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Iraq's archaeological heritage

This article by Kevin Tibbles gives insight into the sad fate of part of
Iraq's cultural heritage as a result of the ongoing war. "In a sense, it
is a total war against the past.", says Professor John Russell of the
Massachusetts College of Art: "History is being erased, with no
possibility of being recovered."

[Note: the web-site at which I found this article has an insert on
sanctions and their effect on Iraqi economy and society:  it's been
tastelessly dubbed "Iraq theatre" but see]

Iraq's ancient Babylon bites the dust: Priceless artifacts go missing
amid isolation and turmoil
By Kevin Tibbles, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT                              

BABYLON, Iraq, Feb. 19 -  Within the borders of present-day Iraq,
thousands of years before the West's showdown with Saddam Hussein, stood
the ancient civilization of Babylon. Once recounted in myths as the
"birthplace of the modern world," Iraq's so-called "cradle of
civilization" is now crumbling.

ANCIENT BABYLON, a site of Biblical lore a couple hours south of
Baghdad, is only one of more than 10,000 vital archeological sites in
Iraq that have fallen into complete disrepair. Scientists for hundreds
of years have made their way to modern-day Iraq's windswept deserts to
dig in the sands for answers to modern civilization's most perplexing

It was a team of German archeologists in the late 1800s that uncovered
much of Babylon's ancient palace and temples. The biblical Tower of
Babel once stood here, and historians still seek the secrets of the
famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the ancient wonders of the
world. "[Babylon] is where you have ... the first examples of writing,
the first villages, the first wheel, the first boats," says Moyad Said,
director of Baghdad's Iraqi Museum. Yet the 20th century turmoil that
now engulfs this troubled region threatens to destroy Babylon's history

Sanctions imposed on President Saddam Hussein [sic] by the West now
prevent scientists from visiting Iraq's treasured archeological sites.
There is little money to preserve and protect priceless remains, so
thousand-year-old structures sit abandoned. Clay bricks with
5,000-year-old wedge-shaped "cuneiform" writing on them from the days of
King Nebuchadnezzar, one of the most famous rulers of the ancient world,
are strewn in the sand.
But even more threatening to the history contained in these ancient
sites are thieves and profiteers who steal, loot and smuggle the
valuable artifacts out of the country to be sold to the highest bidder.
"What seems to be happening in Iraq is unprecedented in any Middle
Eastern country in modern times," says Professor John Russell of the
Massachusetts College of Art. "Namely, there is the wholesale looting of
famous and undiscovered archeological sites."  During the Gulf War,
priceless Babylon artifacts were removed for safekeeping from the Iraqi
Museum in Baghdad. The items have since disappeared, and display cases
sit dark and empty.

Prior to the Gulf War in the early 1990s, Russell helped excavate the
ancient city of Ninevah in northern Iraq. He documented what he found.
Recently, an Iraqi friend sent him photographs of the same site, showing
that all of its priceless historical beauty had been stolen. "History is
being erased, with no possibility of being recovered," Russell says. "In
a sense, it is a total war against the past." 

Many of the sites being looted have never been studied by scientists, so
when the goods are dug up and moved, the historical record is damaged.
There will be no record of where the piece came from or its significance
in relation to the area in which it was found. The Iraqis do not know
what to do to combat the looting. They are a people at once proud of
their history and devastated by what is taking place before them. The
Iraqi Museum's Said is visibly upset as he takes me on a walking tour of
his country's main museum in a now derelict Baghdad neighborhood. Row
upon row of display cases sit empty gathering dust. The glass cabinets
were emptied of their artifacts prior to the Gulf War for safekeeping
during the Allied bombing campaign, and many of the historical pieces
have simply vanished.

He pauses next to a 3,000-year-old "winged bull" - a stone statue 10
feet in height. The bull has been cut into 11 chunks, its value
virtually destroyed. "Who did this?" I ask. "This winged bull was cut up
by the thieves," Said responds, pointing to deep cuts in the reassembled
piece. "They used a mechanical saw to cut through here ... and here.
They were in the process of smuggling it out the country bit by bit
before they were caught." Said says the majority of smugglers get away
scot-free over Iraq's porous borders. Iraqis are so poor that they have
resorted to pick-pocketing their own history to survive, he says.
The priceless artifacts are not simply being scooped up and dumped onto
a black market to be peddled in the antique and curio shops of Western
Europe and North America. Nicholas Postgate of England's Cambridge
University says the black market also includes unscrupulous dealers who
pass the goods on to wealthy collectors for huge sums. "Sometimes it may
be obvious to any reasonable person that the artifact must have been
stolen," he says. "But because it can't be [proven] a dealer will say,
'Well, why should I worry?'" "[The artifacts] are gone, and are
presumably in some collector's collection out of sight of the rest of
the world," Postgate says.

Said says he can only hope that by the time Iraq manages to reconcile
itself with its Arab neighbors and the rest of the world, some of this
country's glorious history will be left. "We, in effect, will never be
able to study our past," he says. "Either the artifacts remain buried
under the sands forever, or they will be buried in the private vaults of
wealthy collectors. In the end, we may never see them again."

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