By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 08/06/07):
Fly into the American air base of Tallil outside Nasiriya in central Iraq and the flight path is over the great ziggurat of Ur, reputedly the earliest city on earth. Seen from the base in the desert haze or the sand-filled gloom of dusk, the structure is indistinguishable from the mounds of fuel dumps, stores and hangars. Ur is safe within the base compound. But its walls are pockmarked with wartime shrapnel and a blockhouse is being built over an adjacent archaeological site. When the head of Iraq’s supposedly sovereign board of antiquities and heritage, Abbas al-Hussaini, tried to inspect the site recently, the Americans refused him access to his own most important monument.
Yesterday Hussaini reported to the British Museum on his struggles to protect his work in a state of anarchy. It was a heart breaking presentation. Under Saddam you were likely to be tortured and shot if you let someone steal an antiquity; in today’s Iraq you are likely to be tortured and shot if you don’t. The tragic fate of the national museum in Baghdad in April 2003 was as if federal troops had invaded New York city, sacked the police and told the criminal community that the Metropolitan was at their disposal. The local tank commander was told specifically not to protect the museum for a full two weeks after the invasion. Even the Nazis protected the Louvre.
When I visited the museum six months later, its then director, Donny George, proudly showed me the best he was making of a bad job. He was about to reopen, albeit with half his most important objects stolen. The pro-war lobby had stopped pretending that the looting was nothing to do with the Americans, who were shamefacedly helping retrieve stolen objects under the dynamic US colonel, Michael Bogdanos (author of a book on the subject). The vigorous Italian cultural envoy to the coalition, Mario Bondioli-Osio, was giving generously for restoration.
The beautiful Warka vase, carved in 3000BC, was recovered though smashed into 14 pieces. The exquisite Lyre of Ur, the world’s most ancient musical instrument, was found badly damaged. Clerics in Sadr City were ingeniously asked to tell wives to refuse to sleep with their husbands if looted objects were not returned, with some success. Nothing could be done about the fire-gutted national library and the loss of five centuries of Ottoman records (and works by Piccasso and Miro). But the message of winning hearts and minds seemed to have got through.
Today the picture is transformed. Donny George fled for his life last August after death threats. The national museum is not open but shut. Nor is it just shut. Its doors are bricked up, it is surrounded by concrete walls and its exhibits are sandbagged. Even the staff cannot get inside. There is no prospect of reopening.
Hussaini confirmed a report two years ago by John Curtis, of the British Museum, on America’s conversion of Nebuchadnezzar’s great city of Babylon into the hanging gardens of Halliburton. This meant a 150-hectare camp for 2,000 troops. In the process the 2,500-year-old brick pavement to the Ishtar Gate was smashed by tanks and the gate itself damaged. The archaeology-rich subsoil was bulldozed to fill sandbags, and large areas covered in compacted gravel for helipads and car parks. Babylon is being rendered archaeologically barren.
Meanwhile the courtyard of the 10th-century caravanserai of Khan al-Raba was used by the Americans for exploding captured insurgent weapons. One blast demolished the ancient roofs and felled many of the walls. The place is now a ruin.
Outside the capital some 10,000 sites of incomparable importance to the history of western civilisation, barely 20% yet excavated, are being looted as systematically as was the museum in 2003. When George tried to remove vulnerable carvings from the ancient city of Umma to Baghdad, he found gangs of looters already in place with bulldozers, dump trucks and AK47s.
Hussaini showed one site after another lost to archaeology in a four-year «looting frenzy». The remains of the 2000BC cities of Isin and Shurnpak appear to have vanished: pictures show them replaced by a desert of badger holes created by an army of some 300 looters. Castles, ziggurats, deserted cities, ancient minarets and mosques have gone or are going. Hussaini has 11 teams combing the country engaged in rescue work, mostly collecting detritus left by looters. His small force of site guards is no match for heavily armed looters, able to shift objects to eager European and American dealers in days.
Most ominous is a message reputedly put out from Moqtada al-Sadr’s office, that while Muslim heritage should be respected, pre-Muslim relics were up for grabs. As George said before his flight, his successors might be «only interested in Islamic sites and not Iraq’s earlier heritage». While Hussaini is clearly devoted to all Iraq’s history, the Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s pre-Muslim Bamiyan Buddhas is in every mind.
Despite Sadr’s apparent preference, sectarian militias are pursuing an orgy of destruction of Muslim sites. Apart from the high-profile bombings of some of the loveliest surviving mosques in the Arab world, radical groups opposed to all shrines have begun blasting 10th- and 11th-century structures, irrespective of Sunni or Shia origin. Eighteen ancient shrines have been lost, 10 in Kirkuk and the south in the past month alone. The great monument and souk at Kifel, north of Najaf – reputedly the tomb of Ezekiel and once guarded by Iraqi Jews (mostly driven into exile by the occupation) – have been all but destroyed.
It is abundantly clear that the Americans and British are not protecting Iraq’s historic sites. All foreign archaeologists have had to leave. Troops are doing nothing to prevent the «farming» of known antiquities. This is in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention that an occupying army should «use all means within its power» to guard the cultural heritage of a defeated state.
Shortly after the invasion, the British minister Tessa Jowell won plaudits for «pledging» £5m to protect Iraq’s antiquities. I can find no one who can tell me where, how or whether this money has been spent. It appears to have been pure spin. Only the British Museum and the British School of Archaeology in Iraq have kept the flag flying. The latter’s grant has just been cut, presumably to pay for the Olympics binge.
As long as Britain and America remain in denial over the anarchy they have created in Iraq, they clearly feel they must deny its devastating side-effects. Two million refugees now camping in Jordan and Syria are ignored, since life in Iraq is supposed to be «better than before». Likewise dozens of Iraqis working for the British and thus facing death threats are denied asylum. To grant it would mean the former defence and now home secretary, the bullish John Reid, admitting he was wrong. They will die before he does that.
Though I opposed the invasion I assumed that its outcome would at least be a more civilised environment. Yet Iraq’s people are being murdered in droves for want of order. Authority has collapsed. That western civilisation should have been born in so benighted a country as Iraq may seem bad luck. But only now is that birth being refused all guardianship, in defiance of international law. If this is Tony Blair’s «values war», then language has lost all meaning. British collusion in such destruction is a scandal that will outlive any passing conflict. And we had the cheek to call the Taliban vandals.