Iraqi Treasures: Theft from Humanity

    In the British Museum

    The danger was obvious. Iraq is the birthplace of civilisation. Ten thousand sites, all of which are of crucial significance for all of humanity, tell the story of the ancient cultures that once thrived between the two rivers. It is an immense wealth of cultural heritage, thousands of years old. For it was here that Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians established and maintained the leading culture of antiquity, from the urban revolution in the fourth millennium BCE down to Alexander the Great, when the centre of power shifted to the Mediterranean region.

    Again, with the spread of Islam in the seventh century CE, Iraq became the centre of the dominant culture for another five hundred years. Its famous capital, Baghdad, governed a region larger than all Europe or even the USA. It attracted an extravagance of material resources, as well as scholars, artists, experts of all kinds from all across the world.

    In Iraq – ancient Mesopotamia – some of the earliest writing was invented, the first wheel, mathematics, astronomy, a society organised on the basis of the division of labour. The patriarch Abraham lived in what is today Iraq, likewise Imam Ali, the founder of Shiite Islam, who was martyred there. His shrine in Najaf attracts millions of pilgrims from across the world. Without doubt, human society can only be explored fully with reference to its primogenesis in the landscape overlaid by modern Iraq.

    Two months before the invasion of March 2003 a small group of experts warned Pentagon officials about the possibility of looting once the shooting war stopped. It had happened wholesale in the chaos after the 1991 Gulf War, and US forces could expect the same this time, the experts said.

    And so it proved. After the sudden fall of Baghdad on 9 April 2003 anarchy reigned. A city with a population of roughly five million was without government, police, courts, traffic lights or offices. The amazingly efficient military strategists had occupied the country but without a plan for its civil control.In this vacuum looting started, slowly at first, but when people noticed that they did not face any opposition it spread like a blaze. Soon systematic, organised looting and arson began. In one district after another all the buildings and offices of the old regime were pillaged. What was not worth taking was destroyed, toppled or scattered. Among those buildings affected were the museums, libraries, archives, galleries and cultural centres. All fifteen universities in Iraq were pillaged, as were all ministries and state departments – all except, most tellingly, the Ministry of Oil, hospitals, national warehouses, larger hotels and banks.

    Many sources tell of frantic efforts to beg the military for help, without success. Even appeals to the command centre, from UN workers to protect their installations, for example, remained unheard.

    Many looters came from the poorer districts of the city. However, at least in some districts, there were also many middle-class people among them. They stole out of poverty, rage, revenge and greed. The loot was often sold on the streets on the same day, sometimes for absurdly low prices. Air conditioners could be had for five dollars. The looters pillaged and destroyed, but did not burn. The arsonists came afterwards, systematically dousing the looted buildings with gasoline, in some cases even with incendiary chemicals, and lighting them ablaze.


    After the conquest of Baghdad in April 2003 the world witnessed, in astonishment and shock, the looting and vandalisation of the National Museum over several days. The US military did not lift a finger to protect it. This museum is the premier repository of Mesopotamian artefacts, holding as it does the largest collection in the world.

    On Tuesday 8 April heavy fighting took place in the direct vicinity of the museum, which lies in the centre of the city and is surrounded by strategically important sites. The civilians stationed to guard the museum fled the area in fear for their lives. After further heavy fighting (the museum was described as a battlefield) the museum grounds fell to the Americans. Most large and identifiable objects were still inside at that point since their transport was rather more difficult; only small objects from the cases had been brought into safe storage.

    The Iraqis who happened to be outside were then incited to help themselves to the museum. An American officer was heard to shout at the crowd, ‘Go in Ali Baba, it’s all yours.’ From Thursday to Saturday (10-12 April) the looting continued unchecked. The looters were sure of themselves, shamelessly carrying objects out of the building. These were the infamous scenes seen around the world: brazen looters grinning as they stole from the museum. The few museum employees who had returned to their posts could do nothing to stop them, although they tried in vain to obtain help from American troops in the area. A few soldiers did appear briefly. They observed the mayhem and departed, saying flatly, ‘this is not our order’.

    Since the looting could not be stopped the museum staff were very concerned that arsonists would, as elsewhere, go to work here and destroy the irreplaceable documentation, excavation reports and library. Two directors of the Antiquities Department made their way to the American command centre in the Palestine Hotel and, after a four-hour wait, were admitted to ask for immediate protection of the museum. The commander promised to send tanks and soldiers immediately. Nothing came until 16 April – days later. One of the directors then managed to borrow a satellite telephone and contact a colleague at the British Museum. This led to the mobilisation of American and British authorities and the stationing of the tanks which have guarded the museum since.

    The damage is immeasurable. Some of the most famous objects in the museum, which had still been in the galleries, are certainly lost. The looters were even able to break open the magazines, in which objects catalogued under roughly a hundred and seventy thousand inventory numbers were stored, and carry off the contents over the span of several days.

    The most valuable pieces, which include the famous gold treasures of the crypts of the Assyrian queens in Nimrud, were stored in the vaults of the central bank. Here, too, the looters had free reign before soldiers finally secured the building. However, the construction of the repository was too solid for people with simple tools to break in.

    In the end, when the Museum was secured, the employees began the weeks-long inventory of damages. They identified roughly fifteen

    thousand stolen pieces. Through the efforts of the Iraqi police, US and Coalition law enforcement and international efforts, some of the stolen artefacts were recovered. Yet the fact remains that, more than eight and a half years after looters sacked Iraq’s National Museum, Iraqi authorities and police forces throughout the world are still searching for thousands of stolen items. These include a handful of the most famous artefacts in history. In all, an estimated ten thousand pieces are still missing.

    It was not a complete loss but it is bad enough. The library was spared, as were many excavation reports and most inventory records. The vandalism was terrible but a catastrophic blaze was avoided. Nothing could be done about the fire-gutted National Library and the loss of five centuries of Ottoman records, as well as works by Picasso and Miró.


    Outside the capital lie some ten thousand sites of incomparable importance to the history of civilisation. Only a fraction of these sites have been properly excavated – most not at all. Yet they are being looted as systematically as was the museum in 2003. Hardly any other nation possesses such a dense archaeological heritage, giving Iraq exceptional historical and cultural depth. This also meant, under the prevailing anarchy, it became an Eldorado for looters.

    The Sumerian heartland in southern Iraq has been hit the hardest. Whole ‘tels’ (ruin mounds), some of them covering several square miles, have vanished or are reduced to pockmarked lunar landscapes. Their names are haunted with history: Adab, Isin, Umma. The digging is wholly due to the frantic activities of looters. Gangs of them, sometimes several hundred strong, have turned up with bulldozers and dump trucks guarded by men with AK47s. In this way one site after another is lost to illegal archaeology.

    Beyond the fact that looting sites for artefacts constitutes theft, the destruction of archaeological contexts results in an irreversible loss of information. Ruins of cities which have survived virtually untouched for five thousand years, and which have now been ransacked, contain precious information of all kinds. Streets and places, city walls, temples, palaces of the rich and hovels of the people, craft business, libraries with literature and administrative archives, art and everyday objects – archaeologists yearn to discover who once lived there and what they created.

    Modern scientific excavation is meticulous. Archaeologists glean all details with delicate precision. They work like detectives. Everything is of significance, including the mud bricks of ruins, rubbish pits, rotten trees. During an excavation of two months in Mesopotamia on average twenty thousand shards and five hundred fragments and small finds are revealed. Between only twenty to fifty complete objects are discovered which would be of interest for the antiques market – less than one percent in comparison to scientifically valuable objects.

    Since only marketable artefacts are retrieved during clandestine operations most other objects are discarded, resulting in a tremendous additional loss of archaeological data. Searching for valuables, looters destroy many cubic metres of a complete site and unique architecture in order to wrest one saleable object for the antiques market. The main body of information, vital for our historical consciousness, is not connected with the object itself but with its context in the ground. This makes precise documentation the most important aspect for archaeologists. Excavation without documentation is like tearing single letters out of a page. Letters without context lose their meaning. Objects from illicit excavations are like these single letters. They might be grand to look at but they have lost their meaning, their real value. A stolen object may be confiscated and returned to the rightful owner but an undocumented site can never been replaced. It is lost forever.


    Illicit excavations in Iraq had been stopped almost completely after independence in 1932. This state of affairs remained until 1991. The Department of Antiquities took great care of the heritage, developing efficient laws and protective measures. The great disaster began during the sanctions which were imposed for thirteen years after the invasion of Kuwait. As a result the population fell into poverty and people began to welcome any kind of additional income. At the same time collecting ancient Near Eastern antiquities became fashionable in rich Western

    countries. The international antiques market discovered the chance to do business with smuggled Iraqi treasures at exorbitant profit margins. Since 2003 the market has been flooded with antiquities and profits are going through the roof.

    The rare artefacts recovered from these sites are merely a grab bag, usually including some cylinder seals, pottery, clay tablets, stone carvings and other small items. The question has to be asked: where is all this material going?

    There is no doubt that without a market for illegally excavated objects there would be no illegal excavations. It is the ever-growing demand for antiquities in a worldwide market that provides the incentive for looting and illegal excavation. Insufficient legislation in some countries continues to guarantee the marketability of these stolen goods. Moreover, the grey and black markets of antiquities are very busy and resourceful. The margin of profit is extremely high, comparable only to drug or human trafficking. A poor Iraqi peasant will get a few dollars for a nice object from an ancient site but when a rich enthusiast of historical artefacts obtains it from an established dealer, or a vaguer source, its financial value is inordinately increased. Also worrying is the fact that the looting of archaeological sites is a major source of terrorist funding – not only in Iraq.

    It is abundantly clear that the Americans and British were not protecting Iraq‘s historic sites. Before the invasion of March 2003 all foreign archaeologists had to leave. Troops were doing nothing to prevent the ‘farming’ of known antiquities. This is in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention that an occupying army should ‘use all means within its power’ to guard the cultural heritage of a defeated state.

    With the ongoing insurgency neither US nor Iraqi forces could justify using even scarce manpower to guard sites in the countryside, thus widespread looting and destruction have proceeded unimpeded for more than eight years. There is still no end in sight as long as overburdened Iraqi security forces remain preoccupied with grave security problems.

    The Iraqi Antiquities Department, which has to carry out the Herculean task of protecting the nation’s cultural heritage under unprecedented circumstances, has only a few teams combing the country. They try their best to salvage and document sites and artefacts. Mostly they collect detritus left by looters. The small force of site guards is no match for heavily armed looters able to shift objects to eager European and American dealers in days. Against such prospects of gigantic profit any number of site guards will inevitably prove futile.

    Only the consistent international prohibition of any kind of trade of looted artefacts from illegal excavations could effectively restrain this devastation. Currently, one could term it, without exaggeration, a war against our shared archaeological heritage, which is resulting in the systematic destruction of the cultural memory of mankind.


    Perhaps one of the saddest stories – one that could serve as a symbol of all the desecrations – is the manner in which American forces converted Nebuchadnezzar‘s great city of Babylon, possibly the most famous city of the ancient world, into a huge camp of a hundred and fifty hectares for two thousand troops. In the process, the two thousand five hundred year- old brick pavement to the Ishtar Gate was smashed by tanks and the gate itself was damaged. The archaeologically rich subsoil was bulldozed to fill sandbags, and large areas covered in compacted gravel for helipads and car parks. Babylon is being rendered archaeologically barren.


    Many people assumed that the March 2003 invasion would at least lead to a more civilised environment; but something else has happened. Authority has collapsed, with the effect that Iraq’s people have been murdered in droves. While Britain and America remain in denial over the anarchy they have created they clearly feel they must deny its devastating side-effects. More than two million refugees now camping in Jordan and Syria are ignored, since life in Iraq is supposed to be ‘better than before’.

    Iraq is a country with a unique legacy. It is also the origin of western civilisation. Its precious treasures and its precious people are being refused all guardianship, all in defiance of international law. Much world heritage is being lost forever.