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The Devastation of Iraq’s Past

According to several archaeologists I spoke to, the support of their sheiks has been crucial to turning the plunder of artifacts from a criminal activity into what tribesmen now view as a legitimate form of income. A dealer in one of the market towns might pay five or ten dollars for small inscribed objects and fragments; a cylinder seal of particular beauty, or an intact cuneiform tablet, might get as much as fifty dollars—about half the monthly salary of an Iraqi civil servant. The dealers would in turn sell the objects to smugglers for many times their original value; by the time they reach the international art market, such objects could be worth four, five, or even six figures. Stone sculptures, which are relatively rare, might be worth far more.6

Tribes in the south often regard the ancient sites as part of their own land, and for some of them, these prices have made the harvesting of objects—from soil that is otherwise no longer arable —seemingly irresistible. “Most of the tribes approve of the looting,” Donny George, the former director of the State Board of Antiquities, told me. (He was forced to leave Iraq in 2006 and is now a visiting professor at Stony Brook.) “And they control the towns where the antiquities trade is run.”

That al-Sistani has been moved to intervene, moreover, suggests that some of those involved have attempted to use religious authority to give legitimacy to their digging. Behind the tribal activity in northwest Dhi Qar, then, is also a larger story about the fate of the Shiites—and the ancient land they inhabit—in the final years of Saddam’s Iraq.7

2.

In a 1979 speech, Saddam Hussein declared that “antiquities are the most precious relics the Iraqis possess, showing the world that our country…is the legitimate offspring of previous civilizations which offered a great contribution to humanity.” Saddam’s heavy-handed efforts to turn Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar into forebears for Baathist expansionism are well known. (A better model might have been the Assyrian tyrant Assurnasirpal II, whose reign of terror in the ninth century BC included mass incinerations of the civilian populations he conquered.) Still, the Iraqi dictatorship maintained one of the more successful archaeology administrations in the Middle East. The State Board of Antiquities was well funded; several generations of Iraqi archaeologists worked closely with their Western counterparts at sites across Iraq; a large and flourishing museum establishment was developed; and site looting was virtually nonexistent. (Saddam would later decree that looting was punishable by death.)

In his informative recent book, Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq, Magnus T. Bernhardsson, a historian at Williams College, suggests that this privileging of Mesopotamian history was owed in part to the controversial legacy of the British Mandate in the 1920s. An important aim of British power in the region, he observes, was securing unfettered access to ancient sites, although Gertrude Bell’s farsighted policy of dividing the spoils with the Iraqi state made possible a remarkable era of archaeological discovery. It also helped bring the Mesopotamian heritage to the forefront of Iraqi politics, to the point that, by the 1970s, the Baathist regime could view the pre-Islamic past as a way to construct an Arab nationalist ideology that transcended sectarian differences that the regime violently suppressed. Amply funded by the oil boom, Sumerian and Babylonian sites in the south were for the most part carefully maintained, and, according to several archaeologists I spoke to who worked in Iraq at the time, were often a source of local pride.

All of this changed, however, with Saddam Hussein’s brutal crackdown on Shiites after the first Gulf War. During the 1991 uprisings that were encouraged by the US, Shiites (along with their Kurdish counterparts in the north) attacked and looted a number of regional state museums, which were associated with the regime. While archaeological sites were not immediately targeted in this way, Saddam’s ensuing punishment of the south—which destroyed the region’s fragile agricultural economy—had devastating effects. “Saddam was telling the people of southern Iraq, ‘it’s not your civilization,’” Hamdani recalled. “And if it’s not your civilization, why protect it?”

Neglected sites in areas populated by impoverished farmers provided an opportunity for the international antiquities market. Together with small sculptures and Mesopotamian jewelry, cuneiform tablets or fragments containing mathematical or literary texts were attaining prices in the tens of thousands of dollars. Of even greater interest were cylinder seals, which had been actively pursued since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when J.P. Morgan had been a major buyer; in the 1990s, there were several international collectors acquiring them in large quantities. An auction of Near Eastern cylinder seals at Christie’s in 2001 netted close to $1.5 million, with top lots—such as a green serpentine seal, from the late third millennium, containing a remarkable depiction of bejeweled Akkadian deities; or an obsidian seal, from the thirteenth century BC, showing a Kassite aristocrat leading two restive horses—selling for well over $100,000.

By the mid-1990s, archaeologists were frequently identifying Iraqi material in auction catalogs and private galleries in London and New York, including clay tablets that, they said, clearly came from recent excavations at sites in Dhi Qar, such as Umma.8 “It will forever be considered a marvel,” the archaeologist John Russell writes in the catalog to “Catastrophe!,” “that at the same time the United States was enforcing against Iraq the most rigorous sanctions regime in history…tens of thousands of previously undocumented Iraqi antiquities were sold openly on the US market.”

The UN sanctions regime also made it possible for looters and smugglers to operate with impunity. “The no fly zone in the south of Iraq was essential to the trade,” the archaeologist McGuire Gibson writes in The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, a new volume of essays by different authors who have followed the crisis. “Without [Iraqi] helicopter surveillance, it was very difficult for the Iraqi authorities to control the countryside.” Objects were leaving the country through Jordan, Syria, and Kurdistan, as well as the Gulf; most of the material was headed for the West.

In fact, this activity had begun to be brought under control in the years preceding the Iraq war. In 1999, with new funds from the UN Oil-for-Food Program, Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities began hiring local people to do year-round excavations at Umma and several other of the most vulnerable sites. The idea was that those formerly involved in looting could be trained to work as archaeologists—and given an alternative source of income. Donny George, who directed several of these excavations, told me that the looting did stop, and important recovery work was done. But as the Iraqi regime began to prepare for invasion in late 2002, the rescue excavations were shut down. Worse, there were now well-trained teams of local diggers who knew what to look for and where.

3.

In the weeks following the US-led invasion and the sacking of the Iraq Museum in April 2003, the international press began to report large-scale looting at several archaeological sites in southern Iraq. In late May, a front-page story in The New York Times described how the remains of the Sumerian city of Isin, northwest of Nasiriya, were being destroyed by “mobs of treasure hunters.” The plunder was attributed to the general “anarchy and lawlessness” that followed the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime —a further instance of the looting that had occurred in Baghdad a few weeks earlier.

In fact, what appears to have been taking place at Isin was less anarchic rampage than an organized enterprise involving entire tribes and their communities. In another essay in The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, a Lebanese journalist and archaeologist, describes her visit to a number of sites in the south in May 2003. “Dhi Qar,” she writes, was

under the total control of the looters and antiquities dealers. Heavily armed, they controlled the main roads leading to the biggest archaeological sites thereby providing security for their “employees.” These were hundreds of farmers who had left behind their families to actually live on the sites and search for antiquities…. Their days started before sunrise for a few hours, and then the heat would force them to stop until late afternoon when a second shift would begin, continuing until late into the night. They were well equipped: they carried shovels and hammers, and they had made their own lamps run off car batteries.

Largely ignored by Coalition troops stationed in the south, this mass mobilization had created a new looting economy controlled by the tribal hierarchies and the dealers they worked with. Archaeologists who witnessed the looting in 2003 and 2004 have pointed out that they had to have the authorization of the local sheik even to gain access to a site. But there also was another important source of legitimacy for this former capital offense: the religious and sectarian parties the invasion had brought into power.

As was the case in the 1991 uprising, the looting of Baghdad in April 2003 was partly motivated by animosity toward the Saddam regime. Targets included ministries, office buildings, the houses of Baathist leaders, and official cars, as well as institutions like the Iraq Museum and, tragically, the National Library, which was looted and burned; and many of those involved were angry young Shiites from Sadr City. In his informative new account of the Sadrist movement, Patrick Cockburn, a veteran Iraq correspondent, describes Muqtada al-Sadr’s startling response to the mass looting of state property:

The looters became universally known in Iraq as al-Hawasim, meaning “the finalists.” The term was a derisive reference to Saddam Hussein’s claim that an American invasion of Iraq would provoke “a final battle.” In May, Muqtada issued what became known as the al-Hawasim fatwa, saying that looters could hold on to what they had expropriated so long as they made a donation (khums) of one-fifth of its value to their local Sadrist office.

It remains unclear whether there were explicit edicts along these lines in reference to archaeological sites. But Iraqi officials I spoke to say that local religious leaders affiliated with the Sadrist movement have condoned the antiquities trade insofar as it produces funds and does not—in theory—involve Islamic material. “Some of the followers of Sadr were writing on banners at some of the archaeological sites that [Muqtada] does not stop anyone from looting if they would sell [the looted objects] to get weapons or build a mosque,” Donny George told me. For Hamdani, it became clear that to change the local plunder economy, he would need the tribal and religious authorities on his side. He cultivated ties to the sheiks; he began visiting mosques in the principal black market towns, to try to get the message out in Friday sermons; and then he decided to call on the Ayatollah al-Sistani himself.

Since many poor Shiites in the south are not followers of al-Sistani, his fatwa against looting did not solve the problem. But it did result in a remarkable breakthrough: a looter who had been moved by al-Sistani’s order contacted the museum in Nasiriya, where Hamdani was stationed. “He told me he had a lot of information about the smugglers and the black market,” Hamdani said. Hamdani gave him a digital camera and a Global Positioning System device that looked like a cell phone and sent him back to work. He became a key informant for the State Board of Antiquities, providing photographs and locations about diggers and the people who hired them. With the help of Italian forces then stationed in the south, dozens of arrests were made, and hundreds of antiquities were recovered. But the Italians left in 2006, leaving unanswered a more perplexing question: Where was all the looted material going?

4.

In late January, I was taken to a large warehouse in East Amman, the working-class part of the Jordanian capital that has absorbed tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees since the war began. The warehouse was owned by the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, and it was full of Iraqi materials: Aramaic incantation bowls, Akkadian seals, Old Babylonian agricultural records, stone sculptures, Sassanian glass, Parthian jewelry, Roman and Islamic coins, and other antiquities— some of them marked with labels from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.9

Along with other neighboring states, Jordan is frequently mentioned as one of the principal gateways for illicit archaeological material from Iraq, and these objects, confiscated by Jordanian officials in only a handful of seizures, give some idea of the extent of the cross-border trade in looted cultural property. (Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, who has spent the last five years rebuilding this institution in war-torn Baghdad, told me that he had been contacted by a person in Amman who claimed to have some important documents stolen from its holdings. He wanted to sell them back to the library for $50,000.)

Yet perhaps most interesting about the artifacts in the warehouse was their variable quality. Among some important pieces, there was a lot of junk, and the Jordanian archaeologist who accompanied me suggested that a number of the artifacts were modern fakes. Most had been confiscated in the months immediately following the invasion, and some of them appear to have been in possession of everyday refugees who had little sense of their value. Fawwaz al-Khraysheh, the director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, told me that no major seizures of looted artifacts have occurred since 2004.

Several people who are familiar with the antiquities market in the region suggest that larger smugglers are not working through Jordan, which is relatively far from the principal area of looting and which, together with Syria, has cooperated with Iraq on policing antiquities theft. (In late April, Syria returned to Iraq some seven hundred antiquities confiscated since 2003; in June, Jordan returned more than two thousand objects, including those I had seen in Amman.) Rather, the principal smuggling routes appear to be across the Iranian and other southern borders, to the Persian Gulf, where the material might be “warehoused” for a number of years, or privately sold with few questions asked.

As the Persian Gulf states, funded by the oil boom, have become Middle East trade hubs, they have also quickly developed into centers of art and antiquities collecting. According to a cuneiform scholar I spoke to with extensive contacts in the Middle East, a prominent Kuwaiti sheik has amassed a large collection of Mesopotamian artifacts, including much recently looted material from Iraq. Another destination may be Israel. The country is known for its liberal approach to the antiquities trade; one American curator told me it is possible to buy “virtually anything” in Jerusalem’s old markets. In September 2005, Israeli officials seized a container full of looted Iraqi artifacts at the airport in Tel Aviv. The Israeli press reported that it had passed through Dubai and London, and was the largest such seizure in Israeli history.

Iraqis themselves suggest that the most plausible smuggling routes have been through Iran and Kurdistan. Donny George observes that the governments of Iran and Turkey have until now demonstrated little interest in policing their borders for antiquities smugglers, and Kurdish and Iranian dealers are believed to be involved in the trade. Since the 2003 invasion, moreover, large numbers of Iranians have been making pilgrimages to Najaf, Karbala, and other Shiite holy sites, creating cross-border traffic that facilitates smuggling.

Some of this material has already reached Western shores. Since 2003, Britain and the United States have had bans in force against trading in recently surfaced Iraqi antiquities, and unlike during the 1990s there have not been large auctions featuring cuneiform tablets and other Mesopotamian material. Even eBay has taken measures to prevent trading in looted artifacts.10 Yet newly surfaced Iraqi material—in particular objects of lower and middle value—has been traded on the Internet, through smaller on-line auction and gallery sites. In recent Google searches, I found several Web sites that sell foundation cones—small cone-shaped objects covered with dedicatory inscriptions that were embedded in the walls of important buildings in the third and early second millennia—and other cuneiform artifacts for prices ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Some are identified as coming from particular sites in “Southern Mesopotamia.”

5.

For several years now, archaeologists and cultural property specialists, as well as nongovernment groups such as UNESCO and the World Monuments Fund (which in 2006 took the unprecedented step of putting Iraq as an entire country on its list of most endangered sites), have been voicing alarm about the rapid destruction of Iraq’s ancient past. These efforts, many of which are documented in a new collection of policy-minded essays, Antiquities Under Siege, have done much to keep this neglected aspect of the Iraq crisis in view. They have also underlined the failures of US and British forces to plan for—and, after the invasion, to provide—even basic protection of archaeological sites.

Yet in reading these essays, one often senses a detachment from the reality of what has been happening in Iraq. Since the bombing of the Samarra mosque in early 2006—itself a terrifying indication of the degree to which cultural monuments have become part of the war—foreign cultural officials have largely avoided travel outside of the main cities and military bases. UNESCO’s Iraq office, for example, has for some time occupied a temporary facility in Amman; when I visited officials there early this year, I was told that travel to Iraq had been strictly limited for security reasons.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, the cultural administration has suffered from larger power struggles within the Iraqi government. In 2006, the State Board of Antiquities was subsumed into a new Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, which has been controlled by the Sadrist bloc in parliament. The ministry has shown little interest in providing resources for site protection, and “tourism” appears to refer mainly to pilgrimages to Islamic shrines. By late 2007, there was very little fuel available to gas up the trucks that had been supplied by a private American foundation and by UNESCO for Iraqi patrols of archaeological sites.

Today, there are signs that the worst looting may be over. To the extent that the excavations have produced the quantity of material estimated by Elizabeth Stone, the underground market has surely been saturated by now, bringing down prices. Stone and John Curtis also found that none of the eight sites they visited with British forces in June had been looted since the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Indeed, some of the damage discovered by the British expedition was a result not of looting, but of defensive positions that appear to have been dug by the Iraqi army shortly before the US-led invasion. In the case of Ur, the site has been protected from looting by an adjacent military air base, but has suffered degradation from the thousands of Coalition troops who until recently had open access to it. (A more shocking case of site damage by Coalition forces occurred in 2004 at Babylon, as documented by Zainab Bahrani, a scholar of Near Eastern art and archaeology at Columbia University.11 )

Of course, these findings provide scant consolation for what appears to have been one of the most concentrated and devastating episodes of archaeological destruction in modern history. In The Buried Book, his recent account of the rediscovery of The Epic of Gilgamesh, David Damrosch observes that the poem portrays Gilgamesh as one of the great kings of Sumer by emphasizing his accomplishments as “custodian of ancient cities and monuments that have to be maintained and repaired.” Indeed, in the prologue of the epic, the poet describes the story he is about to tell as an artifact of the past, to be discovered—as in fact it was by archaeologists in the nineteenth century—and carefully preserved:

[See] the tablet-box of cedar

[release] its clasp of bronze.

[Lift] the lid of its secret

[pick] up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out

the travails of Gilgamesh, all that he went through…

The example of Gilgamesh was forgotten in 2003, and we may never know how many other such “secrets” have been lost as a result.

—July 15, 2008

Letters

The Devastation of Iraq’ October 23, 2008

  1. 6

    In December 2007 a three-and-a-half- inch limestone Standing Lioness Demon, dating from the beginning of the third millennium and said to be found near Baghdad in the early twentieth century, sold at Sotheby’s for $57 million, an auction record for an antiquity or piece of sculpture.

  2. 7

    Notwithstanding claims made in the press, a direct connection between the plunder and Sunni insurgent groups appears unlikely, according to Iraqi officials I spoke to and to archaeologists who have studied the satellite evidence.

  3. 8

    The attraction of Umma, a city of great importance in the late third millennium, can be attributed to environmental factors as well. Covered by dunes for many decades, it had been inaccessible to archaeologists; but the shifting sands exposed it again by the 1990s, and it quickly became known among looters, as it had been early in the twentieth century, for its cuneiform tablets from the Ur III period. Around 20,000 tablets have been published from the site. I am grateful to Robert K. Englund for this point.

  4. 9

    Many of these works were helpfully catalogued by a research team from the Center for Archaeological Research and Excavations in Turin. See An Endangered Cultural Heritage: Iraqi Antiquities Recovered in Jordan, edited by Roberta Menegazzi (Florence: Le Lettere, 2005).

  5. 10

    In August 1990, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the UN mandated general sanctions on goods from Iraq. It was not until the second Iraq War, however, that legislation specific to Iraqi cultural property was enacted in the United States. In May 2003 the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for the return of cultural goods to Iraq and the prohibition of trade in such items. In 2004, the US Congress passed the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act, which allows the president to impose restrictions on the import of any artifacts illegally removed from Iraq after August 1990.

  6. 11

    Professor Bahrani, at the time an adviser to the Iraq Ministry of Culture stationed at Babylon, published her findings in “Days of Plunder,” The Guardian, August 31, 2004. See also the British Museum report on Babylon by John Curtis, who concludes that the site suffered “substantial damage” as a result of its occupation by Coalition forces, www.britishmuseum.org/the_museum/news_and_press_releases/statements/iraq_war/summary_of_activity_2003-4.aspx.

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