DAUD SALMAN, The Institute for War & Peace Reporting
BAGHDAD — To most, the scenes of looting and wanton destruction of Iraq’s archaeological treasures that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003 are just a distant memory.
But unfortunately, the country continues to lose its priceless artifacts on a daily basis as a result of theft, illegal excavations and trespassing.
The government estimates that there are around 10,000 archaeological sites in the country. Most of them are located in central Iraq, an area badly hit by the chaos and lawlessness that has gripped the country over the last several years.
While some of the best-known Mesopotamian sites, such as Ur near modern-day Nasiriyah, are well-protected, many others are completely unguarded.
Qais Rashid Hussein, director general of excavations and inspection at the Ministry of Archaeology and Tourism, said there are only 1,200 troops available to protect all of Iraq’s historic treasures. That has created “a huge problem” that has left antiquities vulnerable to gangs and smugglers, he said.
Treasure hunters illegally excavate the sites for valuable items that are then traded on the black market and often smuggled out of the country.
Margarete van Ess, director of Oriental Science at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, estimated that illegal excavation in Iraq has caused $10 billion worth of damage in recent years.
“Many of the sites are far from town centers and cities and are under the control of tribes,” she said, making them vulnerable to looters.
Former President Saddam Hussein’s regime maintained tight control over most of the country’s archaeological sites and imposed stiff penalties on those caught looting. Those convicted of stealing antiquities faced 15 years in prison, and, in some cases, the death penalty. While many of those laws remain on the books, they are rarely enforced today.
Ancient coins, seals and other gold, silver and bronze pieces can be purchased on the black market in Iraq for as little as $10. But the same item offered for sale in Syria or Jordan can fetch thousands of dollars.
“A (Sumerian) cylinder seal can be bought for less than $100, and gold coins for even less (in Baghdad),” said Said Mahmood, a 52-year-old antiquities collector. “(However) the same cylinder seal can be sold for more than $2,000 outside of Iraq.” Last month, the Iraqi government announced that it was launching a concerted effort to reclaim about 15,000 artifacts believed stolen during the looting on the Baghdad Museum in 2003.
Already, Jordan has returned about 2,000 stolen items, some dating back to 7,000 B.C. In April, Syria turned over around 700 pieces, including gold coins and jewelry, which were seized by Syrian customs officials.
But even as the government reclaims stolen items, additional artifacts are being looted from unguarded sites. Sometimes, ignorance or neglect is behind the damage being done to Iraq’s ancient past.
Last year, officials with the antiquities ministry discovered that a new housing project was about to be built on top of a priceless archeological site; in Baghdad, a similar site was being used as a garbage dump until authorities intervened.
Khalid Sultan, a Baghdad-based archaeology expert, said both the Iraqi government and the international community need to do more to protect the country’s past.
“The destruction of Iraqi antiquities after the 2003 war has been enormous,” he said. “We need a massive effort from the international community to return the stolen pieces and to help us to protect the remaining archaeological sites.”
Daud Salman is a reporter in Iraq who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict. Readers may write to the author at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 48 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8LT, U.K.; Web site: www.iwpr.net. For information about IWPR’s funding, please go to http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?top—supporters.html.
(c) 2008, The Institute for War & Peace Reporting
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