The loss of cultural heritage in Iraq 2003 and Syria 2012

I recently read about the tragic developments of the looting and destruction of the cultural heritage in Syria; and it made me think of Robert Fisk’s telling of the plundering and looting in Iraq in the hours after the 2003 US invasion into Baghdad started. I wish to share some excepts from Fisk’s book The Great War for Civilisation, which reflect, to me, something that cannot be explained, when you take into consideration that people generally have a some degree of common sense.

An Iraqi civilian walks through the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq Saturday April 12, 2003. Looters opened the museum vault, went on a rampage breaking ancient artifacts stored there by museum authorities before the war started. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay) Photo: JEROME DELAY / SF
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Looters-plunder-enormous-museum-Archaeological-2397919.php#ixzz2Gumdgjn2

Never, in all my dreams of destruction, could I have imagined the day I would enter the Iraqi National Archaeological Museum to find its treasures defiled. They lay across the floor in tens of thousands of pieces, the priceless antiquities of Iraq’s history. The looters had gone from shelf to shelf, systematically pulling down the statues and pots and amphorae of the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks and hurling them on to the concrete floor. My feet crunched on the wreckage of 5,000-year-old marble plinths and stone statuary and pots that had endured every siege of Baghdad, every invasion of Iraq throughout history—only to be destroyed when America came to “liberate” the city. The Iraqis did it. They did it to their own history, physically destroying the evidence of their own nation’s thousands of years of civilisation.

Also relevant to show is the pure selfishness and wrecklessness of the United States decision-making in the below case during the Grand Invasion

Iraq’s scavengers thieved and destroyed what they were allowed to loot and burn by the Americans—but a two-hour drive around Baghdad showed clearly what the United States intended to protect, presumably for its own use. After days of arson and pillage, I compiled a short but revealing scorecard. U.S. troops had sat back and allowed mobs to wreck and then burn the ministries of Planning, Education, Irrigation, Trade, Industry, Foreign Affairs, Culture and Information. They did nothing to prevent looters from destroying priceless treasures of Iraq’s history in the Baghdad Archaeological Museum and in the museum in the northern city of Mosul, nor from looting three hospitals.

However, the Americans put hundreds of troops inside two Iraqi ministries that remained untouched—and untouchable—with tanks and armoured personnel carriers and Humvee jeeps surrounding both institutions. So which particular ministries proved to be so important for the Americans? Why, the Ministry of the Interior, of course—with its vast wealth of intelligence information on Iraq—and the Ministry of Oil. The archives and files of Iraq’s most valuable asset—its oilfields and, even more important, its massive reserves, perhaps the world’s largest—were safe and sound, sealed off from the mobs and looters, and safe to be shared—as Washington almost certainly intended—with U.S. oil companies.

(Archaeology.org also offers at very detailed archive of the news coverage of the then-unfolding tragic plundering, destruction and looting.)

Fisk illustrates the events that happened in Baghdad very vividly, which frustrates the readers and plunges him into disbelief of what he is reading. Conscious of the crisis in Syria, one cannot help but fear for the consequences of the events unfolding there, also when it comes to cultural heritage and the effective removal of the history the Syrians had the privilege to be able to breathe in and touch for thousands of years.

Damage to the Souq, the ancient market place in Aleppo

report by EUROMED Heritage, a programme of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership  — launched to the end of building an “area of peace, security and prosperity”, with cultural heritage as an essential element  — has the following to report on looting

The security forces began emptying several museums, such as the Museum of DER’A and the National Museum of ALEPPO, and some of the objects kept in the museums of QUNEITRA, HAMA and HOMS. These collections were transferred either to Damascus or to various other unknown places. Other major problems also seem to exist in other regions, notably in the region of Idlib, in which the fate of the regional museum is more than uncertain. Equally uncertain is the one of the magnificent museum MA’ARET EL-NU’MAN. Finally, in the same region, the looting of archaeological centre of Ebla (TELL MARDIKH, a powerful Syrian kingdom of the third and second millennia) has been reported.

The Museum of DEIR EZ-ZOR also raises very serious concerns. Regional Centre for conservation of excavations in the provinces of Deir ez-Zor and Jezireh (two regions among the richest in relics), this museum is the custodian of one of the world’s largest  archive of cuneiform writing dated different periods (from the 3rd to the 1st millennia).

According to the same report, archaeological sites are used as military bases, for instance of the protection of tanks and weapons. Also,

some parts of the ancient cities and monuments are being degraded because of the bulk removal of stones or materials for the construction of the defensive system of the position.

A young graduate student at Durham University, Emma Cunliffe, is documenting on a day-to-day basis the archaeological damages that occur in Syria. People have asked her why she does it. To that she says that her documentation can help after the war in the decision of what the recover first.

As to the motivations of the people who commit the crimes of plundering, she explains to us that

“[i]t’s hard to know where they ended up,” Cunliffe says. “They’re rumored to have been sold on the black markets of Japan, Russia and the Gulf countries. So for example a cylinder seal, a Bronze Age artifact you would find in Syria or Iraq. They’re about the size of my thumb. These used to be worth 1,000 pounds, 10,000 pounds ($16,000). There was one that went for about 250,000 [pounds] last year. The prices on these things are increasing exponentially. Which can only reflect an increase in demand.”

So, its a way of survival? Destructive, and unjustifiable, a way that may be, it is explainable. However, the arbitrary destruction that you see here cannot be explained. It completely goes beyond my comprehension how one can sacrifice and remove the proud history of your country by destroying and looting it. How can one live, after the war, with the thought that you took part  in the destruction of your own country’s millenniums-year-old history? How can you explain that to your offspring? It would be interesting to look into the psychological state of these people.

In the summer of 2010, during my travels in Turkey, I would have gone to Aleppo, had I had a bit more time and money. How much I wish I had made the time and put aside the money to do so.

For further valuable video footage on the archaeological devastations in Syria, check here.

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