The Plunder of Iraq’s Heritage

The following article is excerpted from IslamOnline

By Aisha El-Awady
4/29/2003

Ziggurat at Ur was one of ancient structures damaged by US bombing of Iraq during the first Gulf War

The US-led war on Iraq has resulted in the looting and destruction of thousands of priceless historical and archeological relics from civilizations that date as far back as 6000 years ago. Paul Zimansky, an archaeologist of the University of Boston, described the loss of such irreplaceable exhibits as "a wide-scale catastrophe."

The extent of damage caused by the bombings and looting is not yet known, but in a country that contains from 10,000 to 100,000 ancient sites, any bombing must have resulted in damage especially since a large number of the country’s relics are found in Mosul, Tikrit, and Nasiriya, which were all sites of heavy bombing during the war.

What’s at stake?

Mesopotamia, the ancient land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, is considered the cradle of Western civilization. This region was the center of the first civilizations, those of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians. These cultures built cities and developed irrigation systems, a legal system, a postal service, a system of writing and also explored sciences such as astronomy and mathematics. In later times, Baghdad also played a role as a center of Islamic learning and civilization.

According to archaeologist McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, "The whole country is an archaeological site. People don't understand that Iraq is more important than Egypt in world heritage."

The bombings and the looting that occurred after the war have caused substantial harm to unique cultural heritage in the form of damage or loss of irreplaceable artifacts, ancient structures and archeological sites.

During the first Gulf War, US bombing of Iraq damaged a number of ancient and historic structures, such as the damage caused by shellfire to the brickwork of the ziggurat at Ur, which was built in 2100 B.C. Ziggurats were temple towers and were the first major building structures of the Sumerians. They were constructed of sun-baked mud bricks and were usually colorfully decorated with glazed fired brick. The ziggurat housed the city-state's patron god.

Other structures destroyed include thousand-year-old bridges in Baghdad, and a 10th century church in Mosul that was partially destroyed. The 13th century Mustansiriya and the Kaplannya Mosque in Baghdad and a 4,500-year-old royal cemetery were also seriously damaged. The extent of damage resulting from the bombings in this recent war on Iraq has yet to be discovered.

Following the war, looters ransacked and set fire to Iraq's National Library, turning to ash priceless books, including Ottoman historical documents. They also raided and burned Iraq's main Islamic Library, which contained Qur’ans from the very early Islamic period.

King Hammurabi's Code of law was among the missing works The looters also destroyed or stole priceless artifacts from the National Museum. Among the works missing are tablets containing the Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest known codes of law. King Hammurabi, who became ruler of Mesopotamia in 1792 B.C., had the code carved upon an eight-foot-high black stone monument. It provided uniformity among the various city-states. Other missing artifacts include a 4,000-year-old copper head of an Akkadian king, golden bowls, bejeweled lyres, colossal statues, and ancient cuneiform tablets containing some of the first examples of written words.

The Anglo-American forces have drawn criticism and worldwide condemnation for their failure to stop and prevent the looting and destruction of Iraq’s cultural heritage.