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Iraq: Antiquities Continue To Be Pillaged, Destroyed

  • Sumedha Senanayake

http://gdb.rferl.org/a5a71355-726c-4ca7-9eed-bbe8d0faa228_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/a5a71355-726c-4ca7-9eed-bbe8d0faa228_mw800_mh600.jpg Many cultural artifacts disappeared in the chaos following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 (CTK) PRAGUE, October 12, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Archeologists and art historians who specialize in Iraq's ancient history are concerned that the country's vast collection of ancient monuments and artifacts is at risk of being destroyed or pillaged and sold on the international black market.

Often referred to as the "cradle of civilization," Iraq houses some of the world's greatest archeological treasures, with remnants of the ancient Mesopotamian cities of Babylon, Ur, and Nineveh. However, since the fall of the Hussein regime, UNESCO and archeologists have urged the international community to take steps to safeguard Iraq's cultural heritage.

Scholars have indicated that the state of Iraq's archeological and cultural treasures is grim. Immediately following the collapse of the former Iraqi regime and the subsequent breakdown of law and order, the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad was looted. The museum's staff indicated that almost 14,000 pieces were stolen and only about 5,400 have so far been recovered, many from the black market in the United States, Italy, England, and Switzerland, "All Headline News" reported on September 16.

Furthermore, several religiously significant and historically important Islamic shrines and mosque have also been damaged or destroyed. In April 2005, the famous spiraling Malwiya minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra were badly damaged by insurgents when they used it to attack coalition forces. In February 2006, the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the most revered Shi'ite shrines, was destroyed, setting off a wave of sectarian violence.

Dr. McGuire Gibson, an expert in Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago, told "The Washington Post" on September 13 that the condition of many of Iraq's antiquities was horrible and looting continues. The looting "hasn't stopped," he said. "There has been the looting of sites on an industrial scale. Some of the greatest Sumerian sites have gone."

Ministry Sets Own Agenda

A different type of threat to Iraq's cultural heritage has emerged since the Shi'ite-dominated government took power in December. The strong showing by radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr enabled his movement to gain control of four ministries in the al-Maliki-led administration, including the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

Traditionally, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which oversees Iraq's archeological and cultural heritage sites, was under the control of the Culture Ministry, but it now falls under the jurisdiction of the Tourism Ministry. Liwa Sumaysim -- a dentist by trade and whose wife, a member of parliament, is a relative of al-Sadr -- was appointed to head the ministry.

Despite the return of some artifacts, many are still in danger (courtesy photo)

Shortly thereafter, many of the most highly regarded Iraqi archeologists and scholars at the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage were either forced to retire or were fired and replaced with religious fundamentalists, London's "The Times" reported on September 15.

Burhan Shakur, an archeologist and director of excavations at the Iraqi National Museum, was fired and later given the option to retire. The inspector for antiquities in Dhi Qar Governorate, Abd al-Amir Hamdan, was arrested in April on corruption charges, imprisoned for three months, released, and charges were later dropped. His successor was a man with affiliations to the Islamic Virtue Party (Al-Fadilah), which has close ties to al-Sadr's movement, "The New York Times" reported on September 12.

Former employees at the board have voiced concern that the ministry has removed the most qualified individuals who have the expertise to maintain and care for the priceless and often delicate antiquities. Dr. Donny George, the former president of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and a prominent Iraqi archeologist, expressed frustration with the ministry. "I can no longer work with these people who have come in with the new ministry," "The Times" quoted him as saying on September 15. "They have no knowledge of archaeology, no knowledge of antiquities, nothing." He also accused the ministry of cutting ties with museums and cultural institutions around the world, which would severely curtail its ability to care for archeological sites.

George, a Christian, told Britain's Channel 4 television in an interview on September 13 that his family received a letter accusing his son of blaspheming Islam and harassing Muslim girls. The note, accompanied with a bullet, demanded that the family pay a fine of $1,000. That incident and the subsequent rumors that he would be fired as president of the board because he was a Christian, prompted George to flee with his family to Damascus.

Pre-Islamic Treasures Threatened

In addition, there is growing speculation that the ministry is only focusing on protecting Islamic sites and artifacts and turning a blind eye to pre-Islamic ones. Looting in the southern Dhi Qar Governorate, an area rich in pre-Islamic sites, has been increasing. Two pre-Islamic statues were recently returned to the National Museum with a note attached to them referring to the pieces as "idols."

Does a fate similar to the Bamiyan buddhs await Iraq's pre-Islamic cultural artifacts (courtesy photo)

In 2004, the Al-Nasiriyah Museum, which contained a huge collection of Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Abbasid artifacts, was burned and looted. Guards at the museum reportedly heard militants say they would do to the antiquities "what the Taliban did", the "International Herald Tribune" reported on September 12 -- an apparent reference to the Taliban's 2001 destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan on the grounds they were idolatrous.

Elizabeth Stone, an anthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York who has conducted numerous excavations in southern Iraq, accused the ministry of not doing enough to protect pre-Islamic sites. "What is striking is that the Islamic parts are left alone, whereas the immediate pre-Islamic sites are not", she said. She also said she heard rumors that Islamic militants were looting artifacts and selling them to fund their activities.

The continuing destruction of Iraq's archeological sites and artifacts may have a drastic impact on Iraq's future. Not only will a rich cultural legacy be lost for future generations of Iraqis, but Iraq's remaining antiquities, if protected and maintained, could serve as a centerpiece for a thriving tourist industry. As the University of Chicago's McGuire Gibson noted in the "International Herald Tribune" on September 12, "Antiquities are key to Iraq's economy; at some point the oil will run out. Iraqi tourism will be built on archaeology."
Shi'ite Shrines In Samarra

The Golden Mosque before the 22 February bombing (courtesy photo)

UNDER THE GOLDEN DOME: The Iraqi city of SAMARRA is the site of two major Shi'ite shrines. Consecrated in 852, the Golden Mosque is said to hold the remains of two Shi'ite imams: Ali al-Naqi and his son, Hasan al-Askari. A second shrine marks the place where the hidden -- or 12th -- imam, al-Mahdi, son of Hasan, went into hiding.
Imam Ali and Hasan were imprisoned in Samarra, the capital of the Abbasid Dynasty, by Al-Mutawakkil Ala Allah Jafar bin al-Mu'tasim (821-861), who is considered the last great Abassid caliph.
According to historical accounts, al-Mutawakkil felt threatened by the growing influence of Shi'ite Islam and Imam al-Naqi, who was based in Medina. Al-Mutawakkil thus brought Imam Ali and Hasan to Samarra in 848 and imprisoned them inside a military fort. Henceforth they became known as al-Askari (military) because of the location of their imprisonment.
Following al-Mutawakkil's death in 861, his successor had Imam Ali poisoned in 868. Hasan died in 874.
Imam Ali al-Naqi -- the 10th Shi'ite imam, commonly referred to as Imam Ali al-Hadi -- and his son, Hasan al-Askari, the 11th imam, are buried under the Golden Dome, which was a gift from Persian ruler Nasr al-Din Shah (1848-96). The dome's construction was completed in 1905. Also buried in the shrine are Hakimah Khatun, the sister of Imam Ali, and Nargis Kahtun, Imam al-Mahdi's mother.
The second shrine in the complex marks the place where Shi'a believe Imam al-Mahdi (b. 868), the 12th and final imam, went into hiding. According to Shi'ite tradition, Imam al-Mahdi, the son of Hasan al-Askari descended into a cellar under the present-day shrine and disappeared. Shi'a believe that he never died, and he will return on Judgment Day.

MORE: For more information on Shi'ite and Sunni sectarianism in Iraq, see:

Sunni-Shi'ite Tensions High On Eve Of Arab Conference

A Nation Finds Itself At A Crossroads

The Growing Sunni-Shi'a Divide

Ayatollah Al-Sistani Moves From Religious To Political Role

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