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[casi-analysis] casi-news digest, Vol 1 #138 - 1 msg

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Today's Topics:

   1. Guardian Unlimited: Days of plunder (Kamil Mahdi)


Message: 1
From: Kamil Mahdi <>
Subject: Guardian Unlimited: Days of plunder
Date: Tue, 31 Aug 2004 00:42:02 +0100 (GMT Standard Time)

To see this story with its related links on the Guardian Unlimited site, go=

Days of plunder
Coalition forces are doing little to prevent the widespread looting and des=
truction of Iraq's world-famous historical sites
Zainab Bahrani
Tuesday August 31 2004
The Guardian

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban was met with an outcr=
y in the United States, Britain and the countries that form the coalition i=
n Iraq. Yet the coalition forces can now claim, among other things, the des=
truction of the legendary city of Babylon.

Ironically, the bombing campaign of 2003 had not damaged archeological site=
s. It was only in the aftermath, during the occupation, that the most exten=
sive cultural destruction took place. At first there was the looting of the=
 museums under the watch of coalition troops, but that was to be followed b=
y more extensive and active destruction.

Active damage of the historical record is ongoing at several archeological =
sites occupied as military camps. At Babylon, I have seen the continuing co=
nstruction projects, the removal of and digging into the ancient mounds ove=
r the past three months, despite a coalition press release early in June st=
ating that work would halt, and the camp would be removed.

A helicopter landing zone, built in the heart of the ancient city, removed =
layers of archeological earth from the site. The daily flights of the helic=
opters rattle the ancient walls and the winds created by their rotors blast=
 sand against the fragile bricks. When my colleague at the site, Maryam Mou=
ssa, and I asked military personnel in charge that the helipad be shut down=
, the response was that it had to remain open for security reasons, for the=
 safety of the troops.

Between May and August, the wall of the Temple of Nabu and the roof of the =
Temple of Ninmah, both sixth century BC, collapsed as a result of the movem=
ent of helicopters. Nearby, heavy machines and vehicles stand parked on the=
 remains of a Greek theatre from the era of Alexander of Macedon. The minis=
ter of culture has asked for the removal of military bases from all archeol=
ogical sites, but none has yet been relocated.

Iraq is ancient Mesopotamia, otherwise called the "cradle of civilisation".=
 It has more than 10,000 listed archeological sites, as well as hundreds of=
 medieval and Ottoman Muslim, Christian and Jewish monuments. The coalition=
 did not establish a means of guarding the sites, though they would be prot=
ected in any other country rich in antiquities. As a result, archeological =
sites are being looted to an extent previously unimagined.

The looting supplies the appetites of an international illicit trade in ant=
iquities, and many objects end up in places like Geneva, London, Tokyo and =
New York. The lack of border controls has only added to the ease with which=
 the illegal trade in Mesopotamian artefacts functions. The looting leaves =
the sites bulldozed and pitted with robber holes. Ancient walls, artefacts,=
 scientific data are all destroyed in the process.

But it is not only the stolen artefacts that are lost. The loss of this dat=
a is the loss of the ancient history of this land. Many important Sumerian =
and Babylonian cities have been irreversibly damaged in this way already. P=
assive destruction of this kind has been widespread under the occupation, b=
ut antiquity is not the only area of concern.

In Baghdad, the National Library and State Archives building is a burned-ou=
t shell in which the employees work in the most horrendous conditions. The =
Ottoman archive that records the history of the country, spanning the 16th =
to the early 20th centuries, is in the gravest danger. Having been soaked b=
y flooding last year, the archive began to mould. Upon the advice of conser=
vators, the entire archive was removed to freezers to stop the mould.

Because of the lack of electricity and equipment, the only place that could=
 be found with large freezers, and where power could be maintained, was an =
abandoned and bombed building that had previously been a Ba'athist officers=
' club. In Iraq, where it is not unusual for temperatures to soar up to 60C=
 (140F) in summer, and where the Coalition Provisional Authority never mana=
ged to restore the electrical power to the country, this was no small feat.

The power in Baghdad (outside the US-occupied presidential palace and embas=
sy buildings) is available, sporadically, about nine hours a day. If the ar=
chives should thaw, the documents will be destroyed. The conservation proce=
ss needs to be done in a time- and climate-controlled manner if the archive=
 is to be saved. But the Coalition Provisional Authority reassigned ownersh=
ip of this building to the ministry of justice. There is now still no place=
 to move this archive to, the loss of which would be the loss of the modern=
 historical records of Iraq, much of which has not been studied or publishe=

In the midst of the disasters of Iraq under occupation, the condition of it=
s cultural heritage may seem a trivial matter. But, as a historian of antiq=
uity, I am painfully aware that there is no parallel for the amount of hist=
orical destruction that has taken place over the past 15 months in Iraq. Th=
e Geneva and Hague conventions make the protection of heritage the responsi=
bility of the foreign powers during occupation. Instead, what we have seen =
under the occupation is a general policy of neglect and even an active dest=
ruction of the historical and archeological record of the land.

&#183; Zainab Bahrani is professor of ancient near eastern art history and =
archaeology, Columbia University

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