of Hercules. Many of which now lie wrecked or stolen.

Looting is one half the problem – bombing itself inevitably leads to destructions of historic sites despite how ‘smart’ the military technology may purport to being. The religious shrines of thetomb of Ali (the Islamic equivalent of Christ) in Najaf, a sacred Shi’ite Muslim shrine, andHussein’s mausoleum in nearby Kerbala, the last fighting ground, were both heavily bombed during the 1991 Gulf War. By destroying these sites, allied troops risk alienating the Shi’ites in the south of Iraq. In the southern plain, sites are some of the only raised features, therefore, key military positions. A prehistoric village here can be destroyed by allied bombs in a mere matter of seconds when archaeologist trenches are mistaken for military installations. In the 1991 Gulf War, the Great Arch of Ctesphion, the widest brick arch in the world, was destroyed by relentless US bombing.

Rocking the Cradle of Civilization

But given the impending humanitarian crisis the nation is now facing, why are ancient crumbling artefacts in any way important, when compared to the seemingly more complex task of safeguarding human life? The issue is many faceted, as Iraq’s history is not merely of importance to only the people of Iraq, but the discoveries and rich history of the ancient land ofMesopotamia, the land known as the ‘cradle of civilization’, has cultural and scientific importance to all believers of Christianity, Islam or Judaism. With 1000 archaeological sites substantiating revolutionary mathematics, astrological discoveries, the first examples of writing and the alphabet, the invention of agriculture and real sites from the Old Testament, the very ground of Iraq is a major heritage site.

From 5000BC, this land marked the moment of the history of humanity. Baghdad was the capital of Abbasid Caliphate and the centre of the three Monotheistic Religions. Many sites bear witness to this remarkable history, from the home of biblical legends like Abraham and Noah, and the mystical city of Babylon, symbol of all the good and bad in this world, with the Tower of Babel(where language was invented to divide mankind) and the ‘8th wonder of the world’, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It is thought the Garden of Eden was discovered here.

Iraq was one of the first States to join the International Safeguarding Campaign of UNESCO. It has submitted many places for listing as heritage sites but lack of resources after the 1991 War has quelled their efforts to preserve their history. Saddam Hussein compared himself to Nebchadnezzar who built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, intending to restore the glories of ancient Iraq to the people. He rebuilt the city wall with the name of himself next to that of Nebuchadnezzar. His regime was intent to protect the nation’s heritage at a bloody cost; in 1998, 10 men were executed for attempting to smuggle the head of a Assyrian winged bull.
“Culture can play a key role in the consolidation of the peace process,” believes Director General Koichiro Matsuura of UNESCO.

Both ancient Mesopotamia and modern day Iraq are certainly no strangers to bloody warfare and conflict, yet it is the Nation’s rich heritage, which throughout the last ten millennia has provided the running thread of its advanced development.

More Information


Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization by A. Leo Oppenheim, Erica Reiner (Photographer) (Paperback – September 1977)
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Ancient Iraq by George Roux (1992)
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