Current Affairs - Iraq



Iraqi Cultural Heritage in Peril

Egypt and Mesopotamia are two of the earliest centres of agriculture and state formation in the world, comparable with each other on many levels, together they constitute the crucible where civilisation was forged. Mesopotamia lies between the twin rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates, and saw the rise of the ancient civilisations of Sumer in the South, Akkadia in the centre and Assyria in the north. The inheritors of those great civilisations are the Iraqi people, whose country’s borders roughly equate with those of ancient Mesopotamia. Like Egypt, Iraq has around 500,000 sites and monuments ranging from the Palaeolithic through the birth of state (c. 3,500 BC) to the rise of Islam, although only 10,000 of these sites and monuments are known and catalogued.

In the last Gulf War (1991) negligible damage was done to monuments although the important city of Ur had a bomb crater in front of it and the famous ziggurat was strafed with bullets, however in the consequent, unsuccessful uprising and a decade of poverty and sanctions many sites and monuments have been damaged and looted. During these two altercations between 800 and 1,000 sites and monuments were damaged or looted, including 4,000 objects from the Baghdad Museum and seven other regional museums and the bas reliefs that had been conserved and repatriated in Nineveh in the late 1980s ( Many of these artefacts later appeared on the antiquities market (for further information see Science, 6 July 2001: 32).

The importance of Mesopotamia (Iraq) for studying the rise of ancient civilisation cannot be overstated. The ancient city of Babylon lies just south of modern Baghdad, and the Assyrian cities of Nineveh and Nimrud are located in the north of Iraq near the modern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. The arch-patriarch of the Jewish, and subsequently Christian and Islamic religions – Abraham, was born and lived in the city of Ur (Sumer). Islamic monuments such as the standing minarets of Samarra and the 100 foot vaulted arch of the 6th century AD palace at Ctesiphon. The monuments and antiquities of Iraq are of world importance and should be of concern to us all. The National Archaeological and Islamic Art Museum, Baghdad holds much of Iraq’s excavated cultural heritage, a museum comparable with the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, Cairo or the British Museum of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Baghdad Museum houses thousands of cuneiform clay tablets with some of the earliest writing in the world, many of which have not been translated and recorded, it also houses artefacts from the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylon, Assyrian and early Islamic empires. Gold and silver artefacts from the Royal Tombs of Ur, a priceless Sumerian harp, a solid bronze bust of Naram-Sin are among the treasures in the Baghdad Museum. Although many of the more important objects in the Baghdad and other regional museums were stored in underground storerooms it is still uncertain, which objects were left in the museums, for sure the huge Assyrian statues of winged bulls and lions were left in situ (

The Iraq War (II) has managed to create the worst cultural heritage catastrophe since the Second World War ( Although the full extent of the damage and loss of sites, monuments and artefacts is not yet known, it is already certain that irreparable damage has been done. The ornate façade of the Baghdad Museum, which had recently been modernised and had only reopened 6 months ago, having remained closed since the last war, has already been blacked by a tank shell. The museum became a major target for looters, both chance looters and those that had specifically targeted the place, knowing what they were stealing, possibly already with an outlet or specific antiquities dealer in mind ( It is estimated that 170,000 artefacts have been looted or destroyed in the Baghdad Museum. Broken pottery and overturned statues littered the ground floor of the museum (, although the top floor was virtually untouched, the vaults of the museum were ransacked. Looters were seen carting away artefacts such as an ancient lintel ( Looting and damage was also reported from other regional museums, Iraq’s National Library, which houses a number of rare volumes and manuscripts as well as Iraq’s archives was ransacked and set alight. In Mosul’s museum, the Curator Mr Mohammed was seen trying to hold off the looters trying to steal ancient Babylonian and Assyrian artefacts, although gangs did manage to get into the storerooms and had already targeted a 2,000 year old statue of King Saqnatroq II and Parthian sculptures. Many of these looted artefacts are already appearing on the antiquities market ( (, hopefully some will be repatriated in the near future when the peace is won and a new government and infrastructure is in place. An Iraqi civilian walks through the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq (news web sites).
Looters had opened the museum vault, gone on a rampage breaking ancient artefacts,
which had been stored there by the museum authorities before the war had started.
(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

The Coalition forces commanders were well aware of the danger that was likely to threaten Iraq’s cultural heritage, UNESCO had given a detailed list of 4,000 important sites to the Coalition Administrators and the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) the Society for American Archaeologists and the American Council for Cultural Policy, World Monuments Fund and others had also informed the State Department and Defense Department ( and the British Museum had sent a detailed list of important sites and monuments to Tony Blair. Therefore, the looting of the Baghdad Museum could have been avoided if forward planning had been made to not only defeat Saddam Hussein’s regime, but to also secure facilities and the peace. While the looting of the museum was taking place a US tank was stationed less than 500 metres away. However, if Coalition forces were not prepared to intervene to stop hospitals from being looted and prevent innocent lives from being put at risk, it is not surprising that they did little to prevent a nation’s cultural heritage from being destroyed and looted. Although neither the US and UK have ratified the 1954 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, Australia and other members of the Coalition have and it is their as well as the US and UK’s moral duty to protect this irreplaceable cultural property. A statement by the United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell has stated that the US will take a leading role in protecting Iraq’s cultural heritage and will help restore damage to artefacts and museums. The Coalition forces are already taking steps in this direction, trying to protect the sites and monuments ( but for many of the artefacts it may be too little too late.

The plaintiffs of the Coalition as to the reasons why they could not stop the looting are as ridiculous as the Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf‘s claims that “There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” as a US tank rolled by behind him. Although much of the looting and destruction of cultural property has now been curtailed, it will take several months to assess the full extent of the loss and damage. In the last few weeks teams from UNESCO and the British Museum have been over to Iraq to make an initial assessment of the damage and loss ( and to form an international salvage programme to help restore the artefacts and sites ( The first step is compilation of a list of objects that are missing, although this may prove difficult as much of the paper work inventorying the Baghdad and other museums holdings are at present missing (,11026,937765,00.html). If the list, even if it is partial, is distributed worldwide, the prospects of recovering the looted items will be that much better. In an emergency UNESCO meeting, it sought protection by U.S. and British troops for Iraq's museums, libraries and historic sites to prevent further damage. It also asked that concerned nations move to block any traffic in Iraqi cultural properties. It is also essential that Iraq’s museums, sites and monuments are protected, but also that the antiquities service is maintained, and kept in the hands of willing and dedicated Iraqis. It is also essential for Iraq that their antiquities laws are not changed and that it remains illegal to remove any artefacts from the country and those looters of ancient sites and monuments remain liable to prosecution. A change in these laws to allow artefacts to leave the country, as seems to be wanted by the US Council for Cultural Policy (Lawler 2003: 643) must not be allowed to happen. Iraq’s cultural heritage must be retained in the country to help rebuild Iraq’s cultural and national identity and to help instigate a cultural tourism industry (, which will in turn help to rebuild Iraq’s economic infrastructure and ease the pain of the last thirty years of tyranny, war and loss.

What you can do to stop Iraq’s cultural heritage falling into the hands of irreputable dealers and collectors:

Look on eBay for any looted antiquities, inform eBay, UNESCO, Art Loss Register and Interpol if you suspect an artefact is looted – DO NOT BUY IT!

Look in your local auction rooms for any looted antiquities, inform UNESCO, the Art Loss Register and Interpol if you suspect an artefacts is looted – DO NOT BUY IT!

If you are offered an artefact with an Iraqi provenance – ask to have it approved by UNESCO, Art Loss Register or Interpol - DO NOT BUY IT!

These are a few of the best weblinks on the plight of Iraq’s cultural heritage:

A good article to read is:

  • Lawler, A. 2003. 'Impending war stokes battle over fate of Iraqi antiquities', Science, 299: 643.
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News Update On Looting in Iraq

Colonel Matthew Bogdanus, who was earlier this year put in charge of investigating the looting in Iraq, has now produced a report. At a press conference, held in London in July, he related that: thirty objects were still missing from the Baghdad Museum’s display cases, 169 from the restoration storeroom, 236 from the Heritage Room, 2,703 from the ground-floor storeroom and 9,666 from the basement store (comprising 4,795 cylinder seals, 4,997 small finds, such as necklaces and amulets, and 545 items of ceramic, bronze or glass). Elsewhere, customs officers in New York, London and Rome have seized some 675 objects known to have been looted from Iraq. Only one arrest has been made: that of the American writer Joseph Braude, author of The New Iraq: rebuilding the country for its people, who was stopped in New York and found to be carrying three cylinder seals marked with Iraq Museum inventory numbers, which he says he bought for US$200.

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ECHO statement on the Iraqi Crisis

ECHO deeply regrets and abhors the looting and damage to museums and libraries in Iraq and hopes that our colleagues working in that area of the world can quickly restore the museums to their former glory and retrieve most of the looted antiquities. ECHO would also urge anyone seeing any Mesopotamian artefacts for sale on the antiquities market or E-Bay not to buy them and to report them to the proper authorities such as: UNESCO, Art Loss Register or Interpol.

Good websites on Iraqi cultural heritage in peril are:

A good article to read is:

  • Lawler, A. 2003. 'Impending war stokes battle over fate of Iraqi antiquities', Science, 299: 643.
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