27 Feb 2015

Iraq: why looting can be a good thing

Thank goodness for looting. If Henry Rawlinson, the British Resident in Baghdad, hadn’t removed a 16 tonne 7th century alabaster statue of a winged bull from Nimrud, near Mosul, in 1849, Islamic State vandals would be taking a sledgehammer to it right now.

He purchased it from the French archaeologist who ‘discovered’ it (had the locals never noticed the huge edifices in their midst?), sawed it into several pieces for ease of transport, and brought it back to London where it was reassembled.

The magical figure, one of two that once guarded an entrance to the citadel of the Assyrian king Sargon II (721-705 BC), is now one of the treasures of the British Museum. Last year 6.8 million visitors had the chance to see it.

Contrast that with the horrific scene we witnessed on an Islamic State video yesterday, as the demolition squad of the IS destroyed Assyrian  statues Рthankfully many of them replicas Рin Mosul museum.

In Britain we look at history through the long telescope of time, but in Iraq history is happening right now. Archaeologists were horrified when Saddam Hussein stamped his crest on the ancient bricks at Babylon, but he was just replicating the behaviour of King Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BC.

One repeated inscription reads: “This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq”.

After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, I remember going into the Baghdad Museum to find its director, Donny George, slumped across his desk in tears. Much of the collection had been looted. We leant him a satellite phone and hooked him up with John Curtis, keeper of Middle East collections at the British Museum.

Using our phone Donny was able to call the Smithsonian and other centres of learning around the world and start to assemble the team that would design the programme to find the stolen artefacts.

Since then, statues from Mosul and other vulnerable places have been moved to the relative safety of the Baghdad Museum. Foreign archaeologists and historians are still working with their Iraqi counterparts there, in the Kurdish area and in southern Iraq.

The destruction we witnessed on the IS video has echoes of the Taliban’s detonation of the Bamyan Buddhas and the wrecking of mud tombs by jihadis in Timbuktu. Zealots are doing the same in Libya, destroying Sufi shrines and other historic buildings they regard as idolatrous.

In Syria, historical sites at Palmyra and around Aleppo have been looted by smugglers who sell the artifacts on the international antiquities market.

In an ideal world, every country’s heritage would be guarded in situ for the benefit of those whose identity is rooted in their past. But if the violent destructive tide of history shows no sign of ebbing, better that at least some vestiges of previous civilisations be kept safe in the great museums of London, Berlin and New York, courtesy of the colonial looters of yesteryear.

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