Online Review: Book

The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq

Susan B. Downey

114.4

Edited by Peter G. Stone and Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly. Pp. xv + 319, b&w figs. 16, color pls. 16, tables 3, maps 4. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, England 2008. $95. ISBN 978-1-84383-384-0 (cloth).

This is a multiauthored book about the consequences of the Gulf Wars for the antiquities of Iraq. The number of authors makes the book somewhat difficult to review, so this report will be selective. The book makes for depressing reading. Beginning well before the outbreak of hostilities, archaeologists from various countries, especially McGuire Gibson and Matthew Bogdanos of the United States and Peter Stone of Great Britain, attempted to warn their governments of the danger that Iraq’s museums and archaeological sites would be looted in the event of war. The then-director of antiquities of Iraq, Donny George, also attempted to defend the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. In spite of promises by the U.S. and British governments to ensure that the Iraq Museum would be secured, it was left without substantial protection.

Bogdanos details clearly the events that led to the looting of the Iraq Museum. Iraqi soldiers were stationed there, and some participated in the looting. Bogdanos states that while the blame for the plunder lies squarely with the looters, the responsibility for creating chaos at the museum from 8–11 April 2003 lay with the Iraqi army, which fired on U.S. tanks stationed near the museum and kept U.S. forces from investigating reports of looting. U.S. soldiers in the tanks around the museum were not permitted by their superiors to leave their tanks. In any case, the U.S. army did not believe the museum would be looted, primarily because the Americans did not realize the degree to which Iraqis associated the museum with the hated Saddam Hussein. Bogdanos argues that after 11 April, the blame lay with coalition forces; the U.S. army did not secure the compound until 16 April. According to Bogdanos and George, looting continued for three days. Thefts of 5,144 cylinder seals and other objects—such as pins, glass bottles, and similar items from the basement storerooms—were probably by museum insiders, since only they would have known how to enter the storerooms. The loss of the cylinder seals is particularly distressing, since many have texts that illuminate the early history of Iraq. A number of the valuable artifacts have subsequently been recovered, including some that were removed from the museum by Iraqis who lived nearby in order to protect them. These include the Warka head and a stone vase, also from Warka (Uruk). Some pieces were damaged and others have not yet been returned. There were, of course, attempts to smuggle objects out of the country through Jordan and Syria; many were discovered by customs agents and confiscated. Others, however, were taken abroad and sold to museums and private collectors. Only a few cylinder seals and small objects from the storerooms have been returned.

Damage to archaeological sites was also extensive. For instance, the U.S. army established a base at the ancient site of Babylon. In spite of apparent attempts by the army to avoid damage to antiquities, damage was done (see esp. chs. 13 [Umran Moussa], 16 [Bahrani]). It should be admitted, however, that Saddam Hussein had attempted to make Babylon a showpiece for his regime and, in the process, damaged antiquities there.

Ur also sustained substantial damage from both Iraqi and coalition forces (ch. 14 [Hamdani]). Gibson notes that sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990 by western powers, leading to the imposition of no-fly zones by the United States, led desperately poor Iraqis to conduct illicit excavations at sites such as Umma in search of antiquities that could be sold abroad. After the second Gulf War ended, local Iraqis again participated in looting. In many cases, this was because of extreme poverty that resulted from the embargo after the first Gulf War. Foreign excavators of some ancient sites posted guards, but they were too few to hinder well-armed and determined looters. Previously, foreign archaeologists hired local workmen as excavators and paid them decent wages, thus deterring looting and adding to our knowledge of ancient Iraq (Bajjaly). Ghaidan adds that after the second Gulf War, Iraqis pillaged historic buildings and cultural institutions, such as the museum of modern art. Later, the Iraqis also bombed the minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra, as well as the dome of a 17th-century mosque in the same city.

Gerstenblith, a lawyer, contributes a chapter on changes in the legal regime protecting cultural heritage. She states that international and national law concerning the protection of cultural heritage has developed along two distinct lines. The first focuses on the protection of cultural heritage during warfare, the second on the workings of the international art market, principally on the illegal removal of cultural objects from their country of origin. Both these legal threats were ignored during and after the second Gulf War.

A number of European archaeologists contribute short articles on the roles experts from their nations have played in preserving archaeology in Iraq (chs. 19–27). These activities include replacing books damaged or destroyed during the war, contributing computers and books to libraries, training Iraqi archaeologists, and aiding in the reconstruction or repair of damaged antiquities.

One of the unintended consequences of the war was the rise of disputes between Sunnis and Shiites, which had been suppressed under the rule of Saddam Hussein. This has led to disputes among neighbors and the killings of members of the opposite sect, as well as of intellectuals such as medical doctors and professors. Many families have used their financial resources to move to Jordan and Syria, where some now live in poverty. Donny George stayed on as director of the Iraq Museum for a time but finally decided to leave for the United States, in part because he is a member of the Christian minority in Iraq.

In sum, this book is both depressing and illuminating. Archaeologists from a number of European countries and the United States, as well as Iraqis (including several of the authors in this volume), contributed greatly to stopping the trade in stolen antiquities, working to prevent looting, to reestablish excavations at ancient sites, to repair damaged antiquities, and to contribute books to replace those lost or damaged in the war. We can hope that as stability returns, excavators—both Iraqis and foreigners—will return to work, leading to further understanding of the ancient heritage of Iraq.

Susan B. Downey
Department of Art History
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095
downey@humnet.ucla.edu

DOI: 
10.3764/ajaonline1144.Downey

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