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World View: Iraq's past being looted for cash

Monday, April 02, 2001

By Les Donison, Special to the Post-Gazette

MOSUL, Iraq -- Atop a hill near the heart of the city a guide from the Mosul Museum points to a depression in the reddish soil 50 yards to the right. Even the mid-morning sun seems drawn to this spot, where walls and foundations rise from the ground to whisper stories of an ancient time.

These are the excavated remains of the palace of Sennacherib, Assyrian king, who ruled one of the great ancient empires from what was then the storied city of Nineveh.

In 612 B.C., the Medes and Babylonians marched on Nineveh, site of modern-day Mosul. The city, including Sennacherib's glorious palace, was laid to waste.

Now, 2 1/2 millenniums later, the palace again is under attack -- not by foreign armies, but by looters desperate for cash.

"They are just destroying the heritage of mankind," says an exasperated Donny George, one of Iraq's foremost archaeologists. "They are crushing it, turning it into this stupid matter called dollars. For me, this has been the worst 10 years of my life."

When the United Nations hit Iraq with sweeping economic sanctions for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait, no one imagined the ensuing destruction that would befall thousands of the country's archaeological treasures.

Almost overnight world-famous sites such as Babylon, Hatra, Umma, Ur and Nineveh became targets of looters. "Not only are things being destroyed," says Prof. John Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art, "but the accumulation of knowledge at a breathtaking speed has been replaced by destruction at the same sort of pace."

The story is not a simple one. Rather, it is top-heavy in irony. It begins in the arid sands of the Iraqi landscape and ends in the lush private domains of wealthy art collectors.

First, the irony: Saddam Hussein, the ruthless megalomaniac who's ruled this country since 1979, is actually a friend of archaeology.

Virtually no illegal trade in Iraqi antiquities existed when Saddam first came to power. He not only meant to keep it that way, he also set about ensuring the country's rich heritage would be accessible to all Iraqis. Rather than storing all of the nation's prized possessions in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, he ordered the establishment of more than a dozen regional museums that would house important local pieces and draw steady streams of school groups through their doors.

Archaeology flourished.

Then came the invasion of Kuwait, economic sanctions and the Gulf War. Archaeological work skid to a halt. The regional museums were closed. The destruction began.

Coalition forces caused some damage. At Ur of the Chaldees in the south, bombs from allied aircraft left large craters in the site reputed to be the birthplace of Abraham. A Babylonian temple was pelted with over 400 rounds of machine-gun fire. Trenching and bulldozing took place at Tell el-Lahm in the north.

Following the war, uprisings against Saddam sprouted -- primarily in the north and south of Iraq -- and during the chaos, most of the regional museums were looted, some burnt to the ground.

Looting continues nonstop.

The culprits come in various forms. Some are desperate Iraqis looking to turn a quick buck to feed their families. Others are part of highly organized, well-armed teams that target the most profitable of the country's 10,000 archaeological sites, only a handful of which are guarded. Guards are bribed or shot.

In contrast to the careful, time-consuming methods of modern archaeological excavation, antiquity bandits often use heavy, earth-moving equipment, even dynamite, to extract their booty from the ground. Sometimes hammers suffice.

Prior to the war, George and Russell worked together at Nineveh, producing a complete photographic catalogue of the palace reliefs. The reliefs were in such good condition that they were left at the site rather than moved inside a museum.

Today the evidence of looting is plain to see. The ground inside the palace throne room is littered with the hammered remains of reliefs. To escape with their prizes, looters first smashed the heavy stone slabs into smaller, easy-to-carry chunks.

"This was part of a palace of an emperor who was encouraging science and literature," George says incredulously. "Now it's been destroyed by a hammer."

The destruction is not only physical. The "accumulation of knowledge" ceases the moment the object, whether it be a chunk of relief or a buried sliver of pottery, is moved from its context.

"It's as if you took something out of Versailles and just put it out on the market," explains McGuire Gibson, a professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago. "I mean, what do you learn?"

George, also an official with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, says that some 10,000 looted objects have been seized at the border, "but we believe even double that, or more, has got out."

In the Iraq Museum in Baghdad lies evidence of what George calls "the crime of the century." In 1994, archaeologists digging at Khorsabad, a city built by Sennacherib's father, Sargon II, found a huge, stone statue of a winged bull. It was in excellent condition.

With the onset of the winter rainy season, they decided to bury the statue and return later when the ground was firmer and it would be easier to move the statue to a museum. Bandits moved in and used saws to decapitate the bull. Next, they chopped the head into 11 pieces for easier transport. Caught attempting to cross the border, the looters were executed.

Today, the bull's head sits in the Iraq Museum awaiting the arrival of a team of German specialists who will attempt to reconstruct it.

Had the head made it across the Iraqi border, there's virtually no chance it would have ever been returned to Iraq. According to George, the usual route sees such pieces first moved to England for evaluation, then to Switzerland for auction, then into the hands of a private purchaser, most often an American, Japanese or Israeli. The Internet and small antiquities shops, especially in London, are used as clearinghouses.

"The biggest problem you have," according to Gibson, "is that some of the biggest collectors are also major millionaires, and they're major contributors to all sorts of political campaigns. They're movers and shakers. They also happen to collect stolen goods."

Trade in stolen antiquities is a multibillion-dollar business. To date, there has been little international movement toward solving the problem. After the Gulf War, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization sought to enter Iraq to study the escalating problem. The U.N. Security Council sanctions committee denied the request.

"We are often asked the question, 'Why protect monuments when people are dying?'" says Lyndel Prott, a UNESCO official in Paris. "The reason is, the people who are dying ring us up and say, 'Please protect our monuments.' If people feel that strongly about their heritage, we don't feel the international community can simply stand back and say, 'It's not important. As long as you're not dying, that's all that counts.' "

In fact, George says, even as Iraqis suffer economic deprivation they are rediscovering pride in their heritage. Some buy cultural artifacts on the black market, then turn them over to the government -- a costly method of keeping them from disappearing abroad.

Fortunately, looting has started to decline, perhaps as much as 70 percent, from its heyday in the early- to mid-1990s. And four regional museums are operating again, although they're now stocked with photographs and copies rather than original pieces. The originals that remain are now safely stored at the Iraq Museum.

George's spirits are higher nowadays for another reason. He's back doing what he loves most, sifting through the sands of time, reveling in the magic of discovery, armed to the teeth like Indiana Jones.

During much of the 1990s, George's site near Umma, dubbed "The City of the Graves", was robbed almost daily. Two years ago he decided to fight back, to, as he put it, "put ourselves into the mouth of the lion."

Gathering up assorted weapons, he, his team and a phalanx of guards returned to the site to resume their work. They weren't bothered any more.

"We found out the best way to protect these sites is to be there . . . defending our own home, our own house," George says.

Armed archaeologists had similar success at 15 sites last year. George expects the number of protected sites to double this year.

"To stop my profession that I love, it was a great loss for me personally. But now I'm optimistic. I'm so happy that we are back on our feet again."


Les Donison, a Canadian free-lance writer from Avonlea, Saskatchewan, recently returned from Amman, Jordan.



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