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Zainab Mohammed: Is Iraq right to reclaim the Ishtar Gate from Germany?

Roundup: Media's Take




[Zainab Mohammed, Iraqi Archaeologist, NY,
Former Employee- State Board of Antiquities and Heritage/Excavations and Archaeological Protection Department-Baghdad; M.A. Anthropology and Museum Studies]

Having read Michael Kimmelman’s article, “When Ancient Artifacts Become Political Pawns” in the October 23, 2009 edition of the New York Times, I would like to discuss some important issues regarding ownership of Middle Eastern archaeological artifacts.

Although Iraq and Egypt have the moral right to reclaim the various Egyptian and Mesopotamian antiquities and masterpieces currently displayed in some of the world’s largest museums; unfortunately, most of the pieces left their native country legally.

I will talk about Iraq and the antiquities and cultural heritage laws in Iraq prior to 1936. Between 1533 and 1918, Iraq was under Ottoman Empire rule, which had left it open to travelers, excavators, and looters. Later, Iraq became a British colony and, once more, many museum pieces left Iraq following excavations, looting, and illicit trade. Evan after Iraq regained its independence in 1921, the British government retained a good degree of control (nominal independence was only achieved in 1932, when the British Mandate officially ended). The antiquities laws in Iraq between 1921 and 1936 were based on a system of division that awarded half of the finds recovered during excavations by foreign expeditions to the finders and half to the Iraqi government. This explains the massive number of Mesopotamian antiquities in archaeological collections and museums around the world. Since the law gave foreign expeditions the right to half of the pieces they excavated, foreign archaeologists had plenty of opportunities to take more than their share. Many additional artifacts were taken under these circumstances yet this is very hard to prove today.

Archaeological law No. 49 was established in Iraq in 1936. This law allowed foreign expeditions to excavate, document, and publish research on findings made in Iraq, but assigned legal ownership of all items recovered to the Iraqi government.

In his article, Kimmelman states that, "Just the other day, Iraq repeated its demand that Germany return the Gate of Ishtar from the ancient city of Babylon, excavated and shipped to Berlin before World War I.” If Iraq will reclaim the Ishtar Gate from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Iraq could then also reclaim the other parts of the gate; that is, the lions, bulls, and dragons now residing in various museums around the world. The Istanbul Archaeology Museum has lions, dragons, and bulls; the Detroit Institute of Arts houses a dragon, and the Röhsska Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden, has one dragon and one lion. In addition, the Louvre, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Oriental Institute in Chicago, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, each have lions (Wikipedia). Furthermore, Iraq should reclaim all the antiquities that left Iraq before the First World War, many of which are now among the most important pieces in the world’s largest museums; for example, the gigantic Assyrian reliefs and winged bulls of the four Assyrian capitals, and the treasure from the Ur royal cemetery, in addition to thousands upon thousands of other Mesopotamian antiquities. Many archaeological and art museums would be virtually empty if Iraq were to demand the return of its antiquities from them.

As an Iraqi archaeologist, I would love to see the art and artifacts of Mesopotamia returned to Iraq but the law states that the museums where they reside acquired them legally and, when this was not the case, the flawed nature of the laws that were in place allowed items to be acquired illegally under the cover of law. Today, we need to focus on reclaiming those pieces that left Iraq after 1936 when the country’s cultural heritage laws limited ownership of antiquities and archaeological sites within Iraqi borders to the Iraqi government only. The return of all pieces acquired illegally following the American invasion should be pursued. Iraq has the right to reclaim these items and sue the museums that have bought, displayed, and stored the pieces looted from Iraqi museums and archaeological sites since 2003. Although many of the museums holding these items have papers purporting to prove that the pieces were acquired prior to the 1936 change in Iraqi law, in fact, most were systematically looted from Iraqi archaeological sites after 2003.

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