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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2 reader comments

  1. anon says:

    perhaps using news 3d techniques, images these objects can be reproduced, in a sense, the same as before but now stronger and more robust, a metaphor perhaps for people and countries who have suffered too as well as heritage,

    it is completely unforgivable and unacceptable that we haven’t destroyed IS as we could easily do and free those suffering terribly such as the women hostages,. this has to change immediately and as commented on is totally different to a land invasion

    that the invasion of Iraq was totally wrong does not mean that we do not intervene to stop evil around the world,

    and why all this stuff yesterday and the offensive stuff from cage, doesn’t add up,

    could I suggest if the Nazis had had access to something like the web we would never ever have broadcast their evil acts into our homes, so why is Government allowing this now? , and these sites CAN all be blocked quickly and easily just ask people, why is this happening

    perhaps the media could consider simply stopping broadcasting any of this stuff at all? I think the Independent have taken a line on this

    its sad when the savile stuff came out yesterday the news agenda was changed by the sudden release of stuff about this IS person and the offensive stuff from cage, whoever they are

  2. Hersh says:

    Some reports said the pieces were most likely replicas. Can you destroy a stone statue with a sledgehammer? I can’t break a rock with a sledgehammer. And the video is only a couple of minutes in length.

    Also don’t think human heads sawed off with knives is plausible. See Anne Boleyn. Her head was put on a block.

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