Iraqi heroine single-handedly saved hundreds of ancient artifacts from destruction

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Basra Museum, a former Saddam Hussein personal Palace, converted into the cultural hub of Southern Iraq. (Photographer: Ali Khadr)
Basra Museum, a former Saddam Hussein personal Palace, converted into the cultural hub of Southern Iraq. (Photographer: Ali Khadr)

By now, we have all seen the infamous videos and pictures of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, located in Baghdad in 2003, as well as the 2015 destruction and looting of ancient artifacts in Nimrud by ISIS. Unfortunately, the loss of cultural heritage is not a new phenomenon and is something Iraq is all too familiar with. Military campaign after military campaign, the US and allied coalitions have failed to adequately prepare and implement any plans to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage sites. In the midst of these shortfalls, lie the unsung stories of the courageous civilians who protected Iraq’s cultural heritage sites and artifacts.

On a recent visit to Iraq I met with an individual with a harrowing story; a heroine who single-handedly protected hundreds of priceless artifacts from looting and destruction following the 1991 Desert Storm Campaign. Now the Director of the Nasiriya Museum, Iqbal has dedicated her life to protecting these artifacts.

The Nasiriya Museum, located 20km from the historically significant city of Ur in southern Iraq, is the second largest museum in the country after the National Museum, and contains a large collection of Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Abbasid artifacts. The museum, originally opened in 1968, was forced to close in 1991 due to the volatile political and security situation.

With the commencement of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the actions of the US and Coalition allies unleashed waves of archaeological site and museum looting across the south of Iraq. The coalition supported uprisings, by Shi’as in the south and Kurds in the north, against dictator Saddam Hussein, prompted attacks on the most immediate symbol of Saddam; government buildings, including local museums.

Saddam Hussein viewed Iraq’s ancient past as an extension of his own power, even building his own palaces to overlook archaeological sites, as seen in Babylon. As a result, eleven of the thirteen regional museums across the country were ransacked, and more than 4,000 objects were stolen.

Iraq re-purposed Saddam's extravagant personal palace into the Basra Museum which houses hundreds of artifacts and is growing. (Photographer: Ali Khadr)
Iraq re-purposed Saddam’s extravagant personal palace into the Basra Museum which houses hundreds of artifacts and is growing. (Photographer: Ali Khadr)

At the same time, UN and US mandated economic sanctions on Iraq were causing severe unemployment, hunger and poverty, while unattended antiquities in Iraq were fetching record prices in the international black market. Extensive smuggling networks soon developed to move looted artefacts, and well-organised gangs started targeting cultural heritage sites and museums for profit.

The US enforced no-fly-zone limited Iraq’s ability to conduct aerial surveillance, resulting in Iraq’s archaeological sites being largely left unattended. Sanctions prevented foreign archaeologists from accessing and guarding sites and both the US and UK twice vetoed a UNESCO specialist mission to Iraq to assess the situation. The importation of photographic documentation of the thefts and destruction of artifacts was also banned under the sanctions, which meant that it would be years before any real evidence from Iraqi sites and museums could be recorded and disseminated. The sanctions further denied authorities the ability to report thefts to Interpol and other agencies worldwide.

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