Light a candle for Iraq’s heritage, our heritage

Stand in solidarity with us all, who lost a piece of our own legacy with the destruction at the Mosul Museum. Light a candle for Iraq’s heritage, our heritage.

Iraq’s heritage: A global concern

SAFE has added Iraq to the “A Global Concern” page of its website. SAFE was founded in 2003 in response to the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. This overview of Iraq’s heritage and the threats it faces, therefore, adds an important layer of meaning to the mission and cause of SAFE.

Heather Lee explores what is at stake for Iraq, how its cultural heritage is endangered, the market demand for its antiquities, what Iraq has done to protect its cultural heritage, what others have done to help, and SAFE’s support for the protection of Iraqi cultural heritage.

Dr. Abdulamir al-Hamdani, Dr. Simone Mühl, Dr. Alexander Nagel, Maria Sager, and Dr. Diane Siebrandt are advisors who supervised and edited the pages.

“A Global Concern: Iraq” will be updated in the future to reflect current issues of cultural heritage protection in Iraq.

New legislation introduced to protect international cultural property

SAFE applauds the introduction of a new legislation aiming to improve the efficiency of the U.S. federal efforts to protect international cultural property. On November 13, Representatives Eliot L. Engel (D-NY) and Christ Smith (R-NJ) proposed the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act (H.R. 5703) in response to the terrible state of affairs brought by ISIL/ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The legislation aims to appoint a White House Coordinator for International Cultural Property Protection, a position that will be responsible for amassing all the federal efforts to address cultural heritage protection issues by coordinating diplomatic, military, and law enforcement efforts.

Representative Smith said, “Our global cultural patrimony has all too often been targeted by extremists who want to wipe out the collective memories of ethnic and religious minorities from lands they seek to control and conquer . . . The fight to preserve our common cultural heritage, as well as to deny extremists such as ISIL resources from the sale of blood antiquities, is yet another front on the global war against terror.”

The legislation is admirable for its attempt to encompass all the major countries suffering from cultural heritage destruction. Section 3, Findings and Statement of Policy, lists major Middle Eastern countries (Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan), as well as Mali, Cambodia, China, and Haiti. It also proposes federal agencies to liaise with the Smithsonian Institution, which has been an integral part of the protection efforts in the Middle East, as SAFE previously reported here.

But those who have followed the legislative efforts for cultural heritage protection might remember what happened a little more than a decade ago. In 2003, the Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act (H.R. 3497/H.R.2009) ended up not being enacted and replaced by a lesser resolution.

So the question for H.R.5703 is, will this bill see a swifter resolution?

Inspirational Past: college student’s appeal for cultural heritage protection

I do not have many memories from my childhood. But if I fumble through the deepest and the most distant recollections, one particular memory surfaces amidst the haze. I remember—vividly and intensely—standing in front of the colossal statue of a winged human-headed bull at the British Museum. How can I ever forget the initial encounter with this beautiful beast? Its proud chest. Its majestic wings. Its strong hooves. What I felt then was a sense of awe and the sublime, even though I only had a heart of a twelve-year-old.

Colossal statue of a winged human-headed bull Colossal statue of a winged human-headed bull

As a college student of art history now, I appreciate the foresight my parents had to take me to the greatest museums around the world when I was young. The monumental sculptures from Assyria, Egypt, and Babylonia at the Louvre, the Pergamon Museum, and the British Museum, immensely inspired a young Korean middle school student. After my little “Grand Tour” of Europe, I decided that I had to study abroad. My curiosities for the art and archaeology of the West were impossible to be satisfied at any Korean college. So here I am in the United States, far away from my home country, but feeling ever more at home to study the beauties and curiosities of the ancient world.

Cultural repatriation issue aside, Middle Eastern artifacts and cultural objects housed in the West and in the Middle East continue to inspire many. It was certainly true in the 1900s too, when European archaeologists and historians ventured (or intruded) into the Middle East in search of the glories of the ancient kingdoms. Some of these swashbuckling archaeologists, in turn, inspire our contemporaries totday. For example, Werner Herzog is producing a new film titled, Queen of the Desert, based on the life of Gertrude Bell, a British archaeologist and diplomat who was the first and the only British woman participant in the shaping of the Middle Eastern politics after the World War I. Documentary makers Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl are in the process of making a documentary about Bell, titled “Letters From Baghdad.”

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) Gertrude Bell


As the recent New York Times article reports, the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford mounted “Discovering Tutankhamun” last summer to trace the explorations of the British archaeologist Howard Carter. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., has recently opened “Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips.” It follows the journey of Wendell Phillips, who led the largest expedition to present-day Yemen from 1949 to 1951. I still wonder how many of these objects were able to leave Egypt and South Arabia in the first place.

Iraq—Egypt—Yemen. These countries that inspire artists, filmmakers, and curators are unfortunately under a great political turmoil. As many of the previous SAFE blog posts have shown, the cultural properties are destroyed, looted, and illegally traded.

What disturbs me the most is that these destructions are often invisible. Looters manage to get under the radar to pilfer the artifacts, slip them into the black market. Can the public eye “see” the absence, the vacancy, the void? No. If we were to make a museum of missing objects, how vast and empty it would look?

Gertrude Bell was already taking actions for cultural heritage protection in the early 1900s. She was still working in Baghdad after the end of the World War I and King Faisal’s ascension in 1921. She advocated the idea of retaining cultural objects in the country of origin, rather than shipping them off to European museums. She began to think and sought actively for a preservation of objects in the Baghdad, gathering artifacts in a government building, and in 1926, her collection was moved to a new place to become a part of the Baghdad Antiquities Museum. Bell was its director, and years later in 1966, the collection was moved to a new space to be called the National Museum of Iraq.

In 2003, when the National Museum of Iraq was extensively looted, it was a day of destruction not only of the cultural objects, but also of the very fundamental idea of cultural heritage protection. Thankfully, many of the objects have been returned, but still more work remains to fully reclaim the honorable insights that Bell had in founding the National Museum of Iraq.

The Middle East—the land of gilded mosques beaming underneath scorching sunlight. The cradle of civilization that bore splendid ancient kingdoms. The site of the fantastical stories of Sinbad and Ali Baba, where rich merchants travel across the deserts carrying silk, oil, and herb.

What should we do to keep the Middle East remain as an inspiriting, breathtaking place that my generation of students and thinkers can continue to appreciate? We need to stop the relentless damage that looting and illicit trading impose on cultural heritage. SAFE believes that in order to curb looting in the Middle East, the demand for looted objects must be eliminated. Could museums and collectors agree to a moratorium on Middle Eastern, especially Syrian, antiquities until order is restored? For a day … half-a-day? A broad-based moratorium would be a symbolic gesture of goodwill, that the world should put together a coordinated effort to stop irreparable damages to cultural heritage.


Featured image from

Documenting the Damage: An Interview with Dr. Simone Mühl

Simone Mühl studied Near Eastern Archaeology, Assyriology and Proto- and Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Heidelberg (Germany). After achieving her Master of Arts-degree there in 2007, she started working on her PhD-thesis entitled, “History of Settlement in the central Trans-Tigris area – from the Neolithic to the Late Assyrian period”. In 2011, she received her PhD and started working as Assistant Lecturer at the Institute of Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Munich. Presently she is the archaeological director of the Shahrizor Survey Project (Iraq), where she started working in 2009.

Briefly describe your personal research and outreach background in regards to Iraq?

I have worked as an archaeologist, investigating the ancient cultures of northern Iraq since approximately 2007. Like many people around the world, the happenings in Iraq create a feeling of helplessness regarding this humanitarian disaster, but also the destruction and harm in the cultural sector. In order to keep track and sort the news reports, initially published primarily by Iraqi Arabic and Kurdish news networks, but later also by international agencies, I started trying to approach the problem more systematically, to find a way to separate inaccurate news (copy and paste journalism) and relevant material. Since such work is best done together with other people who work in the area of cultural heritage preservation or who are interested in it, social network platforms such as Facebook are perfect to keep things simple and to reach different groups of people all over the world.

 Why do people need to know about endangered sites in Iraq? 

The cultural history of the landscapes within the borders of modern day Iraq goes back to the Paleolithic period (ca. 500,000-100,000 BCE), with sites from this period discovered in the Haditha region (al-Anbar province), Mosul region and in Iraqi Kurdistan. Starting with earliest prehistory, there are several archaeological sites within Iraq that represent benchmarks within human prehistoric and historic chronologies. Within the now conquered and contested areas in northern and central Iraq lie more than 4,000 archaeological and historical sites that we know about, mainly from archaeological surveys. Excavations were restricted in this area to the flood zones of the large dam projects north of Mosul and near Haditha, as well as to the Assyrian capitals, Nineveh, Nimrud, Ashur, and Khorsabad.

For decades, Iraq has been shaken by conflicts and wars. Therefore, nearly no archaeological research could be carried out apart from very small, targeted examinations at Nineveh in Mosul for the training of students of archaeology at Mosul University, or pre-war excavations by German, British and Italian missions.

It is known from the ongoing situation in Syria, and from past conflicts in Iraq, that looters, smugglers and art dealers are working in organized networks to fill art markets all over the world with antiquities from both nations. Objects that come from famous sites such as reliefs from Nimrud, which were reportedly stolen in June, will vanish unseen and undetected in collections of people who can afford to pay large sums for them, and who probably arranged “looting on demand” with prior knowledge of which objects are stored where and what they represent. But the looting of large and famous sites is only one facet of destruction on the much broader scale. Smaller, unexcavated and archaeologically unexplored sites lie next to villages and cities without being monitored. Sites in rural areas of contested regions are also endangered because the rural population is the one which is hit first economically: it is dangerous to grow crops, livestock is being stolen, and markets have shifted. Often digging for “treasures” is seen as easy money to support one’s family, but as can be seen around the world, it is these “subsistence diggers” who get the least money.

Militant organizations such as ISIS (or ISIL/IS/Da’ash/Da’ish) put taxes on smugglers and partially sell looted objects directly to customers. Looted and stolen antiquities become part of the bloody chain of weapons acquisition; the profits gained by dealing in antiquities provides money to pay the salary for their fighters, to pay equipment for their propaganda machinery and much more. It is important to make the criminal intentions behind the art market public, also to appeal to the ethical consciousness of the ones who can control the business, the ones who pay for it.

The destruction of cultural heritage is not a bagatelle. After the Hague Convention (first protocol 1954, second protocol 1999) it is considered subject to criminal prosecution in the Criminal Court of the country whose national territory such crimes were conducted, or at the International Criminal Court.

How many known sites are currently threatened? Which areas are seeing the greatest threats? 

An area of about 100,000 sq km (nearly as big as Iceland) is not under the control of the Iraqi government in Baghdad or the Kurdish Autonomic Region. We know of about 2,000 archaeological sites in the regions of Sinjar and Mosul and another 2,000 sites in the wider region of Ashur (near the modern city Qal’at Sherqat), Kirkuk and down to the Diyala river. The number of sites in al-Anbar province, where Haditha lies, goes well into the hundreds. All of them are threatened. Among the threatened sites are three of four sites in Iraq that were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List: Ashur, Hatra and Samarra. The first image below is of the ruins of Ashur, seen from across the Tigris, while the second represents the current dig house with the Temple of Ashur in the background (courtesy of M. Herles, 2001).

Ashurdig houseAshur and Hatra were overrun by militant forces in the beginning of June, while Samarra is on the front line at the Tigris since the beginning of July. At least in Samarra it was possible for the General Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad to establish ground forces for the protection of the site.

Nevertheless we can differentiate threats: First are finance related risks, second is cultural destruction as part of “ideological” programs, and third are damages as the result of armed conflicts. Dealing with antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums is not new to Iraq’s recent history. Everybody remembers the looting of Iraq’s largest archaeological museum in Baghdad, and some provincial museums like the one in Mosul, even though precautions were taken by the staff members of these institutions to safeguard many movable pieces. Sites of great antiquity were turned into moonscapes by some local and predominant professional looters equipped with weapons and heavy construction equipment.

We know that many activities of looting are related to an organized antiquity market. Most buyers choose not to engage with information about where their money goes to or what it contributes to. While mafia-like structures will also prevail during the ongoing conflict in Iraq, information gained about the illicit traffic of antiquities in Syria, and information found in digital files secured near Mosul early in June 2014 shows that direct selling of looted antiquities is a major source of financial funding of groups such as ISIS (or ISIL/IS/Da’ash/Da’ish).

Cuneiform tablets, stone objects such as cylinder seals, and metal antiquities are jackpots for looters, because these objects can be sold as items of “art” as if they were produced only for glass cabinets in galleries. Historically speaking they are items of daily use, and if preserved in their context and documented by professional archaeologists they can reveal a plethora of information about ancient societies.

We would know nothing about, for example, the earliest efforts at crop cultivation and animal domestication, or the Mesopotamian mathematician who authored a clay tablet with geometrical exercises that is sold at an auction or by a black market dealer. With contextual information such as the mudbrick architecture of surrounding buildings, crude and fine ceramic vessels, food remains, and his burial place, we can reconstruct the mathematician’s life from the cradle to grave. We know how children were raised, what schools looked like and how they were organized, we know how handcrafts were coordinated by an administration or family business, how important astronomy was for the organization of calendars, and we know about individual and communal treatment of the dead and what the dead can tell us about the living. But what we know from excavations is also still incomplete. The knowledge varies from region to region, period to period. It was impossible to carry out archaeological excavations in Iraq for decades. Since then new methods were developed and applied, but mostly at excavations in Syria, Turkey and the Levant, leaving a great gap of scientific knowledge in Mesopotamia, a heartland of earliest writing, scholarly traditions, deployment of economic strategies and mechanisms.

But historical sites are not just valuable for the scientific community only. People in Iraq are much connected to their cultural heritage. They live on and near the sites, profited from tourism or worked in cultural sectors. Children are taught the material and intellectual history of Mesopotamia and the people are proud of it. Many shops and companies were named after famous kings and ancient cities of importance, the famous winged bulls that guarded the entrances of the Assyrian palaces were chosen as business logos, amongst other Mesopotamian symbols. The ancient history of Iraq is omnipresent.

But the region’s history is also of importance for many branches of Islam, since important historic events during and after the life of the prophet took place along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Later, during the medieval period, Islamic religious and scientific scholarly tradition was blooming. Remnants from this time period include manuscripts, scientific equipment and buildings with unique architectural features. Many buildings and architectural remains are still preserved from this time, and the architectural tradition continues to this day. Next to it, mostly in northern Iraq, Assyrian Christian, Ezidi/Yezidi and smaller branches of Islam add cultural traditions and material heritage to the diverse ethnic and religious life of today’s Iraq, each of which is part of the millennia-long circuitous course of history in the region.

Another threat, which cannot be underestimated, is the destruction of heritage sites and movable items as “collateral damage” in war activities. While modern military weapons systems seem to be able to aim at targets very accurately, public reports of errors and failure mostly are not available, but to be expected.

The ancient settlement mounds, also known as ‘tells’ (from the Arabic word for mound) bear the remains of numerous episodes of ancient building construction superimposed on each other. But due to their elevation they are also important landmarks within war zones. Gun emplacements, guard houses, and tank positions are often dug into such mounds, as well as mines being placed on and around them to harm opponent parties if the station is captured.

Some sites are also bulldozed to get building material for street barricades; others are cut for fire trenches or barrier trenches around cities. In several cases such destruction has been complete as in the case of a site visited by our team in 2013 not far from Halabjah. The ancient settlement mound was used as a tank emplacement during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) and was completely bulldozed from within to make it still look like a normal landscape feature to the enemy. The first image below is of an ancient settlement mound near Halabjah, bulldozed to serve as a tank emplacement during the Iran-Iraq War. The second image is from the top of the same mound, that has been hollowed out, destroying all archaeological context (courtesy M. Herles, 2001). A more recent example from sites cut near Kirkuk can be found in a crisis list from 2005.

bulldozed site distance

bulldozed site topWhat is the motivation behind these attacks?

The motivation for targeted attacks at mosques and sanctuaries at first seems to be religious. In strict interpretations of the Kur’an it is forbidden to build mosques on top of graves to avoid worshipping the dead and ancestors respected by the community. The destruction of ancient sites, such as Hatra, was threatened in a recent statement released by ISIS/Da’ash. I do not know if the explanation given in the media was part of the original statement, but it is said that the site was supposed to be destroyed, because it was a place for the worshipping of false gods, demons or devils. In Syria, Assyrian statues and reliefs from the archaeological site ‘Ajaja in the lower Khabur region were smashed, all photographed, videotaped and broadcasted on various social media. This arguably also served a propagandistic purpose. We might also assume that both the religious aspect of destroying images of heathen gods, but also the outreach and recruitment potential of such attacks goes far beyond this.

Destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime as laid out by the Hague Convention; thus it is subject to criminal prosecution. It aims to eradicate the cultural identities of people and reshape history according to radical dogmatic and political aims.

In Iraq, this often accompanies ethnic cleansing and the elimination of any structure that is part of Iraq’s multiethnic/-religious society. Once the destruction of living and visual memories is completed, only fading shades of what is lost will prevail, leaving nobody behind to mourn the loss, leaving nothing to remember what was lost. Children growing up in such territories are not taught about the ancient history or diverse religions of Iraq or the world, but only the condemnation of pluralistic societies.

The recent history of wider parts in Syria, now under control of radical religious/political groups amongst which ISIS is one, already shows the outcome of such rule: a young generation that has no place to call home, that has lost its traditions and the family bonds which carry these traditions and memory, a new generation who will be trained in weapons and destruction and the maintenance of industrial facilities of strategic and economic importance, but not in the preservation, reconstruction and building of cultural values.

Where can people learn about the illicit trade of materials from Iraq in Germany?

Some information is provided by the German Homepage of UNESCO, governmental initiatives are mediated on the homepage of the Ministry for Culture and Media. A Red List for cultural heritage has been set up by the International Council of Museums to inform institutions like police, border control, Interpol and to help to identify looted objects more easily. Several newspapers have published reports about the current situation. Nevertheless the public impact of the current events in Iraq and threats to its globally significant cultural heritage still seems to be less in comparison to the last Iraq war, when the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad was plundered and archaeological sites were destroyed by looters, which caused furor worldwide.

Finally, can you explain the goals for your website overall? Its primary audience? Any plans for the eventual translation of content into Arabic and/or Kurdish?

Endangered Heritage Sites In Iraq offers the possibility to include friends and colleagues from European countries, the United States and Iraq, most of them also involved in archaeology, history or the cultural sector. Many group members feel connected to Iraqi cultural heritage in some way or another, be it by their family background, religion, or cultural or historical interest. I intend the website to be another forum to discuss and try to control the authenticity of news reports together, as well as a place for field archaeologists, architects, historians, etc. to provide more contextualized background to breaking news events as they happen. Modern media allows “normal users” to check with local sources or even with “informants,” most of them friends or family members who live in Iraq. Much can be done from the desk right now, also because it is much too dangerous for any of us to do on-the-ground background check given the violence of the situation. Another advantage of Facebook is instant translation from English into Arabic and vice versa. Kurdish dialects are still not supported, but maybe this is only a matter of time.

Nevertheless, since several weeks there are basically no reports coming from the conflicted areas. This partly might be due to the tactical pressure that is put on ISIS/Da’ash and its allies by coordinated air and ground assaults by the US Army, Kurdish, governmental and self-organized forces. Additionally, the conditions of daily life became very difficult (lack of electricity, internet access). It became very dangerous to keep contact with people outside of the contact zones, but also amongst each other. Therefore information structures are not or only little functioning.

In this phase it is important to keep up posting news and articles about the cultural heritage in the conflicted regions such as Iraq and Syria in order to keep the focus of public awareness on the topic. As we all know: no news is usually not good news and the destruction of sites and the illicit traffic of antiquities have certainly not stopped.

Abdulamir Hamdani on the implications of the current fighting for Iraq’s cultural heritage

The following is Dr. Abdulamir al-Hamdani’s presentation on the destruction of Iraq’s heritage made on July 18, 2014 at the Iraqi Cultural Center. The event was also live-tweeted by Dr. Damien Huffer (#ICHpanel) and reported here by Dr. Alex Nagel. SAFE is grateful for this collaboration, allowing us to raise awareness about these critical issues.

What can you do? Sharing knowledge about Iraq’s vanishing cultural heritage

A public panel, “The Implications of the Current Fighting for Iraq’s Cultural Heritage” was held on Friday evening, July 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. The panel was organized by the Iraqi Cultural Center (ICC), the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq (TAARII). The following is a report of the presentations.

The goal of this panel was to focus on the current situation in Iraq, particularly on the cultural impact of the fighting which broke out in the beginning of 2014. From the beginning it was clear that the implications for the future of Iraq’s cultural heritage are a major concern. In a packed room of approximately 80 people, Jabbar Jaffar (ICC) moderated the panel discussion.

The first speaker was Abdulameer Al-Dafar al-Hamdani, a member of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. ISIS has been gaining control over much of the north-western and western parts of Iraq, an area that includes approximately 4,000 important cultural heritage sites that are in immediate danger of being lost. In the Nineveh province these include the important sites of Ashur and Nimrud, Nineveh in Mosul, and the Mosul Museum. According to his information, because of security concerns and lack of guards, staff cannot check in on the sites, leaving many of the sites and institutions open for looters. We should be deeply concerned about Hatra, because of its isolation, and because the area has been used as a camp for ISIS training.

ISIS destroyed shrines 5 Beautiful Historic Shrines Destroyed Forever by Militants in Iraq

The al-Askari shrine in Samarra, which was attacked in 2006, has become a target again. Among the shrines and tombs that have been destroyed (partly by bulldozers), are the tomb of the Mosul scholar and historian al-Jazari (1160-1233), the Tomb of Jonah on the Eastern side of Mosul, the shrine of Sheikh Fathi, the golden dome of the Shiite’s Saad bin Aqeel Husseiniya shrine, and the shrine of Imam Sultan bin Asim Abdullah ibn Umar, southeast of Mosul. Yesterday, two shrines in the Basheer village, some 15km south of Kirkuk were destroyed. Destruction is not limited to sites of Sunnite or Shiite worship.

Modern statues that have been targeted or destroyed include the statue of the poet Abu Tamman (c. 788-845) and the statue of the 19th century composer Othman al-Mousuli. Among other places of worship already destroyed are the Al-Jawad Husseiniya mosque in Tal Afar and the Al-Qubba Husseiniya mosque in Mosul, both important sites for Shiites. Eleven sites of Christian worship have been destroyed including the Chaldean archdiocese. A statue of the Virgin Mary in a church in Mosul was also destroyed. There are expectations that more is to come. Among the libraries lost is the Diyala Province Library where some 1,500 books were burned.

Mr. al-Hamdani ended his presentation with a call for cooperation from the international community. There are many legal frameworks and international protocols that prevent stolen artefacts from leaving the country. Iraq needs support from the surrounding countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, but it also needs the help of dealers, collectors, and museums .They must pay particular attention to stopping the illicit trade in materials. We all must work together, as protecting Iraqi cultural heritage– the memory of humankind– is a global issue. On Wednesday, an official Iraq delegation asked UNESCO for immediate help.

The second speaker was Dr. Katharyn Hanson, Program Director for the Archaeological Site Preservation Program at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil, Iraq. In her work, Dr. Hanson combines archaeology, remote sensing, and cultural heritage policy. Throughout her presentation, Dr. Hanson stressed the role of satellite images in documenting the ongoing looting of sites.  Dr. Hanson focused on the risks of (1) unregulated building activities, (2) damage caused by armed conflict, (3) targeted destruction and intentional damage, and (4) looting. Unregulated building activities were witnessed at Nineveh in 2005 and in Syria’s Dead Cities, which became a refugee crisis camp. Dr. Hanson spoke of other sites in Syria, including Palmyra, the crusader castle of Crac de Chevaliers in the western part of the nation, and Aleppo where damage was witnessed on a weekly basis in March 2013. Via the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) it is possible to assess images of the destruction. She addressed the situation at Tel Jifar, east of Apamea in Syria, which is now topped with a military garrison and where images show looting holes on the site.

In her report on looting, Dr. Hanson began with the looting of the Iraq Museum on April 10, 2003 and introduced the site of Umma, where some 18,000 looting pits have been identified via satellite imagery since 2003. Turning again to Syria, Dr. Hanson spoke about Apamea, where more than 15,000 looting pits have been identified. At this point, Dr. Hanson referred to the important role of the public media, which can help connect the links between looting and terrorism. The International Business Times and The Guardian reported on “How an arrest in Iraq revealed ISIS’s $2billion network.” Dr. Hanson stressed that the media has the power to reveal the fact that stolen artifacts are used to raise money for terrorist organizations.

The vast amount of money that can be raised through selling antiquities was illustrated by the case of the notorious Elamite lion goddess, which sold for $57.2 million at Sotheby’s auction house in December 2007.

Dr. Hanson then asked “What can we do?” Much of the looted material is still hidden at this point, but collections, dealers, and museums will eventually acquire these objects.

ISIS destroying mosques Destruction of places of worship across northern Iraq, in areas recently taken over by extremist militants.

Therefore, Dr. Hanson stated, “Go to museums and private collectors, and ask – if the label does not say so—where an object is from! We need to decrease the demand in museums.”

Finally, Dr. Hanson stressed the role of the Blue Shield Organization, and mentioned current initiatives directed by the Penn Cultural Heritage Centre and the Smithsonian Institution, working in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other institutions. She also mentioned the effectiveness of the implementation of the UN Resolution 1483. Regarding Iraq’s antiquities laws, in 1926, it passed one of the best laws safeguarding antiquities (No. 40), and more recently in 2001, it added Law No. 55. The 1954 Hague convention addresses the protection of cultural, scientific, and artistic works during warfare. Iraq became a signatory in 1967. There are also US laws that specifically ban the import of such works.

The final speaker was Brian Michael Lione, Executive Director of University of Delaware Programs at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH) in Erbil, Iraq which was first funded by the U.S. government and officially opened in 2010. Mr. Lione introduced the IICAH and provided a brief history of its activities. He focused on the collaboration of people and networks  and asked the audience to spread information about the Institute. The students at the Iraqi Institute at Erbil are diverse and represent all of Iraq. Typically, there are about 10 students per class. The first classes took place before the official opening in 2009. Approximately 200 students have attended the program since its opening. Courses focus on (1) archaeological site protection, (2) architectural site preservation and conservation of built heritage, and (3) collections care and conservation. Students also have the chance to study English. Outreach and expansion are major components, and several international institutions have become partners. A new course “Skills for Heritage Preservation” is planned for the fall 2014.

The panel presentations were followed by a Q&A session. Mr. Jaffar opened with questions to the panelists. “What have you as subject matter experts done to help?” Dr. Hanson was quick in replying. “Not enough!” The global scholarly community needs to be involved. Mr. Jaffar then asked, “With the military might of international community, why didn’t you stop ISIS before it started?” Questions from the audience addressed the role of the media and provided suggestions on how these reports of destruction might reach the press more easily as conflicts involving the protection of cultural heritage are still only marginally covered in international media.

One member of the audience asked about the particular role of the media in boosting ISIS. Recent reports have expressed doubt about the true extent of destruction. Mr. al-Hamdani said that he is in touch with colleagues in Mosul on a daily basis. Another audience member referred to the inspirational role of the “Monuments Men”. Dr. Hanson noted that while she understands the aesthetic appeal of many of the objects that are being looted, it is the context that we need to care about first, as looting destroys the only information we have about the origin of these works. According to Mr. al-Hamdani, it is clear that those who demand these artifacts share equal blame with ISIS which profits from their sale. Mr. al-Hamdani therefore asked Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey– the countries surrounding Iraq– to help with the problems, and noted the responsibility of the international community, particular dealers, collectors and museums.

The evening panel was a reminder for all of us to think about how we as individuals can help. The main task is to increase public awareness of the situation. The Iraqi State Board of Antiquities is in a difficult situation and needs your help spreading the word out about a growing disaster. Time is crucial as there is new damage every day. Our world cultural heritage is at stake.

Note: Please also view the discussion on twitter: #ICHP and 2009 report on the Mosul Museum

Remembering and Raising Awareness at the Royal Ontario Museum

SAFE presents the following announcement from Dr. Clemens Reichel and Mary Montgomery in participation of our 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. Thank you for keeping the memory alive!

Clemens Reichel, Ph.D.
Associate Curator (Ancient Near East) Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto and Assistant Professor (Mesopotamian Archaeology), University of Toronto

Mary Montgomery
Exhibit Planner, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

The looting of the Iraq Museum that followed the 2003 Iraq War attracted attention far beyond the museum community. As SAFE’s website illustrates, this tragedy — which was followed by the destruction of many of Iraq’s archaeological sites by looters —continues to elicit strong reactions and critical commentaries. This year, individuals as well as institutions worldwide are observing the 10th anniversary of these events. At the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, they are re-told through Catastrophe!, an acclaimed exhibit that is presented in conjunction with the blockbuster exhibition Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World.

Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past was produced by the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute in 2008. Consisting of text panels, images and graphics, it aimed at educating the public about the looting and raising awareness to ongoing concerns. For the 10th anniversary, the Oriental Institute updated selected panels to reflect ongoing changes in Iraq and elsewhere and to include the most recent information. The Royal Ontario Museum is the first museum to present Catastrophe! Ten Years Later, the revised exhibition, in its entirety.

Catastrophe! Ten Years Later examines the severity of the looting and on-going ramifications to Iraq’s cultural heritage. The show is divided into six thematic sections: Introduction; The Museum;  Archaeological and Heritage Sites in Iraq; The Importance of Archaeological Context; Looted Artifacts;  What Has Been Done: What Can be Done? Protecting the Past. The exhibit ends with a call to action, providing information on what the public can do to preserve mankind’s cultural heritage by helping to prevent the illicit trade of antiquities.

The ROM’s commemorative programming includes a two-day symposium – Robbing The Cradle of Civilization: Preserving the Art and Archaeology of Mesopotamiascheduled for October 19th and 20th 2013.  It will include a keynote conversation with  Colonel Matthew Bogdanos and the University of Chicago’s Prof. McGuire Gibson on lessons learned from the 2003 looting.

The aftermath of the Iraq Museum still affects us today. With Catastrophe! Ten Years Later the ROM joins SAFE and cultural institutions worldwide in ensuring that the memory of what happened a decade ago will remain on the public’s mind.

Catastrophe! Ten Years Later is on display at the Royal Ontario Museum until January 5, 2014.

This exhibit was developed, written and produced at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Photo:  Damage to Iraq National Museum’s façade. April 2003.  
Credit:  Joanne Farchakh-Bajjaly

Neil Brodie: It is no surprise that the looting continues.

We thank Neil Brodie for joining pur 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with the following statement. Dr. Brodie, an author of “Looting and the World’s Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response” with Colin Renfrew, is a SAFE Beacon Award Winner in 2008.

Ten years ago, in 2003, I was reading a lot about the looting of archaeological sites and museums in Iraq. I was writing a bit about it too. At the time, I was research director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre, which had been established five years earlier, partly in response to the archaeological looting that had followed the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq was firmly on my agenda, but Iraq wasn’t the only country in the news — for several years Afghanistan had been dominating headlines and the J. Paul Getty Museum’s 1999 return of three objects to Italy was a portent of things to come. In the decade following 2003, the developing Italian campaign to recover looted objects from museums drew attention away from Iraq, and over the past few years Iraq has been all but forgotten as archaeological site looting has gained hold in Syria and Egypt, and in the museum world attention has shifted to acquisitions of illicitly-traded artifacts from Cambodia and India.

Looking back, one thing is clear. The effort and resources put into protecting Iraqi sites during the 2000s have done nothing to help protect Syrian and Egyptian sites in the 2010s. Similarly, whatever international response can be mobilised now to protect sites on the ground in Syria will do nothing to protect sites in the next country along. Nor will it do anything to protect sites in Iraq. (Has the looting actually stopped in Iraq? If so, why? If not, why isn’t it being reported and what is being done about it?) The response to archaeological looting seems reactive, working on a country-by-country basis, but this is not enough. Looting will never be controlled by on-the-ground site protection, which is much too expensive and usually a case of too little too late. Looting will only be curtailed by adequate policies of trade regulation at the international level, focusing on demand, not supply.

There is an uneasy sense that the reactive response to looting is media-led, and probably for good reason. The most revealing, insightful and ultimately influential studies of the antiquities trade have been by journalists. I could name them here but they know who they are, so I will spare their blushes. The best reporting of site looting in Iraq was also by journalists. But while media research is good, it is also transient and its impact on public policy is limited. Policy makers look for hard empirical evidence and coherent reasoned arguments. Whether rightly or wrongly, they turn to academic and other professional experts. Yet there is only a small handful of archaeologists, museum curators, art historians, lawyers and criminologists who make it their business to investigate the antiquities trade, and despite the high-profile media reporting of the past ten years, the number and identities of the people involved haven’t changed much. The appropriate experts have failed to mobilise in numbers adequate for the job at hand. The inadequate response of the archaeological community has been particularly regrettable in this regard. Many archaeologists are quick to complain about looting but slow to engage in work of any kind that might help towards a solution. It is easier for them to point the finger at museums.

“Looting will only be curtailed by adequate policies of trade regulation at the international level, focusing on demand, not supply.”

One reason for this seeming failure of scholarship is that research needs to be multidisciplinary, which is difficult in a university environment where different subjects often seem to speak different languages, and where career-enhancing “excellence” is more easily assessed in well-worn disciplinary paradigms. Another reason is that high quality information about the trade is not forthcoming. Several scholars have produced good ethnographic studies of looters or subsistence diggers at source, but there is nothing comparable for demand — no ethnographic reporting of rich and powerful collectors in their native habitats of Beverly Hills or wherever. Presumably these collectors and their confederates are lawyered-up and easily able to deflect academic enquiry in a way that the people who actually do the digging aren’t. This is a sorry reflection on the self-professed “objectivity” and “disinterest” of academic research, which instead exhibits a clear and understandable self-interested desire to avoid unproductive legal quagmires. But it does highlight one of the problems associated with information gathering.

Another problem is the withholding of information. I am asked on almost a weekly basis by journalists what evidence there is of Syrian artifacts appearing on the open market. I don’t know. I don’t even know whether or not Syrian artifacts are appearing on the open market. I do know that a lot of Iraqi material never appeared on the open market. While I was writing this piece, AFP quoted an Iraqi source reporting that the United States and Iraq had reached agreement over the return of more than 10,000 artifacts that had somehow made their way into the United States over the past ten years. Perhaps in the the year 2023 AFP will be reporting the return of 10,000 Syrian artifacts, at which point I will be happy to answer questions about Syrian artifacts on the market, though by then of course, media attention will have moved on. No one has asked me about the recent AFP announcement — Iraq is last decade’s news. But there is a more serious point. Assuming the source is reliable, AFP also reported that the two sides had agreed not to reveal how the artifacts came to be in the United States. Why not? Perhaps because Syrian artifacts are travelling through similar channels and seizures are imminent? Or perhaps instead because someone has something to hide. With no mention of any arrests or indictments the latter explanation seems more likely. Is there a cover-up?

While information about the acquisition and exchange of illicitly-traded artifacts is suppressed or witheld it inhibits productive research into the trade and ultimately the formulation of novel and progressive policy aimed at constraining demand. Without such research, the fall-back position is for globally-ineffective local interventions, ameliorating symptoms but not tackling the cause. It is no surprise that the looting continues.

If Donny George had been a criminologist…

… We would have lost a fantastic archeologist, for sure. Do not get me wrong. If Dr. George had been a criminologist, we would have had a person with the astounding intellectual prowess and amazing human nature in our ranks. But things are what they are and Dr. George will be remembered in the annals of archaeology –not criminology– as the passionate scholar he was.

When SAFE asked me to contribute in this amazing project, I decided from the very beginning that I wanted to present a different view of Dr. George. I am sure that most of the readers know the life, deeds and works of Dr. George as well as the palms of their hands.

Let us remember how, in horror we all witnessed the destruction that the Iraqi war brought in terms of human lives, and, as in other armed conflicts, to cultural heritage. As in many other recent conflicts, we were powerless as we witnessed international treaties being disregarded on so many fronts. In terms of cultural property treaties, the list includes the Geneva Convention of 1949 and its two protocols of 1977 (Articles 38 and 53 of Protocol I and Article 16 of Protocol II) as well as the Hague Convention of 1954 which forbids the use of cultural institutions as either targets or fortresses. However, the poor National Museum in Baghdad was located in the line of fire.

Donny George holding slab Donny George with antiquities stolen from an excavation site
The Telegraph

I always considered that Dr. George’s most amazing deed was his passionate defense of the National Museum both in the time of horrible turmoil and afterwards. I cannot imagine the emotional impact of witnessing how, after the battle was fought and the Museum was left unguarded for 96 hours (until the afternoon of the 12th of April), the Museum became the victim not only of the armed conflict but also of an enraged mob that identified the museum with Saddam’s regime and of looters.

Because, today, the destruction of cultural heritage and looting are considered to be crimes against cultural property, criminology is the perfect discipline for understanding such key events in Dr. George’s life. Two theories might apply. One is “Routine Activity Theory”, a micro-level theory developed by Cohen and Felson in 1979 in order to explain the behavior of individuals engaged in predatory street crime. The core of the theory is that criminal activity revolves around the routine activities of a certain population. The rate of such activities is dependent on three factors: a suitable target (in art crime, the value of a property), a motivated offender (a person with criminal inclinations and the ability to carry them), and the absence of a capable guardian (either a formal or informal one) with capacity for intervening. I am sure Dr. George would see how this theory may explain what happened to his beloved but unguarded museum.

The other theory I might apply to this incident is “Anomie”. Émile Durkheim coined the term and discussed it in two of his works:–“The Division of Labor in Society” (1893) and “Suicide” (1897). Durkheim refers specifically to “dérèglement”, a synonym for anomie, which is a general societal condition. “Dérèglement” is etymologically interpreted as a state of corruption, evil, agitation, torment, impiety, and intemperance that leads to general suffering and torment. All of these terms can be applied to societal conditions at the time of the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum as revealed in testimony and reports and are in line with Durkheim’s general assumptions that a disorganized social condition leads to suffering and distress.

It is interesting that I still use the case of the Baghdad Museum in many of my courses to illustrate these theories. (Might this be a Freudian homage to Dr. George?). Perhaps, wise as he was, he knew about these criminological theories. If not, I would have loved to have had the opportunity to sit with him and discuss how these theories might bring explain the events of those chaotic days. If Dr. George had been a criminologist, there would have been no need for me to do so. Once again, I state that I cherish his work, his spirit, his discipline and his deeds…
Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Dr. George.

Memories of a Broken Museum: Ten Years of SAFE

SAFE is grateful to Roger Atwood for sharing this personal reminiscence with us in observance of the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. The photos accompanying this reflection are previously unpublished and exclusively SAFE’s.

A little over 10 years ago, after a long flight from Washington and an overnight taxi ride from Amman, I arrived at the ruined Iraq Museum. By then, it was known around the world that thousands of artifacts had been stolen in the chaos following the arrival of American troops in Baghdad. There was still some question about how many artifacts had been robbed and exactly how the looting had happened, questions that would be answered over the next few months by journalists, investigators and the museum’s towering curator of antiquities, Donny George. On that day in May 2003, it was clear only that looters had wrecked one of the Middle East’s great institutions while American troops, who now sat desultorily in lawn chairs near the entrance to the museum, had been unwilling or unable to stop it.

I had expected to find the museum in some disarray, judging from news reports. Yet nothing could prepare me for what I saw. After a long interview with Donny in his office, I wandered down the hallways and galleries and found the place completely ransacked. It was a scene of total destruction. In offices, bookcases had been overturned and file cabinets emptied of their contents, their papers lying all over the floor. A desk stood on its side, boxes were overturned, windows broken. A large, metal safe looked like it had been wrenched open with a crowbar, its door flung open to reveal … nothing. An empty safe. In one corner there were some blackened papers, as if someone had tried to start a fire. In the galleries, the glass from busted display cases lay scattered on the floor. Bits of stone lay around, as if someone had taken a hammer or chisel to a now-disappeared sculpture. Most alarmingly, apart from those U.S. soldiers outside, there seemed to be no security at all. No one stopped me as I wandered from room to room. I seemed to have the whole place to myself.

A few days later, Donny and the museum’s director Nawala al-Mutwali led me and a few other journalists on a tour of the ruined galleries, including many I had not seen that first day. We saw where looters had dragged the ancient, iron masterpiece of naturalistic sculpture known as the Basetki statue down a flight of stairs, breaking each stair as they yanked it along. Where the Warka vase had stood, we saw just a broken pedestal and a pile of broken glass. In room after room, Donny showed us shattered vitrines, empty shelves, damaged stone carvings. One large sculpture, I can’t remember which one, stood at a strange angle out in a hallway; apparently the looters had tried to haul it away but gave up because it was too heavy. Crude hammers and other tools lay on the floor.

Here and there were signs of how the museum’s staff, at least some of the staff, had tried to prevent the destruction. Foam padding lay underneath the largest stone sculptures. Curators had placed the padding to protect the pieces if they fell during the aerial bombardment that preceded the invasion, Donny explained. Much of the collection had been moved off-site, to protect it from just this sort of disaster, he said. I asked him about the Sippar library, a collection of 800 cuneiform tablets dating from the early first millennium B.C., which had been widely reported destroyed in the looting. “It is safe. It is out of danger,” he said, in that voice of warm reassurance and authority.

Amid all this destruction, I was surprised to hear Donny express some optimism that the museum could rebuild and reopen. Maybe it could recover the stolen objects. He and Matt Bogdanos, the American army colonel, were already working up plans to persuade, cajole or bully the thieves to return as much of the loot as could be traced. “The theft was like a wound to my body, like somebody had cut me,” Donny told me that day. But he added, “The collection is basically intact. We can rebuild.” Over the next year or so, it became clear that about 15,000 objects had been stolen, mostly cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals taken from the museum’s storerooms. I understand that most have since been recovered, including many, but not all, of the marquee items that were carted away from the main galleries. Donny worked for the rest of his life trying to rebuild the museum, recover its stolen antiquities and reopen it to the public, even after he was forced to flee the country due to threats to his family in 2006.

SAFE was born of the international outrage at the theft in the Iraq Museum and –even worse – the pillage of archaeological sites all over Iraq by looting mafias looking for treasures to sell on the global antiquities market. A group of scholars, students, professional and members of the public came together in 2003 to say, this must never happen again. As the memory of that appalling act of vandalism in Baghdad fades a little, I’m glad SAFE continues to work to call attention to the destructive power of the illicit antiquities trade and to the legacy of Donny George. That spirit — his spirit — of acknowledging the loss of heritage while working without discouragement to put the pieces back together, that determination to keep the problem of looting in the public eye, are what motivated Donny and what inspires SAFE. I’ve been proud to be a part of this organization.

Happy 10th anniversary, SAFE.

Diane Siebrandt on Iraq’s cultural heritage and current preservation efforts

The following statement and photographs are contributed by Diane Siebrandt, in observance of the 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. SAFE is grateful for her insightful reflection.

Diane Siebrandt worked in Iraq overseeing the American Embassy’s Cultural Heritage Program between 2006 and 2013. She was able to visit much of the country during her time there, gaining first-hand knowledge while working on numerous sites, including archaeological ruins, modern cultural monuments and religious structures. Prior to that, she was part of the Regime Crimes Liaison Office that excavated and analyzed material from mass graves found in Iraq. Diane is currently a PhD student at Deakin University, focusing on tracking the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and how it relates to peaks and ebbs of violence.

Assyrian Hall, Iraq Museum The Assyrian Hall at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, Iraq

I also had the great privilege to know Donny George and speak with him on multiple occasions about the cultural heritage of Iraq. He truly was an inspiration and is greatly missed.

While there were many mistakes made before, during and after the war, I think it is important to remember that there are a number of individuals who have fought the hard fight to turn to the positive and do some good. I was lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to implement and manage a cultural heritage program for Iraq while working for the US Embassy in Baghdad from 2006 until early this year (2013). In conjunction with the Department of State’s Cultural Heritage Center, I managed numerous successful cultural heritage projects, some of which continue today. Just to name two, the Future of Babylon Project, and the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project, resulting in the establishment of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage are both great achievements. Providing refurbishments to the Iraq Museum was also a success, as well as providing training opportunities for cultural heritage specialists from across Iraq. The full list of programs is still viewable on the Embassy’s website:

One of the reliefs of a “Mushussu” animal figure on Babylon’s Ishtar Gate One of the reliefs of a “Mushussu” animal figure on Babylon’s Ishtar Gate
Caliphal Palace at Samarra Documenting conditions inside the Caliphal Palace at Samarra

It is disheartening to see that Iraq and her people endure continued violence and unrest.

Human suffering persists while museums remain closed, archaeological sites still suffer from the hands of looters, agricultural encroachment and maintenance neglect, while the plight of the country is now largely forgotten. Thank you SAFE for being a driving force to keep Iraq in the news, we cannot forget.

My fight continues by working on my PhD, which highlights cultural heritage issues in Iraq. I am part of a team that is creating the world’s first database that documents the destruction of heritage that occurred in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. My own thesis focuses on evaluating complex inter-cultural relationships between foreign and indigenous personnel and their role in the destruction or preservation of cultural heritage in Iraq.

I remain hopeful, if a bit uncertain, about what the future holds for Iraq’s cultural heritage, but look forward to the day when the country is stable enough so all people can visit the wonders of Mesopotamia.

“He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden, he brought information of (the time) before the Flood.

He went on a distant journey, pushing himself to exhaustion, but then was brought to peace.” (The Epic of Gilgamesh 1.5-8).

—Diane Siebrandt


10 Years After: Have We Done Enough?

I’m currently studying history of art with archaeology at University College London, and I’m SAFE’s new intern for summer 2013. I’ll be working primarily on the Middle East raising awareness about the danger to sites in those countries as well as doing research on the market for antiquities from sites in those regions. I will also be contributing to the SAFE blog, Twitter and Facebook as part of SAFE’s mandate to raise public awareness.

2013 vigil candle logo Click to light a virtual candle!

When I was in kindergarten, a family friend used to take me to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Staring in speechless awe at the lushly wallpapered rooms and sublime paintings, I was most enraptured by the hauntingly empty frames. Who would steal a work of art from the public? It never occurred to me as a teenager obsessed with Indiana Jones that the crime Jones committed  himself was far worse than what had happened in the Isabella Stewart Gardner. Swooping into archaeological sites, Jones destroys the context of the priceless artifacts he uncovers, thereby preventing us from fully understanding the past societies who left this evidence behind.

While I’ve come to realize that Indiana Jones doesn’t necessarily set the best standards of archaeological excavation, it has inspired me to have a life-long love of art and archaeology. It is crucial that future generations are able to learn to love ancient artifacts just as I have, but that won’t be possible if looting and destruction continues at its current rate. That is why SAFE is such an important organization. By raising awareness of the threats to our global cultural heritage, and hosting this candlelight vigil each year, SAFE is pushing that heritage’s protection into the limelight.

I’m incredibly passionate about the restitution of Holocaust-era looted art, and while those cases are covered in the media, there is comparatively little attention paid to the widespread destruction of archaeological artifacts through looting and conflict. The events earlier this year in Mali really highlighted for me the extent to which cultural heritage is still not at the forefront of the public’s mind. We like to pigeonhole the destruction of cultural heritage a something that others do (like the Bamiyan Buddhas), when in fact it happens in our own backyard. Furthermore, it will continue to happen unless individuals across disciplines and across geographic boundaries agree to work together to stop it.

Ten years after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, less than half of the objects taken have been returned. Why is there not more outrage at this fact?

It pains me to see news stories about eye-wateringly steep prices for the latest auctioned antiquity with no discussion of provenance or due diligence. How is it possible for an institution as prestigious as the Smithsonian to still become embroiled in a controversy about illicit excavation in the 21st century? I hope that this Candlelight Vigil will continue to spread the word that looting affects more than just the source country, and that it’s far from a solved problem. Looting destroys our shared global heritage, and I hope that by lighting this candle, I can do something about it. After all, I wouldn’t want to disappoint the five-year old who, in some alternate universe, is still gazing, enraptured, at the hauntingly empty frames that hang in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

The US State Department’s Iraq Cultural Heritage Initiative

At the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum the US Department of State issued this press release about its efforts to “protect, preserve, and display the rich cultural heritage of Iraq.” It is reposted below.

Iraq-Museum-Islamic-Gallery-2011Commemorating a Decade of U.S.-Iraqi Collaboration in Renewing the Iraq Museum

Media Note

Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
April 10, 2013

For ten years, the U.S. Department of State has been working closely with Iraqi counterparts and American academic and nonprofit institutions to protect, preserve, and display the rich cultural heritage of Iraq. Cultural heritage cooperation is a major pillar of the Iraq-U.S. Strategic Framework Agreement, reflecting the high value both nations place on this irreplaceable resource.

A major continuing effort has focused on the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, where looting in April 2003 left the facility physically damaged and an unsafe environment for both staff and the Museum’s collections. In summer 2003, State Department personnel were among the first responders to the museum’s needs, providing replacement photographic equipment, office furniture, and supplies. An assessment in autumn 2003 conducted by experts in museum security, environmental control, conservation, and information technology initiated a 2004 project of major improvements to the museum’s physical plant, IT capabilities, and security.

This assessment also laid the groundwork for the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project, a $12.9 million initiative developed and funded by the State Department, and implemented by the nonprofit International Relief and Development from 2008 to 2011. This project rehabilitated and furnished 11 of the museum’s public galleries, a 3-story collections storage facility, and the conservation labs, as well as providing a new roof and upgraded climate control systems.

Along with physical improvements to the building, the State Department sponsored and organized trainings for museum staff as part of its comprehensive approach to partnering with Iraqis in the preservation of their cultural heritage. In 2004, the Department funded a special five-week “Cultural Heritage Institute” through the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, to bring 22 Iraqi museum staff to the Smithsonian Institution for training in museum management, conservation, and curatorial practices. In 2009-2010, the Department’s Iraq Cultural Heritage Project also provided training for 20 museum professionals from throughout Iraq at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, covering topics from exhibit design and museum education to archaeological site excavation and stabilization.

Iraq Museum Hatra Gallery 2011Funding for these projects was provided through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Cultural Heritage Center and Office of Academic Exchanges, the U.S. Embassy Baghdad, and private foundations. Images and more information about other cultural heritage projects in Iraq can be found here.

Media contact: Susan Pittman,, (202) 632-6373.

Ten years after, Juan Cole takes us to the Iraq Museum

In observance of the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage, the following article originally posted here by Juan Cole, is reposted here with Professor Cole’s permission.

Juan Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, March, 2009) and he also recently authored Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). He has been a regular guest on PBS’s Lehrer News Hour, and has also appeared on ABC Nightly News, Nightline, the Today Show, Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper 360, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, the Colbert Report, Democracy Now! and many others. He has given many radio and press interviews. He has written widely about Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and South Asia. He has commented extensively on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Iraq War, the politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Iranian domestic struggles and foreign affairs. He has a regular column at Truthdig. He continues to study and write about contemporary Islamic movements, whether mainstream or radical, whether Sunni and Salafi or Shi`ite. Cole commands Arabic, Persian and Urdu and reads some Turkish, knows both Middle Eastern and South Asian Islam. He lived in various parts of the Muslim world for nearly 10 years, and continues to travel widely there. A bibliography of his writings may be found here.

My Visit to the Iraqi National Museum (Photo Gallery)

Posted on 05/25/2013 by Juan Cole

Here is a photo gallery from my visit on May 9, 2013, to the Iraqi National Museum, courtesy the Ministry of Culture. Ancient Iraq or Mesopotamia was, of course, the cradle of civilization, and the treasures on display are breathtaking.

Donald Rumsfeld allowed thousands of items to be looted from the museum in 2003. (US soldiers watched the looting happen but were ordered not to intervene). Many artifacts have been recovered but 3000 – 7000 are still missing. Most of the really important and striking pieces are back on display. Some things, including precious cuneiform tablets chronicling the dawn of civilization, were forever destroyed. The damage to the museum and its collection is yet another black mark against the Bush administration and, sorry, the United States of America, which by its illegal and brutal invasion and occupation diminished our store of knowledge about a crucial period of world history.


Thoughts on the Tragedy of Iraqi Cultural Heritage, and Three Inspired Responses to it: SAFE, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, and Dr. Saad Eskander of the Iraq National Library and Archive

The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies has prompted many reflections.  They bring to my mind the Bad Faith to which the Iraqi people have been subjected ever since the victorious powers betrayed their Arab allies at Versailles after WWI.  “Bomber” Harris, who presided over the destruction of German cities from the air in WWII, practiced on rebellious Iraqi villages in the 1920s.  There was no organic connection between the royal Hashemite line imposed by the British on the Iraqi people, laying the grounds for nationalist coups to come, and the seemingly ineluctable descent into Saddam Hussein’s despotism.  The extraordinarily destructive invasion (in its acts and consequences) was but one of the more recent such betrayals, although in that instance the American and British people were also victims, though less grievously so.

Saddam’s dictatorship betrayed the Iraqi people in countless ways, including the gross distortions of culture and corruption of institutions that benefited the narrow interests of the dictator and his regime.  Unimaginable damage was wreaked by the war with Iran.  The human losses in their most concrete terms were terrible, but those to culture were similarly bad, from the devastation of Basra to the ecocide that destroyed the Marsh Arabs’ way of life after the 1991 Gulf War, which was precipitated by Saddam’s desire to rid himself of the debts incurred by the previous one.  The exorbitant costs of these wars resulted in the pervasive underfunding of culture and education throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the sad fact that the Iraq Museum was kept shut for twenty years before the American invasion, opened only for VIP events.  That it remains closed despite much effort to rehabilitate it is evidence for the bad faith of venal and incompetent successor governments.

Starting in April 2003, I devoted my attention to the plight of Iraqi libraries and archives, resulting in two lengthy reports alongside other work that recounts much of that sorry tale*1

Two images of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here exhibit These two images, one general and one specific, of the first of three exhibits at the Cambridge Arts Council’s gallery representing the first of three exhibits of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here-related artwork. They are principally artist books (85 of them in the vitrines), with some of the broadsides on the walls. A second exhibit of 82 books is now up, with a third to follow.
Cambridge Arts Council

It is through this work that I became acquainted with SAFE and the indefatigable Cindy Ho.  It is generally the case that any successful voluntary enterprise requires one inspired leader to get it going and, often, to sustain it, even though other committed individuals may contribute to its depth and breadth.  Cindy is that person, and one of those others whom she inspired to participate, Irina Tarsis, enlisted my participation in three symposia sponsored or co-sponsored by SAFE, the most salient being my paper, “Contested Patrimony: The Fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive,” presented at Homeward Bound: Returning Displaced Books and Manuscripts.

It is heartening that SAFE has expanded its activities beyond Iraqi antiquities to those of other nations, and has considered those aspects of cultural heritage and national patrimony of more direct concern to those such as myself.  Its activities and website benefit the whole world.  Another person who, like Cindy Ho, was moved to initiate a project addressing threatened Iraqi culture, is Beau Beausoleil, poet and bookseller of San Francisco, who founded Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here following the catastrophic bombing of the street of the booksellers in Baghdad on 5 March 2007.  He has stated that he kept waiting for someone to do something in response to such a terrible affront to all that is good and decent, but nobody did, so he acted, first locally and then globally. This has resulted in an arguably unprecedented imaginative response: the creation of much poetry and other writing,*2 scores of broadsides, and about 360 artist books that reveal an extraordinary range of visual, literary and technical creativity. They have been on exhibit in many places, and a complete set of will eventually arrive at the Iraq National Library and Archive (a set of the broadsides has already reached the INLA).•3

I was asked to provide a meaningful context for the eponymous event at one of the occasions associated with the six-month exhibit in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  That follows here.

“Framing the Bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street: How We Might Think about what Led to it”

 Jeff Spurr, 25 February 2013


“Locating Al-Mutanabbi Street”
Cambridge Arts Council Gallery

We Americans tend to be navel gazers, deeply involved in our own problems, and oblivious to the consequences of our projection of power abroad.  Few have any conception of — or concern for — the cumulative suffering born by the Iraqi people, and the derangements to Iraqi society caused by our contribution to it.

A long, dark road led to the bomb blast at Al-Mutanabbi Street on March 5th, 2007.  The moral and symbolic implications of that horrendous event have been broadly addressed, thanks in particular to this wonderful initiative, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, rich evidence of which we see around us.

This evening I will briefly try to provide some context.  In my view, five principal conditions frame that terrible act.  They are (1) the nature of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime, (2) the crippling sanctions against Iraq after the Gulf War of 1990-1991, (3) the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, (4) the disastrous policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority under L. Paul Bremer, and (5) the existence of a mobile radical Islamic movement associated with al-Qaeda, whose peculiar nature supports a terrifying cultural nihilism.

(1) Despotic regimes not only make the welfare of the tyrant and few others the measure of what is good and right for a whole nation, but their corrupt and absolutist ways suppress any normal civil society, and preclude the development of mature political views, mechanisms, and behavior, in the process injecting slow-working poisons into the body politic that remain long after these regimes are gone.  The resulting political immaturity, unfamiliarity with democratic ways, and dearth of practical initiative (due, that is, to the top-down character of all decision-making in such police states), have dire implications for what comes after.

(2)  The sanctions regime of the 1990s had no serious effect on Saddam, his family and cronies, whose control over the state remained unabated; however, it immiserated much of the Iraqi middle class, and made the lives of the poor much less bearable, adding new distress to a population that had already endured the terrible ravages of the Iran-Iraq war, ignominious defeat in the Gulf War, and the savage suppression of the subsequent Shi’ite rebellion in Central and Southern Iraq.

(3)  The criminally reckless American invasion was essentially undertaken without a plan beyond tactical questions concerning the inevitable military victory, which is to say the easy part.  General Shinseki was fired for speaking the truth regarding management of the aftermath, and magical thinking reigned in the White House.  The invasion began with the revolting spectacle of “Shock and Awe,” destruction from the skies targeting infrastructure and ministries whose principal consequence would be to dramatically diminish the capacity of successor governments to run the country.  Even worse, no provision was made to impose a new authority after the totalitarian regime was overthrown:  the lid was taken off the pressure cooker and not replaced.  Chaos was the inevitable result.  As history has shown, opportunists will always take advantage of the absence of authority, but the terrifying result under these especially bad circumstances was massive looting of nearly every institution in the country outside of Iraqi Kurdistan — whether cultural, educational, or governmental — from which Iraq will never fully recover.

Two images of the INLA (Iraq National Library and Archive).  The "before" image is actually after the arson but before restoration of an interior space (you can discern the stairs), while the "after" is of the same space (though a larger view), after Dr. Eskander's restoration. Two images of the INLA (Iraq National Library and Archive).  The ‘before’ image is actually after the arson but before restoration of an interior space (you can discern the stairs), while the ‘after’ is of the same space (though a larger view), after Dr. Eskander’s restoration.

(4)  Then came the misrule of Paul Bremer, America’s satrap at the CPA, and arch-privatizer.  A combination of arrogance, ignorance and ideology scarcely matched by his boss led to the cashiering of the whole Iraqi army, an act of folly that removed a potential stabilizing force (Republican Guard excepted), and threw a couple hundred thousand men out of work.  Since the army of occupation had failed to secure ammo dumps across Iraq, arms were readily available.  Bremer also closed all state-owned enterprises, consigning countless others to unemployment and disaffection.  The mass firing of members of the Baath Party had similar results.  Idle hands make for the Devil’s work, after all, and the inability to mobilize for employment and sustain anything resembling normal functioning, plus an endless series of other unfortunate decisions, led inevitably to resistance — further exacerbated by blunt force behavior by the occupying forces.

Indeed, resistance led to extreme reaction.  Whereas it was said of the Vietnam War, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it,” things graduated in Iraq to “we destroyed the city to save it,” notably in the cases of Fallujah and Ramadi.  What leverage might have been gained from overthrowing the widely-hated Saddam was quickly squandered.

It is virtually axiomatic that a system of repression such as existed under Saddam leaves people little choice but to identify with more elementary structures of society:  the family, the tribe, and, particularly among the less secularized Iraqi lower classes, religion.  This is where social fault lines develop when all else disintegrates.

Violent Sunni resistance led ineluctably to two things:  the emergence of the much more radical al-Qaeda in Iraq, not invested in the preservation of any people or place, and largely consisting of foreign Arab elements coming from Jordan and through Syria, mirrored by the embrace of violence by Shi’ite groups, most conspicuously the Sadr Brigades, lumpen elements supporting that firebrand Shi’ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.  This combustible situation led to an all-out civil war conducted by these radicalized elements, precipitated in its aggravated form when al-Qaeda blew up the Shi’ite Al-Askari Mosque and Shrine at Samarra in February 2006.  Al-Qaeda elements have been employing a slogan, “taqsir wa tafjir,” which, translated into English, signifies something like “denounce and detonate” or, according to a friend, effectively “blow them all up.”

It was in the context of this explosion of hate and strife, when upwards of four million largely middle class Iraqis (proportionately equivalent to about 42 million Americans), were forced to flee their homes, unlikely to return, that Al-Mutanabbi Street was devastated.  When tens of thousands are being murdered, when many parties are behaving in wanton ways, and when forces that consider humanism and enlightenment to be the enemy are unleashed on the land, it comes as no great surprise that this terrible crime occurred, much as we may lament it.

[modified and expanded for SAFE:]

As a coda, I would like to add that one man has shown what is possible in Iraq despite the conditions I have just described.  That person is Dr. Saad Eskander, who took charge of a devastated Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA) in the fall of 2003 at a very dark hour for that institution and Iraq.  There his performance has been exemplary under the most trying of circumstances.

Dr. Eskander not only succeeded in restoring a structure that had been declared a dead loss, but took a corrupt, moribund staff of 95 and turned it into a thriving, productive one of over 300, shepherding it through the dark years of civil war and difficult times since, initiating an enlightened administration in which the staffs of departments elect their representatives to the institution’s council; encouraging a women’s group that began a canteen and child care onsite.  He reached out to the world, for which reason he received critical donations of equipment and materials of every sort from many countries and institutions, plus advanced training for his staff on several fronts.  Despite having to repeatedly cope with retrograde elements in the Ministry of Culture and elsewhere in government, he has sustained the integrity of his institution and arranged for the building of a new National Archives building and a Generations Library for children and youth.  A new building for digital projects is underway.  Dr. Eskander has also spearheaded the effort to repatriate various classes of seized Iraqi documents on US soil or in American hands.  Much of this is described in detail in my 2007 and 2010 reports.  Despite  the grievous losses due to arson and deliberate flooding in April 2003, Saad Eskander continues his labors in the service of Iraqi culture and heritage.  His work provides not only a model for best practices in the administration of a cultural institution in Iraq, but for the world. We owe him our admiration and support.


*1 July 2005 report:

July 2007 report:

A substantial update that focuses on controversies concerning various classes of seized Iraqi documents still under American control may be found in

“Report on Iraqi Libraries and Archives, 2010,” MELA Notes, no. 83 (2010), pp. 14-38

at which point one must click on:

MELA Notes number 83 (2010)


*2  Beausoleil, Beau and Deema Shehabi, eds., Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5th, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad’s “Street of the Booksellers”, PM Press, Oakland, CA, 2012


*3  see:

NB: the big hole in the ground mentioned in this article is not the new Archives building, which has already been built, although not as yet fully furnished; it is the foundation for the Digital Library building, Dr. Eskander having long ago initiated a comprehensive plan for digitization in the service of transparency and access for Iraqis to their history and heritage.

SAFE kickstarts global awareness campaign with appreciation

Beginning today, on the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum, SAFE will observe The Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with a global awareness campaign “10 YEARS AFTER” which focuses on our core mission: to raise public awareness about the irreversible damage that results from looting, smuggling and trading illicit antiquities.

Until October 1, we will highlight the following on our web site and social media outlets:

• the efforts of institutions and individuals dedicated to global heritage preservation;
• the global concern of looting and the illicit antiquities trade;
• how public awareness can contribute to the solution;

and apropos to the theme of 10th anniversary…

• the many ways you participated in our Global Candlelight Vigil around the world, which began in 2007 with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna’s call to action.

2013 vigil candle logo Click to light a candle

Ten years after the event that precipitated the founding of our organization, we wish to pay tribute to all those who supported us and worked with us; and most of all, those who continue to do so. Taking this opportunity to honor your work is how SAFE wishes to celebrate our own 10th anniversary, and look to the future. And the future of our past.

This is why we designed this special 10th anniversary Global Candlelight Vigil to invite your thoughts and reflections. Initial responses to our invitation have already come in, they are posted here and here, and on Facebook beginning today. Please read Howard Spiegler’s reminder not to forget the efforts to recover artworks looted by the Nazis; René Teijgeler’s concern about the situation in Syria as it parallels Iraq’s; Dean Snyder’s personal tribute to Dr. Youkhanna; Abdulamir Hamdani’s summary of a report on the current situation in Iraq, to be delivered at a seminar in conjunction with the exhibition CATASTROPHE!  TEN YEARS LATER: THE LOOTING AND DESTRUCTION OF IRAQ’S PAST; Steven George’s expression of appreciation; Senta German’s observation on the impact of the looting of the Iraq museum on raising public awareness. Thank you for your participation, we look for your upcoming contributions.

Contested Ownership of Iraqi-Jewish Heritage Causes International Debate

Iraqi-Jewish cultural heritage is up for debate as the Iraqi government calls for the return of an archive currently being studied and preserved by the United States at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Iraq’s ministry of Culture and Antiquities is making claims that the United States, given the responsibility of preserving and studying the archive, has held onto the materials for too long, and now it is time that these cultural items be returned to their intended custodians: the Iraqi people and government.

Iraqi Tourism and Archaeology Minister Liwaa Smaisim has gone as far as cutting all ties with US Archaeological exploration in the country in an attempt to put pressure on the US Government to return the items, “They moved the archives in 2003; the agreement that was signed at that time between Iraq and the American side was to bring them back in 2005 after restoring them, but now we are in 2012,” Smaisim was quoted recently in The Daily Star, a Lebanese publication.

Discovered in a flooded basement of a secret police building by US forces, the archive consists of early Torahs, children’s learning materials, family photographs, and other personal items were collected through systematic raids into Jewish homes by Iraqi secret police looking for ‘evidence’ of Zionist sentiments during the 1950’s. The US soldiers were looking for weapons of mass destruction, but found instead the remnants of the daily lives of the Jewish population that once thrived in Baghdad.

The Jewish community in Iraq, and specifically Baghdad, was once a thriving, affluent, and tight-knit community in the years leading up to WWII (Gat 1997, 6). However, in the growing tension between Iraq and Israel, and the political struggles that would lead up to the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948, the Iraqi Jews were severely oppressed and persecuted from the first anti-semitic legislation enacted in 1933 to the Jewish exodus from Arab countries in the 1950s. Today it is said that there may be less than 20 Iraqi Jews living in the country.

Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, claims that the return of the items are critical to presenting Iraqi-Jewish cultural heritage to the people of Iraq, “Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity…To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multi-ethnic” he said, as quoted by the Associated Press

Regarding the claim for the items, the US government has acknowledged that the Iraqi government has the right to make a claim for the archive, yet the NARA is still carrying out preservation and attempting to digitize the collection of Hebrew, German, and some English texts. The total costs of the preservation project could exceed $3M, possibly $6M (Washington Post).

The historical conundrum of ‘who owns the past’ has reared itself yet again in the middle of this embroiled debate. While the Iraqi Government, struggling to maintain its archaeological materials and protect its historic sites from illegal looting and destruction, is making a claim based on the need to present this material and educate the Iraqi public about diversity, some Jewish activist groups claim the initiative to be in extremely poor taste considering the treatment of Jews leading up to the mass Exodus to Israel. Can a country, whose Iraqi-Jewish population remains nearly non-existent, make a valid claim for cultural objects belonging to that group? Some argue that the materials should be returned to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Israel, where 90% of the Iraqi-Jewish Diaspora currently resides.

Regardless of who has proper claim of the materials found in that basement in 2003, it is clear that the strained relationship between the Iraqi government and US Archaeological exploration teams is putting significant archaeological sites at risk, namely Babylon. The World Monuments Fund, a New York-based heritage advocacy group has been barred from access to the site – famous for its once hanging gardens and Tower of Babel- due to the diplomatic tensions created by the Iraqi-Jewish archive. The WMF is desperately trying to garner support for Babylon’s installment on UNESCO’s World Heritage List due to an oil pipeline running straight through the site (Laub 2012). According to the Associated Press report, the WMF was in the process of training Iraqi authorities on site preservation and attempting to prepare Babylon’s bid for a spot on the UNESCO list when support from the Iraqi government was pulled. This extraction of US archaeological teams in Iraq due to the struggle over the archive has essentially kicked WMF out of any efforts to secure the site for the future.

Qais Rashid, Head of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage indicated in the report that the strained relations was a ‘big loss’ for the department, as US resources were relied upon heavily in training and education in the Iraqi heritage sector.

The situation regarding the archive, and the security of the Babylon site will remain in the balance as rights to ownership and to safeguarding continue to be contested for political purposes.

After Iraq National Archives, after Baghdad Museum, after Cairo Museum, Why Was Egypt’s Library Not Secured?

The burning of the Egyptian Scientific Institute in the midst of the chaos in Cairo is a cultural disaster on a par with the worst acts of destruction of heritage in recent years, arguably worse than the losses to the Iraq Museum (since stolen artifacts can still be recovered, whereas the burned original manuscripts are gone forever). Whether the fire was started by a Molotov cocktail or, as some have asserted, was set by the soldiers inside the building, is not yet clear, and may never become clear. What is clear, however, is that the burning of this library reflects yet another abject failure of heritage policy to protect heritage when it is most at risk.

It is not as if this eventuality was unpredictable. After the Cairo Museum was robbed in the midst of similar chaos last January, the Egyptian government, and the military leaders who run the country, should have been able to work with international heritage protection agencies and organizations such as UNESCO, the Blue Shield, and others — including the many, many Egyptian citizens who care deeply about their heritage (and showed it by joining hands to cordon off the Cairo Museum in January) — to put in place contingency plans to keep cultural institutions secure during periods of unrest. Last but not least, the US government, which subsidizes Egypt’s military to the tune of billions, ought to have demanded the Egyptians secure their cultural institutions and sites as a condition of aid. But of course, since we have no carabinieri-like forces ourselves to do this sort of thing, and little interest ourselves in securing cultural sites apart from major tourist attractions such as the Baghdad Museum or Babylon, chances are that no one from the Pentagon was even thinking about the problem, even after the looting of the Cairo Museum.

That was in January. Did the fate of the Cairo Museum provide a wakeup call that site security needed to be an urgent policy priority? It was not until mid-October, after months of bureaucratic chaos, that the government announced it had set up a committee to develop security plans, so the answer is most likely no. Nor did any citizens’ groups evolve out of the noble ad hoc handholding at the museum.

The result? If this CNN report is accurate, the military did not set up a perimeter around the building. Instead, a small number of soldiers stood on the building’s roof and goaded the protestors:

The library was a scene of intense confrontation Saturday.

A dozen men dressed in military uniform were positioned on the library roof and threw cement blocks and rocks on the protesters and sprayed them with water hoses to push them away from the building.

But protesters hurled back rocks as well as Molotov cocktails. Then a massive explosion erupted, apparently originating from inside the building, and black smoke billowed.

Firefighters were busy putting out another fire in a nearby building.

Protesters were bleeding from rocks thrown at them.

What is to be done going forward, beyond the important immediate task of salvaging the remnants of the library?

First, the courage, energy, and passion that Egyptian citizens have shown in responding to the disasters at the museum and now at the library needs to be channeled into civic organizations that can be mobilized proactively next time around.

Second, UNESCO needs to either shift resources from conservation and development or supplement them with additional funding focused on securing cultural sites during periods of political unrest.

Third, the United States needs to exercise some leadership and influence, where it has leverage or ties with militaries in countries undergoing transitions or crises, to induce them to do the right thing.

Fourth, NGOs and foundations that support cultural heritage conservation need to begin thinking about how they can work directly with nascent heritage site protection NGOs in-country.

Some Looted Antiquities Return to Nineveh


Alaa al-Din Burhan, spokesperson for the Department of Antiquities in Nineveh has announced that today (18th August) they have received 23 Antiquities that were stolen after the looting that occurred after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Security agencies seized the antiquities in the possession of a smuggling gang that was recently arrested in Mosul. He added that in July:

107 artifacts out of 1,200 stolen pieces held by Washington were returned to Baghdad and these are now being redistributed to their original provinces. Some of the pieces received from Washington date back to the Babylonian times, including necklaces and painted pottery.

Rizan Ahmed, ‘Looted antiquities returned to Nineveh‘, AK News (Kurdistan News Agency), 18/08/2011.

Map: Nineveh in Nineveh province (in the ‘Kurdish’ region) near Mosul (BBC – edited)