Known as the cradle of civilisation, war-torn Iraq is steadily losing its priceless ancient artefacts to looters.
TWO years after the invasion of Iraq, the plunder of mankind's oldest records and links to antiquity continues unabated. Also under threat are the world's 100 most endangered cultural sites.
Iraq is a country of firsts: the earliest villages, cities, writing, poetry, epic literature, temples, codified religion, armies, warfare, world economy, and empire. It was the home of ancient civilisations: Mesopotamia, Sumer, Babylon and Persia. And yet this unique land protected by two great rivers, Euphrates and Tigris, has not been able to stop periodic attempts to destroy it and its culture.
The attacks over many thousands of years have destroyed many monuments, sites, antiquities, and cultural institutions. What remains are some historical sites such as the Hatra of the Parthian Empire, artefacts, museums, monuments and about 1,00,000 archaeological digs including the spectacular one at Khorsabad where "the Human-headed Winged Bull" and King Sargon II sculptures were excavated in 1933-34.
Excavations in the 1950s resulted in the discovery of at least 12 temples and restoration has been under way to preserve these priceless structures. Most structures were built in limestone gypsum and are an eclectic mix of Assyrian, Hellenistic, Parthian and Roman styles. Current remains date back to between the First Century BC and the Second Century AD.
UNESCO has made a fervent appeal to safeguard this cultural heritage. The difficult task of making an elaborate inventory of architectural and urban heritage is still on.
This appeal assumes significance in the light of the happenings in the area, especially the recent spate of wars in the region.
Prof. McGuire Gibson from the University of Chicago points out that the 1991 Gulf War had taken out "big chunks" from the massive 4,000-year-old temple pyramid Ziggurat at Ur, in southern Iraq.
Besides destruction, a war-ravaged country is an easy target for foragers and looters putting timeless and priceless artefacts from the nation's vaults and museums under threat.
The present orgy of looting began immediately after the March 2003 invasion by the coalition forces. As flashes and explosions lit the Baghdad sky, looters escaped with wealth lifted from banks, palaces and old mansions, ancient temples and tombs, museums and universities.
The raids continue with some of the country's — and mankind's — most precious treasures heading to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, before reaching the thriving multi-billion dollar art markets of Europe and the U.S.
Reaching global markets
In spite of the best efforts of the UNESCO and law enforcement agencies, precious items from Iraq steadily move to avaricious buyers around the world. This year, the World Monuments Fund's list of the world's 100 most-endangered sites named Iraq, the first time an entire country has been listed as at risk.
As violence continues unabated, no one in Iraq is willing to talk about the plunder — either of the items of daily use nor of the elaborate planning and networking to move priceless objects from museums, libraries to lucrative global markets.
No one knows exactly how many objects were stolen from the time of the Gulf War. At that time, it was estimated that more than 4,000 items were missing from Iraq's museums. The losses in the present conflict, beginning March 2003, are incalculable.
One group of looters apprehended about a year ago, accounted for about 15, 000 arte facts, says Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, Director General of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad. Dr. George was an eyewitness to the looting, the recovery on antiquities and the Museum's restoration initiatives.
In the face of these assaults on their culture and heritage, a group of Iraqi youth called the Protectors of Antiquities, searched the country's interiors and recovered about 2,000 objects, including 400 clay tablets — many from the Baghdad Museum.
Remarkably, in June 2003, some boys found and returned "the Warka Vase". Experts say this 4,300-year-old alabaster piece "is one of the most important objects in the Iraq Museum because it is one of the first illustrations of the ritual and religious practices that were the basis of Mesopotamian society". (Diana McDonald)
In recent times American soldiers and the Iraqi police have joined Protectors of Antiquities in curbing the looting and smuggling. Yet, one can't help wondering how many more, irreplaceable, priceless assets will be lost to posterity before stability and peace return to Iraq.