October 31, 2006

 

We, the undersigned, ...

At the end of September, a select group of eminent archaeologists sent a letter to the highest authorities of Iraq to plead for better protection of its archaeological heritage. It was released to the media toward the end of October. I quote:

September 23, 2006

H. E. Jalal Talabani, President of Iraq
H. E. Nouri Kamel al-Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq
H. E. Hoshyar Zebari, Minister of Foreign Affairs
H. E. Dr. Asaad Al-Hashimi, Minister of Culture
Mufid Mohammad Jawad al-Jazairi, Chair of Cultural Committee, Iraqi Parliament
[former Minister of Culture]
Maysoon al-Damluji, Member of the Iraqi Parliament
[former Deputy Minister of Culture with strong ties to the UK, see Bechler]

Your Excellencies:

We, the undersigned, would like to express our concern for the present and future state of antiquities and cultural heritage in Iraq. As individuals who have done research for years in Iraq, who have taught its great history and culture, and who have made great efforts to call attention to the potential and real damage to Iraq's cultural heritage due to war and its aftermath, we ask you to ensure the safety of the museums, archaeological sites, and standing monuments in the entire country.

Most immediately we ask that the holdings of the Iraq National Museum be kept safeguarded and intact as one collection rather than subdivided. We also ask that the Antiquities Guards, who have been recruited and trained to protect the ancient sites in the countryside, be kept as a force, meaning that they continue to be paid and equipped and their numbers increased. This force is the key to halting the illegal digging of sites and damaging of monuments that has been occurring since April 2003. We furthermore ask that Iraq’s cultural heritage be treated as part of the rich culture of the Iraqi people, to be preserved for present and future generations. Therefore we ask that cultural heritage either be independent or that it be administered by the Ministry of Culture, which in the past has made preservation and interpretation its highest priorities, implemented by a professional, unified State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.

Antiquities and heritage are so important to Iraq that it would be justifiable to make the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage into a new ministry or to connect that Board directly to the cabinet general secretariat, as has been done with the Iraqi Academy of Sciences.

Iraq's cultural heritage is an unparalleled one, and as the tradition from which many other civilizations are derived, it is of great concern to all peoples in the world. It is too important a heritage to be sub-divided and should remain under a national administration. The State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, as part of the Ministry of Culture, has had a record of good administration, and it has been in the past the best Antiquities organization in the Middle East. For years, with its strong Antiquities Law, that made all antiquities and antiquities sites the property of the state, Iraq protected its antiquities sites better than most countries in the world, and it should rise to that level once again.

All persons who work in Antiquities should be above politics and allegiance to any party, and definitely should have no connection to the antiquities trade. Too much of the ancient treasures of Iraq have already been lost through looting and smuggling, and the damage done especially to the great cities of Sumer and Babylonia has been very extensive. Only a strong, national, non-political State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, backed fully by the force of the state, can preserve the heritage that is left.

You are in positions to save the Cultural Heritage of Iraq for everyone, and we hope that you will act to do so.

Sincerely yours,

Prof. McGuire Gibson, President, The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq
Prof. Robert McC. Adams, Secretary Emeritus, Smithsonian Institution
Dr. Lamia Algailani, Hon. Research Fellow, University College London
Prof. Kenneth Ames, President, Society for American Archaeology
Prof. Harriet Crawford, Chair, British School of Archaeology in Iraq
Prof. Leon DeMeyer, Rector Emeritus, University of Ghent, Belgium
Prof. Patty Gerstenblith, President, Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation
Ms. Cindy Ho, President, SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone
Prof. Antonio Invernizzi, Scientific Director, Centro Recirche archeologiche é Scavi di Torino per il Medio Oriente é l’Asia.
Dr. Michael Müller-Karpe, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz, Germany
Dr. Hans J. Nissen, Professor emeritus of Near Eastern Archaeology, The Free University of Berlin, Germany
Dr. Roberto Parapetti, Director of the Iraqi-Italian Centre for the Restoration of Monuments
Prof. Ingolf Thuesen, Director, Carsten Niebuhr Institute, University of Copenhagen
Prof. Jane Waldbaum, President, Archaeological Institute of America

cc Samir Sumaidaie, Ambassador to the United States, Embassy of the Republic of Iraq
cc. Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq
cc Kofi Annan, Secretary General, United Nations
cc Koïchiro Matsuura, Director General, UNESCO
cc Mounir Bouchenaki, Director General, ICCROM
cc Michael Petzet, President, ICOMOS
cc C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Department of State
cc R. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary, Political Affairs, Department of State
cc. Alberto M. Fernandez, Director, Press and Public Diplomacy, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, Dept. of State


As the well-informed-as-usual Martin Bailey reports: "The initiative follows reports in Baghdad that the government is considering the possibility of 'regionalising' the National Museum’s holding. In particular, there is some pressure to send antiquities excavated in the south to Basra or one of the main sites, such as Nasariyah. ... It is noticeable that curators from a number of major museums with Mesopotamian collections are not signatories. In practice, any immediate movement of archaeological finds would be extremely difficult. Staff at the National Museum have found it impossible to even complete an inventory of the contents of the storerooms since the looting of April 2003. The Baghdad museum remains closed and was recently physically sealed with strong concrete barriers." "Traditionally, the Antiquities board came under the Ministry of Culture, but it was recently switched to the Ministry of Tourism (although conventional tourism is at present non-existent, the ministry also covers religious pilgrimages). The new Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities is headed by Liwa Sumaysin, and the letter is pointedly not addressed to him, but his counterpart at the Ministry of Culture, Dr Assad Al-Hashimi." In Alberge we learn: "... the destruction of the Ana Minaret on the Euphrates ... It was blown up by Islamic extremists apparently for fear that it would be used as an American observation post." This is a new explanation; see the September 28 post Destruction of ancient minaret in 'Ana. The Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad interviewed Drs. Dominique Collon (retired [curator], British Museum) and Peter Akkermans (curator, Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden). Do you know what the journalist calls this letter in Dutch? A "brandbrief," literally a "fire letter," meaning a letter (asking for assistance) regarding a matter of the highest urgency (cf. lettre incendiaire in French). Ramdharie: René Teijgeler, advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Culture for 7 months during 2004-2005, says that the looting of archaeological sites has gotten much worse than when he was over there. It now serves as a major source of income for the many armed groups. He doubts that the letter will resort much effect. The situation has become absurd: half the budget of the National Library goes to security for the staff; Iraqi heritage such as the blown-up mosque in Samarra has become embroiled in the fighting. I've included the examples of coverage from Europe to validate the comment made by Michelle Pilecki: "Of the world's major English-language news outlets, only The Times of London has taken note of a letter from 14 of the world's leading archaeologists to the Iraqi government ..." [my emphasis]. Indeed, no US news outlet that I know of paid any attention. Finally, are we to assume that there has been no answer as of yet to this letter?


References
• D. Alberge, "'Stop the looters destroying history,'" in The Times (UK), October 25, 2006
• M. Bailey, "International archaeologists' plea to Iraqi government," in The Art Newspaper (UK), online, October 25, 2006
• R. Bechler, "The Promise of Iraq. Maysoon al-Damluji returned to her homeland for a week in May 2003, and stayed for two and a half years. She tells Rosemary Bechler about why she stayed, and her work with Iraq’s women’s movement," in openDemocracy (UK), online, November 14, 2005
• M. Pilecki, "An Unsung Casualty of the Iraq War: The World's Cultural Heritage," in Eat The Press, online, October 25, 2006
• S. Ramdharie, "Iraks cultureel erfgoed wordt finaal geplunderd," in de Volkskrant (The Netherlands), October 26, 2006
• "Appeal to Iraqi Government Officials", in Archaeological Institute of America, online, [October 24, 2006]
• "Archeologen: Iraaks erfgoed bedreigd," in NRC Handelsblad (The Netherlands), October 26, 2006



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