Donny George: The archaeologist talks about the loss of artifacts and why he fled his homeland





... With regard to the care of antiquities, how do you compare the Saddam era with the way things are today? Saddam wanted projects to bolster his image, to show that he was a patron of history and antiquities, as were the ancient leaders of Iraq. Now, with the interference of new people who are illiterate about cultural heritage, everything is much more problematic.

... What is the status of the museum today? Is it threatened? About three or four months before I left, we had a mass kidnapping take place in the street outside the museum. A dozen official cars painted in camouflage drove up, full of personnel who were completely armed, equipped, and wearing uniforms. They took 50 people off the street. Shortly after, the interior minister announced that they had nothing to do with the kidnapping. I immediately called my senior staff and asked one simple question: What can we do if these people come to the museum, accuse us of hiding something in our storerooms, and demand to go in? Can we stop them? We agreed there was no stopping them, so we started immediately securing the museum. We put antiquities in the registration rooms and labs into boxes, took them down into the storeroom, and started welding the iron doors. For a day and a half, we welded all the doors leading to the storerooms and to the museum area. And the last thing we did was to build a wall half a meter thick with bricks and concrete at the entrance. The museum was completely sealed. Now, unfortunately, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities wants to reopen the museum just to show the outside world Baghdad is OK and everything is fine. The museum director e-mailed me that she’s under pressure to reopen. Of course it would be ridiculous to do this. [Since this interview, the tourism minister has been forced to resign, along with several other Shiite ministers. The museum remains closed.]

How bad is the looting in southern Iraq? Last year, al-Sadr’s followers attacked and burned the museum of Nasiriyah and its library. They said to the guards—and I know this is true because I spoke with them—“tell [local inspector] Abdul Amir Hamadan we will do to your antiquities exactly what the Taliban did!” In Najaf, al-Sadr’s party was heard to tell worshippers that looting artifacts is ethical so long as the money goes for guns or building mosques. And we have started to have problems in an area in Basra called Zobeir—the original Basra—which was founded by the caliph Omar in A.D. 638. Our inspector says people are building houses on the site, in practice destroying the first Islamic city that was built outside the Arab peninsula. Historically, Omar is considered the enemy of all Shiites. So is it being destroyed intentionally or just neglected? I don’t know. But I’m worried this is exactly what happened to the Samarra mosque and shrine [destroyed in a sectarian bombing in 2006]. This kind of conflict might also lead to huge destruction of Islamic monuments and archaeology. We have an armed force of 1,400 men to patrol the provinces, and we managed to get some cars from the State Department and about 45 cars from Unesco. We concentrated on Nasiriyah because the looting was so bad there and because there are over 700 archaeological sites in the area. Inspector Abdul Amir [Hamadan] and his team did a very good job, patrolling, arresting looters, and sending looted antiquities to the museum. But rich people on the city council with ties to the Islamic parties are agitating for easy access to antiquities. ...




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