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.

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

Looting is everyone’s concern

SAFE is grateful to Marni Walter for sharing this reflection with us in observance of the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage.

During the early years of the new millennium, the scope of antiquities looting and destruction of cultural heritage seemed to drastically expand. To all the archaeological damage done for profit to feed the demands of various art markets, we were forced to add incalculable threats from political unrest and wartime conflict.

At that time I was working as an editor at the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) for the American Journal of Archaeology, while also enrolled as a graduate student in archaeology at Boston University. In heritage management courses, we would compile statistics on the unprovenanced antiquities (most of them!) in the high-end auction catalogs, scrutinize the collections of prominent collectors, and report on the imbalances in wealth of the “source” countries versus the places of import. At the AIA, we debated about whether we should continue to publish using the longstanding von Bothmer publication fund (as Dietrich von Bothmer, a former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, became increasingly criticized for acquisitions, such as the Euphronios krater, in an earlier era of museum practices).

Marni Walter at prehistoric site The author recording excavation details at a prehistoric site in New Hampshire, U.S.A.

We were thrilled when a hefty manuscript by Christopher Chippendale and David Gill landed on the AJA editorial desks: this important and thorough study was published in July 2000 as “Material Consequences of Contemporary Classical Collecting” (AJA 104:463–511). In fact many excellent studies were published in the early 2000s onward that showed the cold hard numbers on archaeological losses. It has been gratifying to see the growth in academic attention to many aspects of cultural heritage protection, with entire conferences (like the subject of my last post) dedicated to the subject. Sharing research among specialists is vital to moving forward, but we also need to talk to everyone else, and gain the support of the widest possible range of people.

When in 2001 the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan and many others throughout Afghanistan, and in 2003 thieves looted and vandalized the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the need for broad support (including military personnel among many others) was suddenly more obvious. These events were not at all accidental or collateral war damage, but deliberate actions of hostility. Of course war, and its spoils, have been around since antiquity itself, but now unprecedented levels of media attention followed. Ten years later the reports and the images from the ransacked museum are still vivid. Many people recognized—even in the midst of the human tragedies of war—the dramatic loss of knowledge and spirit of the “cradle of civilization,” and the senseless, destructive impulses that caused it.

As archaeologists, art historians, or other related scholars, we cannot dismiss the issues by saying “looting is not my specialty.” If we believe that our research is important enough or inspiring enough to do in the first place, then doing something about destruction of cultural heritage is simply a fundamental part of our work.

We are fortunate that SAFE was borne out of these circumstances, founded as a response to a dramatic event, but recognizing that the problems would require more ongoing and widespread attention. No single solution will stop or curb looting to any significant degree, but one common thread will help greatly: the public, anyone with any interest in archaeology, history, art history, cultural diversity, etc. So many people are just as fascinated, if not more so, after learning how we gleaned a whole story, an entire village or camp scenario, from mapping the locations of all the stone tools, or bits of ceramics, and whatever small puzzle pieces we found. Many of them will sympathize, and help, if they are aware of the issues.

As archaeologists, art historians, or other related scholars, we cannot dismiss the issues by saying “looting is not my specialty.” If we believe that our research is important enough or inspiring enough to do in the first place, then doing something about destruction of cultural heritage is simply a fundamental part of our work. It could be showing a community the importance of context for what local excavations revealed, or writing in support of a bilateral agreement, or contributing stories or research summaries to SAFE. Whether working on public awareness and action, legislative and policy changes, improved security, or research on causes and effects, SAFE, for ten years running, is an ideal venue to bring all these approaches together.

We can hope that all our efforts will add up to a broad change of public attitude. Convince the next generation of would-be collectors that it’s so old school to hoard priceless artifacts in their houses as knick-knacks on the mantle. Modern “collectors” would rather support an excavation and its related museum displays or public programs. These collectors will find it so much more satisfying to potentially have an excavation or museum display in their name, along with all the information and discoveries that were revealed from it. Future vandals will know that plundering their country’s museums will only rob themselves and their own people of a collective source of wealth. It’s an ideal world, but one worth working toward.

Ultimately, it’s not about saving every individual artifact on the planet. It’s about cultures of all varieties and sizes flourishing and retaining their uniqueness, the pieces that tell their story. It’s about respecting cultures and environments that are not our own, and, to paraphrase SAFE founder Cindy Ho, choosing to live in a world with a rich cultural heritage.

Photo: “The opposite of looters’ pits. Scientific excavation is key to a wealth of information about the past,” by Marni Walter

Looking back on the last ten years: Interview with SAFE founder (Part 1)

I first heard of SAFE through Liz Gilgan eight years ago. It was Liz, a founding Board member, who expanded my understanding of looting and the illicit antiquities trade and how source countries, archaeologists, and SAFE were fighting to protect the world’s cultural heritage. After hearing her speak at Boston University’s Archaeology Club, I became a volunteer. Now, on the 10th anniversary of SAFE’s founding, I am reminded of the beginning of my own involvement with the organization, which led me to interview its founder, Cindy Ho. I am intrigued by how Cindy—an advertising professional—came up with the idea of SAFE; how she decided to focus on looting and the illicit antiquities trade, why she chose raising public awareness to combat those problems, and her thoughts on the future of SAFE.

The 2013 SAFE Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage invites us to share our reflections on cultural heritage. This two-part interview gives me the opportunity to ask Cindy for her reflections; it also answers my own questions about the organization I admire and continue to support.

DB: What motivated you to start SAFE?
CH: It all began with the news about the looting of the Iraq Museum. The more I heard about the “catastrophe that has befallen the cultural heritage of Iraq”* and the more I learned, the more concerned I became. Looting wasn’t taking place only in Iraq but everywhere, and it’s been going on for many years. It wasn’t only the theft and destruction of beautiful objects in a museum, but the plunder of ancient sites and the irreversible loss of knowledge that was even more damaging. And the problem was growing in size, scope and complexity every day. [*In a press release issued April 15, 2003 the Director of the British Museum said: “Although we still await precise information, it is clear that a catastrophe has befallen the cultural heritage of Iraq.”]

SAFE founder Cindy Ho SAFE founder Cindy Ho

What was not complex, however, was the fact that the connection to our ancestors, our cultural heritage, must be protected. I’ve always thought of ancient cultural heritage the way one thinks of an old person as “everyone’s grandmother or grandfather.”  When the remnants of ancient civilization were stolen or destroyed, it was as though my own heritage was at risk.

But it’s not about antiquities for the sake of the objects. As a visual person, I’ve discovered that an object can become instantly beautiful, or more beautiful, when I know what it was, how it was made, and who made it, and why. I was interested in preserving the knowledge and understanding antiquities reveal that inspire us and enhance our own lives, here and now.

Before 2003, like most people, I took cultural heritage for granted. The news from Iraq made me realize how vulnerable it was and how little I had known about these threats to the very core of our humanity. How could I, how can we, afford to not know? When I discovered that there was virtually nothing about this that was easily accessible to the general public, raising awareness became the something that I had to do.

DB: What did you do then? How did SAFE come about?
CH: It didn’t take me long to decide on creating a global awareness campaign, given my career in advertising. I thought: if the news reports could move me to act, what would happen if I could rally the help of others once they also became aware?

The two friends I told encouraged me and offered to help, and we began having meetings in coffee shops about what to do next. Their interest confirmed that I was on the right track. The campaign needed a name, and my friend came up with Saving Antiquities for Everyone, SAFE.

SAFE 2004 fundraiser Crowds gathered at the first SAFE fundraiser in New York City

But enthusiasm was not enough. I knew that I needed help from two distinct groups: experts in spreading the word and experts in the issues. I placed tiny pro bono ads in Advertising Age and Adweek and emailed the academics, citing “time, energy and commitment” as my qualifications. How else could I raise awareness responsibly?

DB: So you were still working at a job at this time?
CH: Yes, full time at an ad agency. I was so single-minded and driven that I couldn’t help but share what I had just learned and planned to do. I hung a recruitment poster on my office door; I asked photographers, artists, and writers I was working with; I even tried to recruit my boss, who said, “Cindy this is great, but why would people care? The world is filled with problems—how will you convince people to pay attention to this particular cause? You’ll need ad campaigns on TV, in the newspapers…” Clearly, a global awareness campaign using traditional media channels would take too long, and wouldn’t nearly be enough. Volunteers kept coming in almost daily, but “why would people care” would stay with me as a constant reminder of what the ultimate challenge was.

DB: Who were those first volunteers? How did they help?
CH: Advertising and media consultants, public relations and publicity professionals responded. There were also archaeologists who had long been frustrated by the continued destruction of cultural heritage. The shock of the news brought us together with a single commitment: to inform others and to create a platform for action. Our otherwise disparate group had little more in common other than the knowledge that allowing the destruction of cultural heritage to continue was wrong.

Volunteers did research and came up with ideas: great, innovative ideas, borne out of a raw enthusiasm and an almost unstoppable eagerness to act, while I myself was learning and figuring out the next steps in a whirlwind of new experiences. Everyone knew from the start that there’d be no papers published, no career advancements (although this is no longer the case), and no pay. Just a lot of work, a lot of learning, and a lot of trial and error—all done without any reward or personal gain other than the opportunity to right a wrong.

SAFE's debut at the 2005 AIA Annual Meeting drew crowds and signed up a large number of members SAFE’s debut at the 2005 AIA Annual Meeting drew crowds and signed up a large number of members

DB: What were some of your first projects?
CH: In a matter of weeks, we had gone well beyond the original idea of advertising people creating a campaign. Our first rudimentary web site——was launched only three weeks after that fateful day in April, when the Iraq Museum was looted. Two months later, volunteers distributed flyers at a Grateful Dead Concert. In July, SAFE received fiscal sponsorship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and began accepting tax-deductible donations. The next month, we launched a campaign lasting until the end of 2003 to advocate for emergency legislation that prohibited the importation of Iraqi antiquities into the US. By then, we also had the support, advice, and endorsement of experts around the world.

The next year, the growing web site was relaunched with the new and current domain name: We held a benefit event, launched our first student competition, hosted a book signing event for Roger Atwood’s Stealing History and launched our first SAFE Tours at the Met.

In January of 2005, SAFE rented a booth at the AIA Annual Conference in Boston—the only booth to hold scheduled events. The next month, I resigned from my job to work full-time freelance, eventually giving that up at the end of the year to volunteer for SAFE full time. As long as I felt that SAFE was filling an unmet need, I was willing to fully commit to doing its work.

SAFE distributed these wristbands to raise awarenessIn February 2005, three SAFE members testified to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee in Washington, DC, in support of import restrictions of antiquities into the US from China. For the first time, SAFE represented the general public with signatures collected in New York City parks and on the web site. Later that year, five of us repeated the same effort on behalf of Italy, presenting twice as many petitions to the Committee. That year, we also co-sponsored a panel discussion with LCCHP and held a lecture on book theft, had several more SAFE Tours, and held another student competition.

It was time that my project SAFE became incorporated as a bona fide organization. We applied for tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3), which we received at the end of 2005. SAFE was a full-fledged nonprofit organization, by law, and in action. Meanwhile, the bar kept rising, internally and externally. The more SAFE produced and the better the results, the more there was to do.

DB: Was the transition from working in an ad agency to running a nonprofit organization difficult?
CH: Coming from advertising, the pace took me awhile to get used to. The whole world was being looted. There was just so much to do, so much to tell! The possibilities seemed limitless and I felt impatient.

Working with volunteers from around the world I never met was also a challenge. It became more time-consuming as the number of applicants grew each day. Aside from assessing their skills and availability and matching them with appropriate tasks, I needed to explain what the issues truly were, sometimes directing them to read a book first. Most people were not used to volunteering this way. In the end, it didn’t take more than a small number of very dedicated people to get things going. And I told myself the process of recruitment was just another way of raising awareness.

Becoming a nonprofit was another huge step. I was spending more energy and time on learning what that all meant than doing the actual work itself: the rules and requirements, the filings, processes and policies, etc. Fortunately, other volunteers with relevant skills made the process smooth and successful. It was another story transitioning from a loose group of fervent individuals to the reality that SAFE was now a bona fide organization that no longer was my sole responsibility. Volunteers who were not used to seeing their ideas not implemented immediately.

Also, it took a lot of work, and reworking, to craft messages that speak to the general audiences that are based on academic research, created by experts coming from a completely different training, discipline, and culture. But this isn’t unique to SAFE. Surely it’s not the first to advocate for a cause that took a lot of explanation, and where the work came before the organization, especially when it chartered a new course to serve an unmet need. If it weren’t so challenging, I probably wouldn’t have dedicated so much of myself to it; and learnt as much as I have.

Stay tuned for my next interview where I will ask Cindy how SAFE got its support, and what lies ahead . . .

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


The 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum: how will we remember?

Vigil brochure cover SAFE created this brochure addressing the significance of ancient Mesopotamia, the impact of the looting of the Iraq Museum, the ongoing plunder of archaeological sites, how these situations relate to the rest of the world, and what we can do to preserve the past.

“Look at it still today,” wrote the mythic ruler Gilgamesh of a treasure that is now but a memory. “Touch the threshold, it is ancient…. Climb upon the wall of Uruk. Walk along it, I say. Regard the foundation terrace and examine the masonry: is it not burnt brick and good? The seven sages laid the foundations.”

During those frightful days in April of 2003, the sages wept as the most precious survivors of this golden age — more than 15,000 objects and writings at the National Museum of Iraq recording the first Mesopotamian civilizations that flourished more than 7,000 years ago — were systematically looted and cast to the winds. Even more devastating is the continued plunder of thousands of archaeological sites in Iraq, most of which have never been excavated. Many of us experienced shock and outrage when this catastrophe first became known.

How did we respond?

For SAFE, that quiet rage soon turned to action, and planted the beginning of the organization, dedicated to raising public awareness about the vulnerability of our shared cultural heritage to the damaging effects of looting and the illicit antiquities trade. In 2007, SAFE initiated the Global Candlelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna—the Museum’s former Director—to ensure that what happened in Baghdad not happen again, anywhere. Individuals and institutions around the world have joined the Vigil since then.

Click to see the may ways the SAFE Global Candlelight Vigil has been observed since 2007 around the world Click to see the may ways the SAFE Global Candlelight Vigil has been observed since 2007 around the world

The SAFE web site offers many suggestions and resources but the most memorable vigil ideas from previous years have come from the hosts themselves. Check them out as we highlight them during the campaign here. For example, University of Washington museology students tracked the flow of looted Iraqi antiquities on the global market, grade school students in Canada wrote poetry to express what the loss of cultural heritage meant to them. Others simply added their name to a list of supporters and lit a virtual candle.

In 2013, SAFE marks the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum with The Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage by inviting all citizens to light a candle and share their remembrances and thoughts on cultural heritage. SAFE will observe the Vigil by showcasing the many ways institutions and individuals around the world have supported and inspired us in our mission in the “10 YEARS AFTER” campaign; and by paying tribute to all those to fight to safeguard cultural heritage everyday around the globe. Please look for these on this web site and on Facebook.

This is how SAFE will honor the past, and celebrate the future. Will you join us?

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.

Nathan Elkins reflects on looting as a global threat

On the tenth anniversary of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, we recall not only the devastation and damage done to the cultural heritage of Iraq and the archaeology and art history of the ancient Near East.  But we are also reminded that looting is a global threat that does not require war or politically instability to cause concern.

The Balkan nations, and especially Bulgaria, are prime sources for looted and smuggled antiquities, especially Greek and Roman coins, that are exported in mass quantities to markets in western Europe and North America (e.g. Petkova 2004; Center for the Study of Democracy 2007; Elkins 2009; Elkins 2012).  Bulgarian news reports frequently chronicle seizures of coins and other metal detector finds that are smuggled out of the country.  And individual cases of “wholesale suppliers” who spirit mass quantities of material to western markets underscore the scale of the problem.  One dealer, who remains active, was caught with 60 kg of earth-encrusted coins from Bulgaria at Frankfurt airport that bound for the market in the United States (Dietrich 2002; Center for the Study of Democracy 2007: 186).  Additional investigations by German customs official revealed that in preceding months the dealer in question had moved one ton of material through the airport – an estimated 350,000 coins.  Many of these “wholesalers” are Bulgarian nationals living in western Europe and the United States; The Center for the Study of Democracy (2007: 186) estimates that there are between 30-50 such individuals organizing the mass export of looted material to western markets.

Nathan Elkins teaching Greek Painted Pottery course at the Blanton Museum, Austin, Texas

Some recent news, such as the repatriation of 546 coins by the United States that were smuggled out of Bulgaria, illustrate that the problem has not abated (Immigration and Customs Enforcement 21 May 2013).  Canada repatriated some 21,000 ancient coins looted and smuggled from Bulgaria in 2011 (Crawford 10 June 2011).  Commercial interests, such as the dealer lobby in the United States, have failed to become sensitive to the problem and have instead chosen to battle bilateral agreements and the law in order to maintain the status quo (e.g. see discussion in Elkins 2009; and Luke and Elkins 15 December 2011; and Elkins 2012).  Dealers charged in a recent Egyptian antiquities case (U.S. Attorney’s Office 14 July 2011) who were associated with an American lobbying organization remind us again of the interests of lobby groups.  Prior to the indictment one was a member of the American lobby group and another was a donor.  One of the dealers involved pled guilty to smuggling Egyptian antiquities and was sentenced to house arrest; the other pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge carrying a fine.

Of course looting occurs for financial gain which the market in antiquities provides.  It is up to scholars and collectors to be conscientious and vigilant against the global problem of looting and to insist on rigorous due diligence and transparent ethical practice.



Center for the Study of Democracy. 2007. Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends. (Sofia: Center for the Study of Democracy). Available online:

Crawford, A. 10 June 2011. “Canada Returns Bulgarian Stolen Artifacts,” CBC News. Available online:

Dietrich, R. 2002. “Cultural Property on the Move – Legally, Illegally,” International Journal of Cultural Property 11: 294-303.

Elkins, N.T. 2009. “Treasure Hunting 101 in America’s Classrooms,” Journal of Field Archaeology 34: 482-489.

Elkins, N.T. 2010. “The Trade in Fresh Supplies of Ancient Coins: Scale, Organization, and Politics,” in All the King’s Horses: Essays on the Impact of Looting and the Illicit Antiquities Trade on Our Knowledge of the Past (Washington, D.C.: Society for American Archaeology Press). 91-107.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 21 May 2013. “Federal Authorities Return Ancient Coins to Bulgaria,” News Releases (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Homeland Security). Available online:

Luke, C. and N.T. Elkins. 15 December 2011. “First Person Accounts about November 16th Public Session of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (on Belize and Bulgaria),” Archaeological Institute of America (Site Preservation). Available online:

Petkova, G. 2004. “How to Get a 2000% Profit from Selling an Object,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 10: 361-367.

U.S. Attorney’s Office. 14 July 2011. “Dealers and Collector Charged with Smuggling Egyptian Antiquties,” U.S. Attorney’s Office: Eastern District of New York. Available online:


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.


Marsha Fulton of The Extreme History Project remembers

I first encountered SAFE and Cindy Ho while I was teaching Art History at SUNY New Paltz. As all of us, I was stunned at the horrific losses at the Baghdad Museum after the invasion of Iraq. I wanted to get involved in some way. I phoned Cindy and we had a lengthy conversation that ended with my commitment to supporting and contributing to SAFE in any way I could. Through those early years, I met several times with SAFE supporters and hosted the first SAFE Board retreat at my home in Saugerties, NY. We laid the foundations for what SAFE would become over those few days in my dining room. When SAFE began commemorating the anniversary of the looting with a Candlelight Vigil, I created an annual program at SUNY New Paltz which included a presentation on the looting of the Baghdad Museum and a screening of the film The Giant Buddhas, a powerful documentary detailing the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

SAFE's first Board meeting SAFE’s first Board meeting

Cindy and I shared a passion for world heritage protection and we bonded over long discussions concerning looting, collecting and preserving cultural heritage. Our commitment was solidified when we drove from New York to Washington, D. C. in 2005 where we spoke before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to support a US / Italy Bilateral Agreement restricting imports of antiquities. The car ride home was spent brainstorming ways to promote public awareness of cultural heritage preservation and finding a bridge between the collecting and archaeological communities for a common cause. Cindy’s commitment and energy were inspiring and I still reflect on those influential conversations in my current work.

Today I am Co-founder and Co-Director of The Extreme History Project. We are a public history, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the relevance of cultural heritage to community, policy and society. We believe in giving voice to the voiceless of the past and in the importance of the roll of history in forming individual and community identities. We are based in Livingston, Montana and work closely with indigenous communities in facilitating historical research surrounding the Native American reservation period of the west. Our work includes not only primary document archiving, but also the recording of Native American oral histories. The work that we do has real relevance for Indigenous communities here in Montana by helping recreate community identity through restoring a denied history and, as such, has application to many other indigenous communities around the world, battling the legacy of colonialism.

I credit much of the grounding of The Extreme History Project to those early conversations with Cindy about SAFE and preserving cultural heritage. I am honored and proud of my relationship to Cindy and to SAFE for its tireless contribution to the protection of our shared heritage. Our history contributes to our identity and without the knowledge and materials of history, we lose that identity and a part of ourselves. The fight for our world heritage must always continue and I thank Cindy and SAFE for staying on the frontline!

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.

Why the looting of the National Museum of Iraq still matters

Like those Americans of my parents’ generation who can remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot, or of my generation who can remember their reaction to the breaking news of the September 11th attacks, the looting of the National Museum of Iraq remains, ten years later, a watershed moment for the global archaeological community and those of us who work to document and mitigate the illicit antiquities trade. The scale of the plunder, and its seemingly preventable nature, shocked everyone who witnessed it or viewed the frantic efforts of those tasked with dealing with the aftermath. For me, it was troubling enough to hear, and then have confirmed, that the United States was once again going to war in the Middle East, and for reasons that many suspected were false even at the time they were being announced. Given that I was about to graduate with my Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Arizona at the time, I routinely spent each day immersed in archaeological theory, method, and site data from around the world, including the numerous civilizations that flourished in today’s Iraq; the Mesopotamia of the ancient world. Thus, knowing that not only was a war of uncertain parameters and unknown duration already underway (with the inevitable loss of military and civilian life), but that priceless cultural institutions would also be under threat, made watching events unfold all the more troubling.

Interviews with Donny George and other museum officials during and after the fact really drove home how tragic this loss was. Coupled with the sacking and burning of much of the National Library, this tragedy was propelled to unbelievable proportions. Although I don’t think it will ever be known to what extent US troops were ordered to guard the museum, or whether or not their neglecting of this order made the looting easier, it has long been understood (since colonial days, really) that the risk of looting increases in times of armed conflict. For my cohort and I, all archaeologists in training just beginning to accrue field and museum curation experience, we could at least intuitively grasp how damaging the event was. Later professional and life experiences would just confirm this.

One positive outcome of this tragedy was, of course, the founding of SAFE; the only nonprofit with an expressed goal to raise public awareness of new developments and new research pertaining to the illicit antiquities trade. SAFE was founded in 2003; however it did not exist as a nonprofit until 2005. Although the looting of the Iraq Museum served as the impetus to found SAFE as a direct response of this event in 2003, I didn’t hear about its existence until my dawning realization of the scope of looting itself My archaeological “formative period” came about in the Southwestern United States (at the University of Arizona) where, for three years, I was fortunate enough to participate in excavations in settings as diverse as the Sonoran desert near Tucson to the Pacific Islands. Both of these locations do also suffer from looting and site vandalism (which I’d later observe), but the wide open spaces make encountering looting a rare occurrence unless you look for it. I had enough on my plate just learning the archaeological ropes!

The real challenge facing all of us is to stop the illicit antiquities trade before it starts, tighten the net around those who seek to profit from it, and provide enough training to troops on both sides of future, inevitable, conflicts that sites of cultural heritage are greater than any one conflict.

By 2006, I had completed my Bachelor’s, as well as a Master’s degree at the Australian National University, and my focus had shifted to Vietnam, Southeast Asia, and bioarchaeology (the investigation of daily life, behavior, and human-environmental interaction from data contained in the skeleton, in the context of burial practices). The more I studied and worked in the field, the more I appreciated how much is lost when burials are dug up in the hunt for rare artifacts to sell. Burials uniquely represent one-off events; snapshots of the life and death of an individual and community. Perhaps more than any other category of archaeological site, burials are truly irreplaceable. Attending the 2006 Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association conference in Manila, Philippines, first exposed me to how severe looting had become in Southeast Asia.

Having already seen examples of the open sale of artifacts accidentally surfaced while farmers ploughed fields in Vietnam, causing me to wonder how many more sites similar to the c. 3,800 BP cemetery site I was currently helping to excavate were out there, I had an inkling of things to come. Presentations given by the Director and staff of Heritage Watch (a Cambodia based NGO specifically focused on the antiquities trade) truly opened my eyes. Seeing slide after slide of sites reduced to moonscapes and incredibly rare burial objects openly sold due to international greed and weak laws, despite the best efforts of local and Western archaeologists, broke my heart and made me unwaveringly determined to help in efforts to expose and combat this threat, in Cambodia and beyond. By 2010, after returning to Vietnam and Cambodia to excavate and learn more, working at numerous sites around Arizona (and seeing vandalism and pot-hunting first hand), and finally returning to Australia in 2008 to commence doctoral studies, I felt I had learned and seen enough to be able to meaningfully contribute. In 2010, I began to guest blog for SAFE, as well as begin my own blog to discuss cases, galleries, legal issues and the ‘demand’ side of the market in southern hemisphere countries such as Australia. My own current research, conducted with colleagues at the Institute of Criminology, University of Sydney, seeks to clarify the dimensions of this market, especially concerning South and Southeast Asian antiquities, to a degree not attempted before.

Although objects from the Iraq Museum remain unaccounted for and the museum remains only occasionally open to the public, events such as the scramble by civilians, museum and military personnel to remove and safely store thousands of priceless manuscripts from libraries and mosques in Timbuktu, Mali, during the ongoing conflict there do suggest that the global community is much less willing to be silent in the face of conflict-driven heritage destruction. In time, the collective efforts of INTERPOL, private investigators, journalists and governments in cooperation could recover even more objects stolen on that fateful April 10th, but to me the larger point is that the looting of the National Museum of Iraq is symptomatic of the economic disparities between supply and demand countries, and the greed of those who fuel the no-questions-asked antiquities trade, that will continue to reduce countless sites to rubble before they can be excavated, let alone published and curated to share with the world.

Having just come from the latest (78th annual) meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, in which thousands of delegates (myself included) presented the results of our latest research, I can safely attest that global research output is very vigorous. However, except for the occasional passing reference or resigned statement, there is still nowhere near enough acknowledgement of what the antiquities trade is doing to the world’s remaining archaeological record, despite the pervasiveness of looting and illicit dealing worldwide and the archaeological questions rendered moot because of it. Of course, the effects of looting also include hampering the efforts of many nations to establish museums with fully up-to-date acquisition and curation policies, and then to effectively safeguard those priceless pieces of cultural and national patrimony that they contain. The severe damage inflicted to the collections of the Iraq National Museum is just one poignant example.

As cutting edge research to document and mitigate the antiquities trade, excavate or salvage new sites, and create more context-driven and secure museums continues, let us all take a moment to remember not just what was lost when the Iraq Museum was looted, but what good has come from recovery efforts. Without the noble front-line fight of Donny George and his staff, much more would have been destroyed. Without the help of Iraqi religious leaders and governmental authorities, much more would be unaccounted for. The real challenge facing all of us is to stop the illicit antiquities trade before it starts, tighten the net around those who seek to profit from it, and provide enough training to troops on both sides of future, inevitable, conflicts that sites of cultural heritage are greater than any one conflict. Only by doing this can we ensure that the tide will continue to turn in favor of the preservation of the material remains of humanity’s shared past.

On the other side of this equation, it is vital for those who investigate the illicit antiquities trade from legal or criminological perspectives to seek out and maintain dialogues with archaeologists (both foreign and local) in all areas of the world where looting still occurs. As my own research continues to demonstrate to me, effective legal reform and prosecutions must rely on documentation of artifact authenticity, illegality of export, and likely archaeological context together. The clear explanation of what knowledge is lost, and how it fits into the bigger picture, when an object is ripped from the ground (or separated from its records when stolen from a museum) is something only archaeologists who have excavated intact sites and seen looting face to face can provide. Organizations like SAFE that continue to work to bridge these gaps are still sorely needed.

Dr. Damien Huffer
Institute of Criminology
Faculty of Law
University of Sydney
Darlinghurst, NSW, 2006, Australia

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.

SAFE announces Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage

Marking the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum, SAFE launches The Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage and invites all citizens to light a candle and share their remembrances and thoughts in any language on the current situation, contemplate the future, and take the opportunity to announce their related projects and programs in preserving the future of our past.

2013 vigil candle logo Click to light a candle

These comments and reflections will be posted on SAFE’s web site beginning April 10 and also the Vigil page on Facebook, and other social media outlets. Furthering our commitment to raising public awareness about the global concern of looting and the illicit antiquities trade, SAFE aims to gather these reflections in a commemorative booklet as a public statement of concern, and as a tribute to all those who safeguard the future of our past.

SAFE initiated the Global Candlelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna in 2007 to commemorate the looting of the Museum which became the impetus for the founding of the organization. Institutions and individuals from around the world hosted and attended lectures and candle-lighting ceremonies. A video of these events was compiled to mark the 5th anniversary. In 2011, the Vigil was renamed to honor the memory of Dr. Youkhanna.

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.