Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Iraq's Antiquities

Damaged tomb of Ezekiel at Kifl

'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. 27 June 2007'

By Susannah Tarbush

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.

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 Achaemenid, Hellenistic, Parthian and Sassanid periods. Islam spread to Iraq in the seventh century. 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. Iraq was fought over by Persia and the Ottomans, and became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century.'


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