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Iraq War on Ancient Artifacts of Mesopotamia

What's at stake in the Iraq War for lovers of ancient history.

Latest Reports on the Devastation
The 2003 Iraq War & Archaeology

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"Mosul's university library, celebrated for its ancient manuscripts, was sacked, despite appeals from the minarets of the city's mosques for people to stop destroying their own town."

Related Resources
Whose Culture? Should Museums House Artifacts From Other Countries?
Resources on Ancient Mesopotamia - Iraq

From Other Guides
The High Cost of War
Iraq's Archaeological Treasures
Architecture at War in Iraq
War and Morality
Helping the People of Iraq
Maps Iraq

Update: 09/27/09:
Brutal Destruction Of Iraq's Archaeological Sites Continues. This article from the Huffington Post contains a slideshow to drive home visually the ineffable damage that has been done to archaeological sites in Iraq.

Salon's article (www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/03/20/iraq_roundtable/) "Robbing the cradle of civilization, five years later" provides an inside look at the looting that has gone on since the war in Iraq began.

Dateline: 03/25/03

When the Gulf War ended, looters smuggled thousands of artifacts out of Iraq. Many other priceless monuments from thousands of years old civilizations were left lying around to be destroyed carelessly and casually. With the new U.S. - Iraq war, the specter looms of smart bombs hitting thousands upon thousands of archaeological treasure troves. This is such a serious concern that the Pentagon employed a team of archaeologists to mark out the precious spots. Even assuming the team had enough information from earlier trips to the area to map everything, and assuming the Pentagon had enough time to apply the data, there would still be the probability that no matter how smart the bombs, they would occasionally err. But that is not the case, and there are many archaeological sites in Iraq that haven't been explored. There is a real likelihood of massive destruction of six or seven thousand-year-old treasures from the cradle of the world's civilizations -- Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

  • Mesopotamia means the land between the rivers. Hippotamus -- river horse -- contains the same word for river (potam-).
  • The two rivers of Mesopotamia are the Tigris and the Euphrates. The Euphrates is the one on the left (west) in maps and the Tigris is the one closer to Iran.
  • Baghdad is by the Tigris River in the middle of Iraq.
  • Babylon, the capital of Babylonia, was built along the Euphrates.
  • Nippur, an important Babylonian city dedicated to the god Enlil, was located about 100 miles south of Babylon.
  • The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet somewhat north of the modern city of Basra and flow into the Persian Gulf.

Mesopotamian Contributions to Civilization

Archaeologist McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute said, "People don't understand that Iraq is more important than Egypt in world heritage. The whole country is an archaeological site."
• Denver Post 1/26/03 "The cradle of civilization," by Kit Miniclier

Mesopotamia (where Iraq is now) was the source of much of what we take for granted. While the wheel, writing, irrigation, dying, and religion may have developed independently elsewhere, Mesopotamia invented beer and the following trappings of civilization:

  • map of modern Iraq
    Map of Modern Iraq showing the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
    Map courtesy of CIA Sourcebook.
  • Architecture
  • Astronomy
  • Bleaching/dying
  • Calendars
  • City building
  • Cobblestone streets
  • Cultivation of grains
  • Day of 24 hours
  • Domestication of livestock
  • Irrigation, canals, dams
  • Legal system
  • Mathematics based on base 60
  • Measuring and surveying instruments
  • Medical writing
  • Metal working
  • Plows
  • Pottery
  • Religion
  • Urban plumbing
  • Wheeled vehicles
  • Writing (cuneiform)

Postwar Looting

Dan Cruickshank, who visited Iraq with the BBC, calls Iraq "the very crucible of civilisation" with between 10,000 and 100,000 sites filled with relics of the earliest writing, literature, law, and organized religion. After the 1991 Gulf War over 4000 pieces were stolen from museums. Lovers of ancient history should be fearful that the 2003 war will open up the looting floodgates.
• (http://www.artknows.com/%20AK2IraqiHeritage.htm) The BBC in the Garden of Eden "Dan Cruickshank among Nebuchadnezzar's bricks"

President Martti Ahtissaari of Finland visited Iraq just after the Gulf War. He reported to the UN on the damage to cultural sites, which included bombardment or destruction of "(3800) primary, intermediate and secondary schools, (22) institutes and universities, (27) museums, public libraries, cinemas, theatres and art galleries, and (153) mosques, churches, temples and holy shrines."
• (http://www.uruklink.net/iraqinfo/echall06.htm) "Education & Culture in Sanctioned Iraq"

What the U.S. Is Doing to Preserve the Artifacts

In December, the U.S. military knew it had to take steps to preserve the archaeological treasure trove that is Iraq. They set out to locate the approximately 10,000 (some estimate 100,000) sites, some going back 7,000 years, and many of which are unexplored. The area around the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur and the Assyrian city of Ninevah are considered especially important. Archaeologist McGuire Gibson from the University of Chicago and Charles Butterworth of the University of Maryland lead the team that has been passing information to the Pentagon.
• (http://www.riyadhdaily.com.sa) Europe/The Americas Wednesday - 25 December 2002 "US Looking for Ways to Protect Iraqs Priceless Antiquities"

Iraqi Preparations to Protect the Artifacts

Donny George, from Iraq's board of antiquities, which has been sandbagging Baghdad's antiquities museum, said "Everything is a treasure. Our museum is the only place in the whole world that can show you the history of mankind... starting from half a million years ago to the start of the 20th century." The Baghdad museum houses Sumerian statues, Assyrian reliefs, 5,000 year-old cuneiform tablets, and relics from the cemetery at Ur, which had been damaged during the Gulf War.
• Reuters - Iraq shields ancient treasures from high-tech war

According to the March 17 "Times of India," Hameed-Shihab, the head of Kuwait's department of museums and antiquities, said that during the Kuwait invasion, Saddam used ancient artifacts to hide tanks and weapons, and built bunkers near the sites. He thinks Saddam will do so again.
• (From the Tmes of India) Saddam will use historic sites as shields: Kuwaitis

Note From Your Guide

I wrote about the high cost of antiquities because that is what is relevant to an Ancient / Classical History site. Archaeologists and classicists value these treasures far more than most people. Their loss indirectly affects their livelihoods and passions. The cost in human lives is, however, infinitely more serious and important in this or any war. I pray for peace.

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Iraq War on Ancient Artifacts of Mesopotamia
This feature is © 2003 N.S. Gill.
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