Erasing History in Mesopotamia

Iraq and Syria have dominated international headlines since the Islamic State rose out of the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The group was growing in Iraq’s Sunni Anbar province before it moved into Syria as that country descended into civil war in March of 2011. From their Syrian capital, Raqqa, what should have been no more than a criminal gang now controls the major Iraqi city of Mosul and is building a rudimentary state.Critical to funding this endeavor has been oil and other resource smuggling, as well as the illegal sale of antiquities. While the former is obviously of great importance to the people of both countries, who are seeing their future wealth sold on the black market in nearby countries like Turkey, the theft of history should be of utmost concern to the whole world as these are losses for which there is no metric.It was in this region, between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, where one of the first four written languages was introduced (the other three were also river-based civilizations in China, India and along the Nile in Egypt) and where a literate society developed over centuries, producing scientific and literary texts including the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is still studied to this day. The oldest site in Iraq, the city of Ur, given a graffiti makeover by American soldiers stationed nearby during the occupation, is where the wheel is believed to have been invented.It should come as no surprise that many of the items being taken out of the region wind up in private collections in North America, Europe and Asia. According to a report in the IBTimes,“Between 2011 and 2013, US imports of art, collectors’ pieces and antiques from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey jumped 86 percent, from $51.1 million to $95.2 million, according to U.S. International Trade Commission data.” This trend is made even more worrying by the fact that many items are kept off the market for years by dealers.

As a legacy of colonialism, British, French and other museums are already in possession of many of the region’s treasures. Allowing more of them to come into the possession of private collectors where they will be kept from the world is yet another example of elites trampling on our common heritage. While the UN recently passed Resolution 2199 to try and halt the trade in Syrian artifacts, as well as oil theft and kidnapping, it is generally seen as toothless.

Helicopters in Babylon and Other Stories of the Iraqi Occupation

As American and coalition forces swept through Iraq in the Spring of 2003 following the “Shock and Awe” air campaign against military targets and infrastructure in the country, some of the first places to be secured were oil related. This seems logical as supporters of the war claimed oil would quickly and easily pay for the costs of the conflict. Left undefended was the country’s vast cultural heritage, including both the Baghdad Museum and the National Library, which was torched by arsonists destroying most of the “archive of tens of thousands of manuscripts, books, and Iraqi newspapers, according to reports from the scene”. One of the main reasons for the carnage was the decision to limit the number of troops on the ground and rely on air-power, a strategy promoted by then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. This allowed criminals, organized and not, to hit archeological sites with impunity.

Saddam Hussein actually had a decent record in terms of protecting the country’s antiquities, his other crimes aside. He and his Ba’ath Party confederates seemed to understand that one of the only things that was holding the artificial construct of a country created by France and Britain at the end of the First World War together was Iraqi pride in inheriting this cultural heritage dating back to the very beginning of human civilization. Some of the oldest pieces to be unearthed are more than 8,000 years old.

With Hussein’s fall, long-simmering sectarian tensions, egged on both by local leaders and coalition authorities, exploded. Much of the blame for this needs to go to the Coalition Authority of “Pro-consul” Paul Bremer, who disbanded the army and fired every member of the Ba’ath Party from government ministers to high school teachers, leaving a significant portion of the Sunni minority with few prospects for the future.

The Baghdad Museum was looted at least three times from April 8th to the 10th, 2003. Two of these heists were professional jobs (one of which was pulled off by people inside the museum) but the third was likely looters seeing an opportunity to get something out of the chaos that the invasion unleashed. Multiple news sources picked up on this story, even lionizing one Matthew Bogdanos, the chief investigator after the fact, as a kind of Indiana Jones for his efforts at tracking down what had been lost. The bright side, partly due to Bogdanos’ efforts, was that of the more than 13,000 objects that were stolen, more than 5,000 were returned.

These feel good stories often missed the bigger picture; as sites around the country were looted en masse during the occupation, some observers said that various sites looked like “lunar landscapes” due to all the illegal digging. The thieves were usually better armed than the police and local militias that tried to confront them. One interesting side-note is the story of the Jewish Iraqis, now mostly displaced by the war, who protected the “great monument and souk at Kifel, north of Najaf – reputedly the tomb of Ezekial”. Once they were gone, this landmark was “all but destroyed”.

Looting and theft weren’t the only things putting Iraq’s cultural heritage at risk, the lion’s share of the early damage was probably caused by coalition forces themselves. When the ancient city of Babylon, whose Hanging Gardens are one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, was turned into Camp Babylon by Halliburton subsidiary Kellog, Brown and Root for Polish and American troops contributing to the war effort, incalculable damage was done to the site. As Katrina Van Heuvel wrote shortly after, “Helicopter landing places and parking lots for heavy vehicles caused substantial damage to the Ishtar Gate, one of the most famous monuments from antiquity. U.S. military vehicles crushed 2,600-year-old brick pavement, archeological fragments were scattered across the site, trenches were driven into ancient deposits and military earthmoving projects contaminated the site for future generations of scientists.”

A Spreading Contagion: Looting in Syria

Iraq’s neighbor Syria houses numerous sites including ancient Greek and Roman settlements that could reveal much about the classical cultures of the Mediterranean. In Syria’s case the western press has become more mindful of the country’s cultural legacy due to the fact that IS has made propaganda videos showing their criminal membership destroying any representations of the human form and blowing up archeological sites, most recently the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, a 2,000-year-old Roman site.

What is often neglected in these accounts is that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which was thrust into the limelight early on as a “moderate” force against Bashar Al Assad’s secular nationalist government has been involved in the illegal antiquities trade since the beginning of the conflict. The FSA has not only been accused of stealing the country’s cultural heritage but of many other criminal actions, including widespread looting, extortion and other crimes against the civilian population in the territories they captured. In fact, in many places these so-called moderates are even less popular than the Islamists.

Assad’s forces have also been accused of taking part in the trade, although this seems to be for personal profit rather than at the behest of the government in Damascus.

A History that Binds, A Politics that Divides

While there was always war and conquest emanating from both sides of the Mediterranean, the larger story is one of cultural exchange over the centuries. Just as some scholars believe that the mother goddess, Cybele, crossed the sea to become a goddess in Ancient Greece and later Rome, Islamic scholars kept the advances of these cultures alive when the Roman Empire fell. You wouldn’t know this from reading the contemporary press but what unites our cultures is much more fundamental than the sectarian divisions that warmongers on both sides are using to drive us apart.

Many commentators rightfully speak of the plight of women in most of the Middle East but in the history of Mesopotamia, especially in the early city-states, women had more rights than they do in many places in the Gulf today. In modern Iraq and Syria (as well as Libya, another recent victim of regime change policy) women had many more opportunities for work and education than in places like Saudi Arabia, one of our main allies in the region.This is not to excuse either Hussein or Assad, the former was a monster and the latter, in my opinion, is a man out of his depth surrounded by monsters, but it is hard to argue that the current situation is better for the majority of the people in either country than it was when they were in control.

As the flow of antiquities out of Mesopotamia continues, real action is required. This should entail a ban on all of the treasures plundered from the region (which should also include Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the most obvious transit points) and harsh criminal penalties for those found to be involved in the trade, whether they are buyers or sellers. In fact, the entire trade should be stopped and the objects returned to their countries of origin where possible. In an age of 3D printing, those who wish to own these pieces of our shared history can easily have replicas made.

The art market, of which antiquities are but a small part, has been turned into an investment opportunity for the very rich, a hedge against their bets in the stock market. Considering that a tiny elite already own most of our labor, we must ask ourselves: should they own our shared history too?


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