Iraq heritage, a victim of the US invasion
By Carles Grau Sivera
Baghdad, Mar 21 (EFE).- After United States-led forces captured Baghdad in April 2003, many artifacts dating back to ancient Mesopotamia were looted from the Iraqi National Museum and authorities in the country are now working to retrieve the relics.
More than 13,000 pieces were plundered in just six days by criminal gangs and looters who broke into the museum after US forces failed to protect the institution despite repeated warnings from international cultural organizations.
“US troops did not consider including a protection process for the museum,” Hakim al-Shammari, media spokesman for the antiquities and heritage authority at the ministry of culture, says.
According to al-Shammari, the US-led international coalition placed a tank at the institution’s entrance after it had already been ransacked and “it was already too late.”
A VOID IN IRAQ’s HISTORY
“The situation in Iraq in 2003, like in other armed conflicts, threatened cultural heritage as a whole. Periods of instability affect the surveillance of archaeological sites and museums, making them even more sensitive to illicit excavations and thefts,” Krista Pikkat, UNESCO director for culture and emergencies, tells Efe.
Pikkat explained how in the early days of the conflict, the UN agency expanded the scope of its interventions by sending field missions, setting up international coordination meetings and calling an emergency meeting of antiquities specialists to address the looting.
Iraqi authorities also called on the international community to repatriate stolen artifacts, which was a relatively successful move.
So far, according to al-Shammari, the museum has managed to retrieve around 4,000 artifacts that had been lost to looters, who took advantage of the chaos that followed the invasion.
Among the most famous items that were brought back is the sacred Warka Vase, an alabaster jar that was carved between 3,300 and 3,100 BC during the ancient Mesopotamian civilization, and a copper statue of
Bassetki dating back to the Akkadian Empire (2334 BC – 2154 BC).
But there are another 10,000 artifacts that are still unaccounted for as a result of the “dark period of Iraqi heritage loss,” one of the toughest that Iraq has endured along with the years of cultural property destruction carried out by the Islamic State terror group between 2014 and 2017.
The museum remained shut down for long periods after the invasion due to instability and fighting, as well as renovations. In 2015, it reopened to the public but was forced to close again until mid-2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
RECOVERING IRAQI HERITAGE
In 2021, the United States returned one of Iraq’s oldest literary works in human history – the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a priceless millennium-old artifact – along with 17,000 other objects that were taken before, during, and after the invasion.
Many old Mesopotamian objects, however, are still in the hands of private collectors and auction houses such as Live Auctioneers and Sotheby’s, where Iraqi treasures can be purchased online for as low as a few hundred dollars.
This is due to decades of theft that have had a direct impact on the global art market which has been flooded with Mesopotamian art.
“We suffer a lot when we hear that there is an artifact sold at auction … since they represent not only the history of Iraq, but that of all humanity,” says al-Shammari.
Iraqis have always found pride and a sense of identity in the Mesopotamian civilization and even during the Saddam Hussein dictatorship (1979-2003) those caught stealing artifacts faced the death penalty.