Thursday, May 22, 2008


Copyright (c) 2008 The Daily Star
Friday, May 16, 2008
Experts assess extent of Iraq's cultural catastrophe five years after the US invasion
The priceless archaeological treasures of Mesopotamia are still being plundered

By John White
Special to The Daily Star

Excerpts from the article:


Donny George Youkhanna, Iraq's most prominent archaeologist and National Museum director in 2003, called the looting "the crime of the century." He said that some 14,000 objects, a dozen of them "world-class masterpieces," were plundered from the National museum. Fewer than half have been located and some of the most prized treasures have vanished into the hidden world of the private art collector, possibly never to be seen again.

George was forced to flee with his family to Syria on August 27, 2006, thence to the US, because of alleged threats from the Shiite Islamists who by then ran Iraq. He is now visiting professor of anthropology at Stony Brook State University in New York.

After five years, robber gangs still loot Iraq's cultural heritage at the estimated 11,000 archaeological sites across the country, with dealers buying the protection of the clans who control large tracts of the country. A 1,400-strong Mobile Archaeological Site Protection Force was mustered in 2006 but it proved to totally ineffective - usually outgunned by the gangs, its men poorly paid and motivated. Security officials estimate that it would take a force of 50,000-75,000 to protect the sites properly - and there's little prospect of that amid the chaos of Iraq.

Most are massive quarrying operations with bulldozers, mechanical diggers and dump trucks. They are operating in broad daylight with virtual impunity since protecting these sites is low on US security priorities. Many of the plundered sites are now barren, cratered moonscapes because of the holes dug by the looters.

This rape of Mesopotamia's fabled history, archaeologists say, is probably more devastating than the pillaging of the museums because priceless artifacts that cast light on mankind's origins are being lost, so that experts cannot piece together how ancient societies developed.

"We may never know how many Gilgamesh-like epics have been lost," lamented Mehiyar Kathem, a fundraiser for the Cultural Heritage Awareness Initiative, a project of the Baghdad-based educational non-governmental organization Culture For All. He calls the wholesale looting "one of the greatest catastrophes to befall humanity."

McGuire Gibson, a professor of Mesopotamian history at the University of Chicago who has led major archaeological projects in Iraq, estimated in early 2007 that up to 15,000 objects were being taken daily from these sites.

Matthew Bogdanos, a New York assistant district attorney and a colonel in the US Marine Corps reserve helped stem the chaos in the Museum in 2003. During a two-day United Nations conference in Athens on returning antiquities to their countries of origin, Bogdanos said there were "undeniable" links between the smuggling and extremist groups. "The Taliban uses opium to finance their activities in Afghanistan," he said. "Well, they don't have opium in Iraq. What they have an almost limitless supply of is antiquities."

Security officials are skeptical about the extent that profits from the illicit sale of antiquities fund the insurgency. Donny George talks of "a huge mafia for smuggling antiquities" and says "there are a lot of people inside Iraq" near the plundered sites "buying these things from the looters there. They're not Iraqis. They're Europeans." Other corrupt dealers, he says, have operated from Iran, Turkey, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

According to Lebanese archaeologist Joanne Farchakh-Bajjaly - a tireless campaigner for international action to help staunch this archaeological catastrophe, who helped document the stolen treasures - says the looters have ransacked sites of 4,000-year-old Sumerian cities in the south. "In the Nassariyya area alone, there are about 840 Sumerian sites. They have all been systematically looted," she said. The robber gangs have not spared "one meter of these Sumerian capitals that have been buried under the sand for thousands of years.

Farchakh warns that the looting is eradicating the ancient history of Mesopotamia. These days, she says, "the robbers are destroying everything because they're going down to bedrock. What's new is that the looters are becoming more and more organized, apparently with lots of money.

"Quite apart from this, military operations are damaging these sites forever. There's been a US base at 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."


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