Monday, March 16, 2015

Who's buying Syria's Historic Treasures?

Syrian sites on the World Heritage list. Source

This is a book review by Eamon Kelly that we are reprinting here as the same sort of activity is being carried out in Syria. There has been massive looting in Syria and the western media reports that the group ISIS is encouraging looters or directly looting themselves to finance their operations.  Some academics and historians along the lines of the Monuments Men of the Second World War are presently attempting to save as much as can be saved under the circumstances.  But there is a demand for these precious historical artifacts as wealthy investors and collectors salivate at the thought of getting their hands on them.  They sell this stuff to people who have money.
The review details some aspects of the looting of the Iraqi Museum as US tanks stood idly by and questions the composition of some of those taking the artifacts. It is not likely the demand for these treasures comes from a consortium of auto workers from Detroit or other working class folks. 

Irish Times, Aug 6, 2005
Stealing from the Cradle. The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad. The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia, Eds. Milbry Polk & Angela M. H. Schuster, Harry N. Adams Inc., New York, 2005.

by Eamon Kelly

This is a collection of essays by experts both Iraqi and foreign that covers the whole span of Iraqi archaeology, extending back to remote prehistoric times when Neanderthal beings inhabited the Shanidar cave in the Zagros mountains. The book also outlines a brief history of the Iraq Museum that housed a breathtaking collection of antiquities that are fundamentally important to an understanding of the origins of western civilisation. It is no overstatement to describe Mesopotamia, the lands between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, as the cradle of civilisation. It was here that agriculture; urban living, pottery making, metallurgy and writing were developed. All of the topics are dealt with in the book, illustrated by superb colour photographs of stunning treasures.

Nevertheless, the title of this book is misleading for the work imparts very little information about the looting of the Iraq Museum and what information it does provide is often at odds with other reports. When one turns elsewhere for information about what happened to the Iraq Museum a more complex picture emerges to the one provided by William Polk in his introduction.

Fierce fighting broke out around the museum on 8th April 2003, shortly after U.S. troops entered Baghdad. Two days later armed looters stormed the museum forcing the guards to unlock the door allowing a mob to pour into the building while other looters entered through a broken window. A section of the looters attacked the museum offices removing furniture, computers and air conditioners. Members of the museum staff were known to be Ba'ath party members and the museum itself were seen as part of the party apparatus so this assault may have been an act of vengeance against the party and its members.

The activity of other looters was far more sinister. Witnesses reported seeing well-dressed men walking through the galleries talking into mobile phones while one museum official claimed that two 'European-looking' men pointed out artifacts and then left. Their associates were equipped with lifting equipment to remove some of the heavier pieces and carried glass cutters of a type not available in Iraq. They had a shopping list of objects and acted in a very organised manner using a floor plan of the museum. It seems also that some of the people who entered the museum removed artifacts to prevent them from being stolen and these objects were returned to the museum later when the situation had stabilised.

Throughout the looting, museum staff and journalists pleaded with American tank crews to protect the museum but to no avail. The big question that this book addresses nowhere is why the American forces failed to act. Was it a case of a culturally blinkered Bush Administration remaining indifferent or was there, as some suspect, active collusion to allow the museum treasures to be stolen. There is evidence to support both hypotheses. The Iraq museum was not the only cultural institution to be pillaged following the American occupation. Another victim was the National Library of Iraq which housed rare illuminated Korans and other ancient examples of Islamic calligraphy as well as valuable documents pertaining to the Ottoman Empire. When the building was set on fire destroying numerous irreplaceable historical documents, reporter Robert Fisk sought the assistance of American marines but they refused to help. The suspicion persists that the fire was used as a cover to conceal the theft of selected illuminated manuscripts stolen for wealthy collectors.

The American Council on Cultural Policy (ACCP) represents the interests of wealthy collectors and dealers in the U.S. and it aims at changing American law so as to facilitate the legal acquisition in the U.S. of antiquities and cultural objects that have been removed illegally from their countries of origin. In an interview William Pearlstein of the ACCP condemned Iraq's legislation on the export of cultural objects which he branded as 'retentionist'. In a post-Saddam setting the ACCP sought to ensure that the new Iraq would agree to artifacts being 'certified for export'. The ACCP is habitually at odds with the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) however it was the ACCP that succeeded in becoming the interlocutor with the Pentagon and State Department during the formation of policy and regulations relating to archaeological issues in post-war Iraq.

A question that needs to be answered is whether this influence had any bearing on the apparent inaction of American forces when major Iraqi cultural institutions were looted within the gun sights of U.S. soldiers. Until the truth of what happened is exposed there will be deep suspicions that official collusion and private interest skulduggery lay at the heart of the destruction of one of the world's most important archaeological museums.

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