US-Led Invasion Has Brought Destruction and Pillage to Iraq’s Cultural Sites

November 7, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

In order to explain away the failure of the US/UK occupation of Iraq, some people have sunk to a new depth and sought to exonerate themselves by placing the burden of responsibility upon the shoulders of Gertrude Bell.

It is often said that people should not speak ill of the dead because they are not here to defend themselves; but placing the blame upon Bell, who died in the 1920s, for the disasters of the Labour Government and their allies in 2003, is nothing more than an act of cowardice.

On many occasions, commentators have claimed that the failed occupation is a direct result of the “lines in the sand” drawn up by Bell, who in the early part of the twentieth century travelled and settled in Mesopotamia and after the First World War helped the then British occupiers create the borders of modern day Iraq, along with being the founder of the world renowned Baghdad National Museum.

Rory McCarthy once described the destruction by Iraq’s present occupiers to Babylon, “a city renowned for its beauty and its splendour 1,000 years before Europe built anything comparable, [Babylon] was chosen as the site for a US military base in April 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq”.

It was later proclaimed by John Curtis of the British Museum that “It is regrettable that a military camp of this size should have been established on one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain.”

The article by McCarthy, which was published by the Guardian, included a witness statement by a worker also for the British Museum, who having visited Babylon after the invasion described how “a 2,600-year-old brick pavement” had been “crushed by military vehicles” and “archaeological fragments were left scattered across the site.”

Other damage included areas being covered in “gravel brought in from outside, compacted and sometimes chemically treated to provide helipads, car parks, accommodation and storage areas.” Lord Redesdale, the head of Britain’s all-party parliamentary archaeological group stated, “What the American forces are doing is not only damaging the archaeology of Iraq, it’s actually damaging the cultural heritage of the whole world.”

According to Donny George, who was director of antiquities in Baghdad before fleeing with his family in 2006, recently explained to one newspaper that before the invasion, “American archaeologists gave the military the co-ordinates for thousands of archaeological sites. So they knew where they were, they had the names of the sites, everything. The damage could have been avoided.”

Millions of Iraqis were outraged by the desecration to the 1,200-year-old minaret of Samara, which was damaged by mortar fire and has since suffered further acts of vandalism, along with the total destruction of the bronze bust of Jaffar al-Mansour, which was “reduced to rubble by a roadside bomb”. The occupation also sought to further eradicate Iraq from its history, when they destroyed the memorial to Michel Aflaq in 2003, “the father” of Pan-Arab Nationalism and one of the founders of the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party.

In an article entitled “Iraq’s Year Zero”, Felicity Arbuthnot explained how one Iraqi blogger pleaded for international solidarity to defend Iraq’s historical treasures, by asserting that the Supreme Committee for de-Baathification had ordered the destruction of the turquoise Shaheed monument to the Rivers of Tears and the Monument to the Unknown Soldier.

The Unknown Soldier (pictured) was completed in 1959, the year after the revolution which brought Abdul Kareem Qassim to power and toppled the British-imposed royal family. The Unknown Soldier monument was erected in homage to all those, who over the centuries: ‘fell in defence of the country’s dignity and pride.’

Along with the devastation to ancient sites, the occupation of Iraq also created a growth in the sales of stolen artefacts, where according to the State University of New York, “Private letters, contracts, works of literature and records of institutions can be found in the buildings where they were created” but have since been uprooted by fortune hunters and sold into private collections. According to some sources, it is estimated that over 16,000 items have disappeared since the start of the occupation, with other sources claiming that only half have since been returned.

Some of these artefacts have even appeared on E-Bay. These include a Sumerian stone statue of a seated male, which dated back to 2450 BC. The statue, according to the seller, was located in the USA – it sold for $3,726.00 to a buyer who also resided in the United States. The seller informed potential customers that other “rare and extraordinary” items from Iraq have sold for as much as $12,000 in auction.

Other pieces that have been up for grabs online include a 1762 coloured engraved map of Babylonia and Palestine, an 1800 BC old Babylonian clay tablet, a 1800 BC Babylonian Plaque, Sumerian coins dating back to 3000 BC, a 3000 BC Babylonian Turquoise Gem pendant and an Old Babylonian Cuneiform Tablet which dated back to around 2100-2000 BC.

Whilst stealing is even considered to be a crime in democracies as great as Britain and the US, the contradiction here is exacerbated by the failure to follow through on the threat by then US Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking in 2003, that anyone who was either possessing or dealing in stolen artefacts “may be prosecuted under Iraqi law and under the United States National Stolen Property Act”.

The creativity which was used to develop and sustain Iraq’s cultural history is also under attack, as a direct result of the growth of post-invasion religious fundamentalism. In May 2008, the Observer published an article which described how “culture was encouraged under Saddam, but not anymore” and that artists, who have traditionally acted as the conduits in developing Iraqi history into a contemporary form, are also being “cleansed” from Iraq, with “Cinemas, art galleries, theatres, and concert halls being destroyed in grenade and mortar attacks”.

Shortly before her death in 1926, the founder of Iraq’s national museum, Gertrude Bell, gave one last promise to the people of the East and stated, “You may rely upon one thing – I’ll never engage in creating kings again”. Those words were spoken over eighty years ago now, by the woman who was found dead after an over-dose of sleeping tablets and has since been regarded as the “uncrowned queen of Iraq” and “Daughter of the Desert”.

In 2006, one journalist even braved a war zone to visit the British cemetery in Baghdad and the grave of Gertrude Bell, where he was escorted to the graveside and described how “the cemetery gate groaned” on their entrance, and he was lead “along rows of broken tombs”, each damaged by age and war. “‘There she is,’ said Ali Mansur the grave keeper and looking at his guest he then pointed at the name: ‘I take care of her now. But nobody visits!'”

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This post was written by Hussein Al-alak

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