It is the death of history
Special investigation by Robert Fisk
2,000-year-old Sumerian cities torn apart and plundered by robbers.
The very walls of the mighty Ur of the Chaldees cracking under the
strain of massive troop movements, the privatisation of looting as
landlords buy up the remaining sites of ancient Mesopotamia to strip
them of their artefacts and wealth. The near total destruction of
Iraq's historic past the very cradle of human civilisation has
emerged as one of the most shameful symbols of our disastrous occupation.
Evidence amassed by archaeologists shows that even those Iraqis who
trained as archaeological workers in Saddam Hussein's regime are now
using their knowledge to join the looters in digging through the
ancient cities, destroying thousands of priceless jars, bottles and
other artefacts in their search for gold and other treasures.
In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, armies of looters moved in on
the desert cities of southern Iraq and at least 13 Iraqi museums were
plundered. Today, almost every archaeological site in southern Iraq is
under the control of looters.
In a long and devastating appraisal to be published in December,
Lebanese archaeologist Joanne Farchakh says that armies of looters
have not spared "one metre of these Sumerian capitals that have been
buried under the sand for thousands of years.
"They systematically destroyed the remains of this civilisation in
their tireless search for sellable artefacts: ancient cities, covering
an estimated surface area of 20 square kilometres, which if properly
excavated could have provided extensive new information concerning
the development of the human race.
"Humankind is losing its past for a cuneiform tablet or a sculpture or
piece of jewellery that the dealer buys and pays for in cash in a
country devastated by war. Humankind is losing its history for the
pleasure of private collectors living safely in their luxurious houses
and ordering specific objects for their collection."
Ms Farchakh, who helped with the original investigation into stolen
treasures from the Baghdad Archaeological Museum in the immediate
aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, says Iraq may soon end up with no
"There are 10,000 archaeological sites in the country. In the
Nassariyah area alone, there are about 840 Sumerian sites; they have
all been systematically looted. Even when Alexander the Great
destroyed a city, he would always build another. But now the robbers
are destroying everything because they are going down to bedrock.
What's new is that the looters are becoming more and more organised
with, apparently, lots of money.
"Quite apart from this, military operations are damaging these sites
forever. There's been a US base in Ur for five years and the walls are
cracking because of the weight of military vehicles. It's like putting
an archaeological site under a continuous earthquake."
Of all the ancient cities of present-day Iraq, Ur is regarded as the
most important in the history of man-kind. Mentioned in the Old
Testament and believed by many to be the home of the Prophet Abraham
it also features in the works of Arab historians and geographers
where its name is Qamirnah, The City of the Moon.
Founded in about 4,000 BC, its Sumerian people established the
principles of irrigation, developed agriculture and metal-working.
Fifteen hundred years later in what has become known as "the age of
the deluge" Ur produced some of the first examples of writing, seal
inscriptions and construction. In neighbouring Larsa, baked clay
bricks were used as money orders the world's first cheques the
depth of finger indentations in the clay marking the amount of money
to be transferred. The royal tombs of Ur contained jewellery, daggers,
gold, azurite cylindrical seals and sometimes the remains of slaves.
US officers have repeatedly said a large American base built at
Babylon was to protect the site but Iraqi archaeologist Zainab
Bah-rani, a professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia
University, says this "beggars belief". In an analysis of the city,
she says: "The damage done to Babylon is both extensive and
irreparable, and even if US forces had wanted to protect it, placing
guards round the site would have been far more sensible than
bulldozing it and setting up the largest coalition military
headquarters in the region."
Air strikes in 2003 left historical monuments undamaged, but Professor
Bahrani, says: "The occupation has resulted in a tremendous
destruction of history well beyond the museums and libraries looted
and destroyed at the fall of Baghdad. At least seven historical sites
have been used in this way by US and coalition forces since April
2003, one of them being the historical heart of Samarra, where the
Askari shrine built by Nasr al Din Shah was bombed in 2006."
The use of heritage sites as military bases is a breach of the Hague
Convention and Protocol of 1954 (chapter 1, article 5) which covers
periods of occupation; although the US did not ratify the Convention,
Italy, Poland, Australia and Holland, all of whom sent forces to Iraq,
are contracting parties.
Ms Farchakh notes that as religious parties gain influence in all the
Iraqi pro-vinces, archaeological sites are also falling under their
control. She tells of Abdulamir Hamdani, the director of antiquities
for Di Qar province in the south who desperately but vainly tried
to prevent the destruction of the buried cities during the occupation.
Dr Hamdani himself wrote that he can do little to prevent "the
disaster we are all witnessing and observing".
In 2006, he says: "We recruited 200 police officers because we were
trying to stop the looting by patrolling the sites as often as
possible. Our equipment was not enough for this mission because we
only had eight cars, some guns and other weapons and a few radio
transmitters for the entire province where 800 archaeological sites
have been inventoried.
"Of course, this is not enough but we were trying to establish some
order until money restrictions within the government meant that we
could no longer pay for the fuel to patrol the sites. So we ended up
in our offices trying to fight the looting, but that was also before
the religious parties took over southern Iraq."
Last year, Dr Hamdani's antiquities department received notice from
the local authorities, approving the creation of mud-brick factories
in areas surrounding Sumerian archaeological sites. But it quickly
became apparent that the factory owners intended to buy the land from
the Iraqi government because it covered several Sumerian capitals and
other archaeological sites. The new landlord would "dig" the
archaeological site, dissolve the "old mud brick" to form the new one
for the market and sell the unearthed finds to antiquity traders.
Dr Hamdani bravely refused to sign the dossier. Ms Farchakh says: "His
rejection had rapid consequences. The religious parties controlling
Nassariyah sent the police to see him with orders to jail him on
corruption charges. He was imprisoned for three months, awaiting
trial. The State Board of Antiquities and Heritage defended him during
his trial, as did his powerful tribe. He was released and regained his
position. The mud-brick factories are 'frozen projects', but reports
have surfaced of a similar strategy being employed in other cities and
in nearby archaeological sites such as the Aqarakouf Ziggarat near
Baghdad. For how long can Iraqi archaeologists maintain order? This is
a question only Iraqi politicians affiliated to the different
religious parties can answer, since they approve these projects."
Police efforts to break the power of the looters, now with a
well-organised support structure helped by tribal leaders, have proved
lethal. In 2005, the Iraqi customs arrested with the help of Western
troops several antiquities dealers in the town of Al Fajr, near
Nasseriyah. They seized hundreds of artefacts and decided to take them
to the museum in Baghdad. It was a fatal mistake.
The convoy was stopped a few miles from Baghdad, eight of the customs
agents were murdered, and their bodies burnt and left to rot in the
desert. The artefacts disappeared. "It was a clear message from the
antiquities dealers to the world," Ms Farchakh says.
The legions of antiquities looters work within a smooth mass-smuggling
organisation. Trucks, cars, planes and boats take Iraq's historical
plunder to Europe, the US, to the United Arab Emirates and to Japan.
The archaeologists say an ever-growing number of internet websites
offer Mesopotamian artefacts, objects anywhere up to 7,000 years old.
The farmers of southern Iraq are now professional looters, knowing how
to outline the walls of buried buildings and able to break directly
into rooms and tombs. The archaeologists' report says: "They have been
trained in how to rob the world of its past and they have been making
significant profit from it. They know the value of each object and it
is difficult to see why they would stop looting."
After the 1991 Gulf War, archaeologists hired the previous looters as
workers and promised them government salaries. This system worked as
long as the archaeologists remained on the sites, but it was one of
the main reasons for the later destruction; people now knew how to
excavate and what they could find.
Ms Farchakh adds: "The longer Iraq finds itself in a state of war, the
more the cradle of civilisation is threatened. It may not even last
for our grandchildren to learn from."
A land with fields of ancient pottery
By Joanne Farchakh, archaeologist
Iraq's rural societies are very different to our own. Their concept of
ancient civilisations and heritage does not match the standards set by
our own scholars. History is limited to the stories and glories of
your direct ancestors and your tribe. So for them, the "cradle of
civilisation" is nothing more than desert land with "fields" of
pottery that they have the right to take advantage of because, after
all, they are the lords of the land and, as a result, the owners of
its possessions. In the same way, if they had been able, these people
would not have hesitated to take control of the oil fields, because
this is "their land". Because life in the desert is hard and because
they have been "forgotten" by all the governments, their "revenge" for
this reality is to monitor, and take, every single money-making
opportunity. A cylinder seal, a sculpture or a cuneiform tablet earns
$50 (£25) and that's half the monthly salary of an average government
employee in Iraq. The looters have been told by the traders that if an
object is worth anything at all, it must have an inscription on it. In
Iraq, the farmers consider their "looting" activities to be part of a
normal working day.
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