In May 2003—some eight weeks after the American invasion had begun— Abdul-Amir Hamdani, the archaeology inspector of Dhi Qar province in southern Iraq, traveled to Najaf to call on the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He had an urgent request. “We needed his help to stop the pillage,” Hamdani recalled. The province, which is midway between Baghdad and Basra, covers much of what was once the land of Sumer. In the third millennium BC, it was a fertile plain densely populated by such cities as Ur, Lagash, Girsu, Larsa, and Umma; today, the shifting course of the Euphrates and Saddam Hussein’s brutal campaign to drain the marshes, to the southeast, have left it in large part an impoverished wasteland. With the fall of the Baathist regime, hundreds of poor farmers and villagers—often backed by armed militias—were turning to archaeological plunder; in some Dhi Qar towns, such as al-Fajr, the black market trade in antiquities was accounting for upward of 80 percent of the local economy.
Al-Sistani was sufficiently moved by Hamdani’s plea to pronounce a fatwa. He proclaimed that digging for antiquities is illegal; that both Islamic and pre-Islamic artifacts are part of Iraqi heritage; and that people who have antiquities in their possession should return them to the museum in Baghdad or in Nasiriya, the capital of Dhi Qar province. Copies of the fatwa were distributed widely in the south, and published in the Iraqi press. “At this point some of the looters stopped their work, because when Ayatollah al-Sistani says something, they listen,” Hamdani said.
The fatwa was a small victory in what has been, for Hamdani, a largely intractable struggle to save one of the deep sources of human culture. Settling in the southern part of what the Greeks later called Mesopotamia some six thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Sumerians developed year-round cultivation, built the earliest city-states, and devised a complex system of writing. Over time, the area came under the sway of the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians; later, it fell under Persian and Hellenistic influence before the Islamic conquest in the seventh century. Left behind were the rich remains of history and literature, often in the form of baked mud-brick tablets covered with wedge-shaped script called cuneiform; and small engraved seals—cylinder-shaped objects made of imported hematite, lapis lazuli, and other semiprecious stones that, when rolled onto wet clay or other soft material, produce intricate and often stunningly beautiful impressions of ancient life and ritual.
Remote and mostly lacking in monumental architecture above ground, the buried cities in which this material was preserved withstood centuries of violence, from the arrival of Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BC to the Mongol invasion in 1258. An absence of much subsequent urban development also meant that the archaeological record was unusually clear. Yet since 2003, several important sites have been destroyed beyond recognition; perhaps tens of thousands of cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets have been removed and channeled into the underground art market.
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