Is The Death Of History
By Robert Fisk
17 September, 2007
2,000-year-old Sumerian cities
torn apart and plundered by robbers. The very walls of the mighty Ur
of the Chaldees cracking under the strain of massive troop movements,
the privatisation of looting as landlords buy up the remaining sites
of ancient Mesopotamia to strip them of their artefacts and wealth.
The near total destruction of Iraq's historic past – the very
cradle of human civilisation – has emerged as one of the most
shameful symbols of our disastrous occupation.
Evidence amassed by archaeologists
shows that even those Iraqis who trained as archaeological workers in
Saddam Hussein's regime are now using their knowledge to join the looters
in digging through the ancient cities, destroying thousands of priceless
jars, bottles and other artefacts in their search for gold and other
In the aftermath of the 1991
Gulf War, armies of looters moved in on the desert cities of southern
Iraq and at least 13 Iraqi museums were plundered. Today, almost every
archaeological site in southern Iraq is under the control of looters.
In a long and devastating
appraisal to be published in December, Lebanese archaeologist Joanne
Farchakh says that armies of looters have not spared "one metre
of these Sumerian capitals that have been buried under the sand for
thousands of years.
destroyed the remains of this civilisation in their tireless search
for sellable artefacts: ancient cities, covering an estimated surface
area of 20 square kilometres, which – if properly excavated –
could have provided extensive new information concerning the development
of the human race.
"Humankind is losing
its past for a cuneiform tablet or a sculpture or piece of jewellery
that the dealer buys and pays for in cash in a country devastated by
war. Humankind is losing its history for the pleasure of private collectors
living safely in their luxurious houses and ordering specific objects
for their collection."
Ms Farchakh, who helped with
the original investigation into stolen treasures from the Baghdad Archaeological
Museum in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, says Iraq
may soon end up with no history.
"There are 10,000 archaeological
sites in the country. In the Nassariyah area alone, there are about
840 Sumerian sites; they have all been systematically looted. Even when
Alexander the Great destroyed a city, he would always build another.
But now the robbers are destroying everything because they are going
down to bedrock. What's new is that the looters are becoming more and
more organised with, apparently, lots of money.
"Quite apart from this,
military operations are damaging these sites forever. There's been a
US base in Ur for five years and the walls are cracking because of the
weight of military vehicles. It's like putting an archaeological site
under a continuous earthquake."
Of all the ancient cities
of present-day Iraq, Ur is regarded as the most important in the history
of man-kind. Mentioned in the Old Testament – and believed by
many to be the home of the Prophet Abraham – it also features
in the works of Arab historians and geographers where its name is Qamirnah,
The City of the Moon.
Founded in about 4,000 BC,
its Sumerian people established the principles of irrigation, developed
agriculture and metal-working. Fifteen hundred years later – in
what has become known as "the age of the deluge" – Ur
produced some of the first examples of writing, seal inscriptions and
construction. In neighbouring Larsa, baked clay bricks were used as
money orders – the world's first cheques – the depth of
finger indentations in the clay marking the amount of money to be transferred.
The royal tombs of Ur contained jewellery, daggers, gold, azurite cylindrical
seals and sometimes the remains of slaves.
US officers have repeatedly
said a large American base built at Babylon was to protect the site
but Iraqi archaeologist Zainab Bah-rani, a professor of art history
and archaeology at Columbia University, says this "beggars belief".
In an analysis of the city, she says: "The damage done to Babylon
is both extensive and irreparable, and even if US forces had wanted
to protect it, placing guards round the site would have been far more
sensible than bulldozing it and setting up the largest coalition military
headquarters in the region."
Air strikes in 2003 left
historical monuments undamaged, but Professor Bahrani, says: "The
occupation has resulted in a tremendous destruction of history well
beyond the museums and libraries looted and destroyed at the fall of
Baghdad. At least seven historical sites have been used in this way
by US and coalition forces since April 2003, one of them being the historical
heart of Samarra, where the Askari shrine built by Nasr al Din Shah
was bombed in 2006."
The use of heritage sites
as military bases is a breach of the Hague Convention and Protocol of
1954 (chapter 1, article 5) which covers periods of occupation; although
the US did not ratify the Convention, Italy, Poland, Australia and Holland,
all of whom sent forces to Iraq, are contracting parties.
Ms Farchakh notes that as
religious parties gain influence in all the Iraqi pro-vinces, archaeological
sites are also falling under their control. She tells of Abdulamir Hamdani,
the director of antiquities for Di Qar province in the south who desperately
– but vainly – tried to prevent the destruction of the buried
cities during the occupation. Dr Hamdani himself wrote that he can do
little to prevent "the disaster we are all witnessing and observing".
In 2006, he says: "We
recruited 200 police officers because we were trying to stop the looting
by patrolling the sites as often as possible. Our equipment was not
enough for this mission because we only had eight cars, some guns and
other weapons and a few radio transmitters for the entire province where
800 archaeological sites have been inventoried.
"Of course, this is
not enough but we were trying to establish some order until money restrictions
within the government meant that we could no longer pay for the fuel
to patrol the sites. So we ended up in our offices trying to fight the
looting, but that was also before the religious parties took over southern
Last year, Dr Hamdani's antiquities
department received notice from the local authorities, approving the
creation of mud-brick factories in areas surrounding Sumerian archaeological
sites. But it quickly became apparent that the factory owners intended
to buy the land from the Iraqi government because it covered several
Sumerian capitals and other archaeological sites. The new landlord would
"dig" the archaeological site, dissolve the "old mud
brick" to form the new one for the market and sell the unearthed
finds to antiquity traders.
Dr Hamdani bravely refused
to sign the dossier. Ms Farchakh says: "His rejection had rapid
consequences. The religious parties controlling Nassariyah sent the
police to see him with orders to jail him on corruption charges. He
was imprisoned for three months, awaiting trial. The State Board of
Antiquities and Heritage defended him during his trial, as did his powerful
tribe. He was released and regained his position. The mud-brick factories
are 'frozen projects', but reports have surfaced of a similar strategy
being employed in other cities and in nearby archaeological sites such
as the Aqarakouf Ziggarat near Baghdad. For how long can Iraqi archaeologists
maintain order? This is a question only Iraqi politicians affiliated
to the different religious parties can answer, since they approve these
Police efforts to break the
power of the looters, now with a well-organised support structure helped
by tribal leaders, have proved lethal. In 2005, the Iraqi customs arrested
– with the help of Western troops – several antiquities
dealers in the town of Al Fajr, near Nasseriyah. They seized hundreds
of artefacts and decided to take them to the museum in Baghdad. It was
a fatal mistake.
The convoy was stopped a
few miles from Baghdad, eight of the customs agents were murdered, and
their bodies burnt and left to rot in the desert. The artefacts disappeared.
"It was a clear message from the antiquities dealers to the world,"
Ms Farchakh says.
The legions of antiquities
looters work within a smooth mass-smuggling organisation. Trucks, cars,
planes and boats take Iraq's historical plunder to Europe, the US, to
the United Arab Emirates and to Japan. The archaeologists say an ever-growing
number of internet websites offer Mesopotamian artefacts, objects anywhere
up to 7,000 years old.
The farmers of southern Iraq
are now professional looters, knowing how to outline the walls of buried
buildings and able to break directly into rooms and tombs. The archaeologists'
report says: "They have been trained in how to rob the world of
its past and they have been making significant profit from it. They
know the value of each object and it is difficult to see why they would
After the 1991 Gulf War,
archaeologists hired the previous looters as workers and promised them
government salaries. This system worked as long as the archaeologists
remained on the sites, but it was one of the main reasons for the later
destruction; people now knew how to excavate and what they could find.
Ms Farchakh adds: "The
longer Iraq finds itself in a state of war, the more the cradle of civilisation
is threatened. It may not even last for our grandchildren to learn from."
© 2007 Independent News
and Media Limited
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