By Aisha El-Awady
The US-led war on Iraq has resulted in the looting and destruction of thousands of priceless historical and archeological relics from civilizations that date as far back as 6000 years ago. Paul Zimansky, an archaeologist of the University of Boston, described the loss of such irreplaceable exhibits as “a wide-scale catastrophe.”
The extent of damage caused by the bombings and looting is not yet known, but in a country that contains from 10,000 to 100,000 ancient sites, any bombing must have resulted in damage especially since a large number of the country’s relics are found in Mosul, Tikrit, and Nasiriya, which were all sites of heavy bombing during the war.
What’s at stake?
Mesopotamia, the ancient land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, is considered the cradle of Western civilization. This region was the center of the first civilizations, those of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians. These cultures built cities and developed irrigation systems, a legal system, a postal service, a system of writing and also explored sciences such as astronomy and mathematics. In later times, Baghdad also played a role as a center of Islamic learning and civilization.
According to archaeologist McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, “The whole country is an archaeological site….People don't understand that Iraq is more important than Egypt in world heritage.”
The bombings and the looting that occurred after the war have caused substantial harm to unique cultural heritage in the form of damage or loss of irreplaceable artifacts, ancient structures and archeological sites.
During the first Gulf War, US bombing of Iraq damaged a number of ancient and historic structures, such as the damage caused by shellfire to the brickwork of the ziggurat at Ur, which was built in 2100 B.C. Ziggurats were temple towers and were the first major building structures of the Sumerians. They were constructed of sun-baked mud bricks and were usually colorfully decorated with glazed fired brick. The ziggurat housed the city-state's patron god.
Other structures destroyed include thousand-year-old bridges in Baghdad, and a 10th century church in Mosul that was partially destroyed. The 13th century Mustansiriya and the Kaplannya Mosque in Baghdad and a 4,500-year-old royal cemetery were also seriously damaged. The extent of damage resulting from the bombings in this recent war on Iraq has yet to be discovered.
Following the war, looters ransacked and set fire to Iraq's National Library, turning to ash priceless books, including Ottoman historical documents. They also raided and burned Iraq's main Islamic Library, which contained Qur’ans from the very early Islamic period.
The looters also destroyed or stole priceless artifacts from the National Museum. Among the works missing are tablets containing the Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest known codes of law. King Hammurabi, who became ruler of Mesopotamia in 1792 B.C., had the code carved upon an eight-foot-high black stone monument. It provided uniformity among the various city-states.
Other missing artifacts include a 4,000-year-old copper head of an Akkadian king, golden bowls, bejeweled lyres, colossal statues, and ancient cuneiform tablets containing some of the first examples of written words.
The Anglo-American forces have drawn criticism and worldwide condemnation for their failure to stop and prevent the looting and destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage.
At a recent news conference, Gibson revealed that he had received unconfirmed information that some looted items were already on sale in Paris and Iran. "It looks like part of the theft was a very planned action, probably by the same gangs that have exploited and destroyed sites in Iraq over the past 12 years," said Gibson, "I have a suspicion it is organized from outside the country by people who pay those in the country to loot the sites. People have no money and will do anything to feed their family. But once it was organized, there were 300 or 400 people working on a site."
Now that the war is over, an international group of archeologists and museum directors has decided to send a fact-finding mission to Iraq in order to assess the damage inflicted upon the museums and archeological sites of the country.
UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has set up a special fund for the purpose of buying back stolen artifacts in Iraq. Italy has already donated $1 million, and France, Qatar, Egypt and Britain have made other offers of financial aid. UNESCO has also appealed for the tightening of controls on stolen artifacts by the World Customs Organization, Interpol, and neighboring countries.
The United Nation's cultural agency and the British Museum declared that teams will be sent to help in the restoration of the ransacked museums and artifacts, but no matter what measures are taken, the loss and damage to Iraq’s rich heritage is irreparable. Professor John Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art expressed it this way: “In a sense, it is a total war against the past. History is being erased, with no possibility of being recovered."