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Iraq: 'Camp Babylon' Scandal Dramatizes Fragility Of Archaeological Treasures

Iraqis looted virtually everything in their country after Hussein's government fell Interim Iraqi Culture Minister Mufid al-Jaza'iri has announced that the ancient city of Babylon will be closed to visitors until experts can catalog the extent of damage U.S. and Polish troops have done to the site. A new report by the prestigious British Museum finds that troops who used the site as a military base did irreparable harm to one of the world's foremost historical treasures. The report's findings have triggered numerous media reports and the condemnation of archaeologists. RFE/RL reports that the warnings of damage to Babylon and other sites in Iraq have been sounded since the U.S.-led invasion.

Prague, 19 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Interim Iraqi Culture Minister Mufid al-Jaza'iri said he wants to know the "full facts" about Babylon's condition and what needs to be done to restore the city before it is again open to visitors.

Al-Jaza'iri spoke earlier this week, shortly after Polish-led forces returned the area to Iraqi authorities: "Basically, turning a site of such a nature into a military base is a grave mistake, and actually it is an offense. At the time that we asked for the withdrawal of the forces as soon as possible, we did not know the scale of the damage."

Babylon was the capital of Babylonia, which existed from about 1800 to 600 BC. Nebuchadnezzar is believed to have chosen Babylon to build the Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, to please his homesick wife. Many believe the tower of Babel -- told of in Christian and Jewish Scripture -- was also built there.

What remains of Babylon are only ruins on the east bank of the Euphrates River, 50 kilometers south of Baghdad. But the city's fame is finally helping archaeologists and scholars make themselves heard over what the British Museum calls the "Iraq crisis" -- that is, the immense and mounting loss, precipitated by the Iraq war, of artifacts and information about the ancient world.

As the war loomed in early 2003 teams of foreign archaeologists abandoned their work in Iraq. The Archeological Institute of America said in a public statement that it was profoundly concerned by the losses likely to occur because of the war. It reminded all involved that the 1954 Hague Convention demands care even in combat to protect cultural artifacts and sites.

Shortly after U.S.-led troops entered the Iraqi capital, news agencies reported on the widespread looting of artifacts. The National Museum lost valuable items, some dating back to the dawn of civilization. The British Museum and the UN's cultural arm UNESCO organized a conference in London in April 2003 to discuss ways to preserve Iraq's heritage.

Sarah Collins, a curator at the British Museum, participated in the London meeting. "That conference, which happened in April, was mainly the result of the Iraqi Museum's having been looted -- and the massive, you know, press attention was focused on the looting of the museum and not so much on archaeological sites," she said. "And we held a conference here to try to discuss what help we and other museums and institutions in the world could be to the situation in Iraq."

The war in Iraq ground on, Collins recalls, and the archaeologists continued to worry and speak out about the cultural losses. But the headlines turned to life-and-death issues in the country.

In the same month as the London conference, U.S. Marines set up a camp amid Babylon's ancient ruins. Polish troops succeeded them five months later.

During this time, according to the British Museum, U.S. and Polish heavy vehicles crushed a 2,600-year-old brick pavement. Bricks stamped by Nebuchadnezzar were scattered at the site. The military spread gravel to provide parking lots and helicopter pads and used soil containing artifacts for sandbags. Someone tried to gouge out decorated bricks at the city's famous Ishtar Gate.

A Polish spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Artur Domanski, acknowledged last weekend that the existence of a military base in Babylon "was not beneficial" to that site.

Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski defended U.S. and Polish troops. He said foreign troops actually had saved Babylon from looting and vandalism widespread in the country.

But John Curtis, the head of the British Museum's Ancient and Near East Department, who wrote the new report, says this is only partly true: "It's perfectly true that in the early days of the war, a military presence at Babylon did stop looting. But at that stage nobody could predict that the camp would grow to be so big or that it would remain there for so long. At its greatest extent, it housed 2,000 soldiers, and obviously you don't need 2,000 soldiers to look after an archaeological site."

The Polish Culture Ministry will soon issue a 500-page report on Babylon.

British Museum curator Collins says vandals and thieves are marauding archaeological sites across Iraq now. She says they are particularly attracted to places where scientific excavation is advanced. The thieves see signs of digging and know scholars have found items there and that there are probably more to be found.

In the latest development, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Samir al-Sumaidaie, says three 4,000-year-old marble and alabaster relics used to seal correspondence were returned to Iraq yesterday. They had been looted from the Iraqi National Museum. He says they were seized by U.S. Customs in June 2003 from an American scholar, who admitted buying the pieces on the black market during a trip to Baghdad.

Samir al-Sumaidaie says about half of the items stolen from the museum have been recovered.

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