Saturday, November 17, 2007

Excavations-Cum-Military Installations: Iraq's Occupied Historical Sites

The Iraqi Security Forces, aided by the U.S. military, are starting a construction project beside yet another historic site in Iraq.

This week, after seeing a disheartening collection of photos posted by journalist Jeff Emanuel in late September, archaeologists have been scrambling to figure out what has become of an excavation site for an Abbasid city once populated by Turkish princes in Samarra, where the Iraqi Security Forces began constructing new police barracks in September.

"It is a remarkable documentation, action photos of the work, US officers calmly observing, bulldozers in action flattening an Abbasid palace, details of the barracks being put up," wrote Dr. Alastair Northedge, Professor of Islamic art and archeology at the Sorbonne in Paris and an expert on Samarra's Islamic history, on the IraqCrisis email list. "I don't believe that any other destructive action with regard to antiquities in Iraq during the war has ever been documented in such detail."

Northedge told The Art Newspaper that the new barracks are beside the palace of Sur Isa, which experts believe was constructed by Caliph Al-Mutawakkil sometime between 852 and 853 AD. Northedge also said the new, drab, tan barracks were built over Abbasid houses once home to Turkish princes. Aziz Hamid excavated the houses in the 1960s. "They revealed very interesting stucco relief that lined the walls," wrote Lamia Gailani, a staff member of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, on IraqCrisis.

Northedge lived in a caravan park beside the houses in 1983, doing excavation work for the Iraq State Board of Antiquities. "The event is particularly poignant for me," he wrote.

This June, UNESCO declared Samarra's 9th-century site, littered with ruins of racing tracks, hunting grounds, mosques and palaces of the Abbasid empire, and the 52-meter tall spiral minaret of the Great Mosque of Caliph Al-Mutawakkil, a World Heritage site. Now it is on the list of endangered World Heritage sites. But Christina Dahlman, the Program Specialist for the UNESCO Office for Iraq, told the AN that no staff have visited the area yet because of security concerns. She added that UNESCO wasn't consulted on the construction for the police barracks.

"To our knowledge the [Iraq] State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which manages the site and is UNESCO's main partner in Iraq, was not consulted either," she added.

Dr. John Curtis, director of the Department of Ancient Near East at the British Museum, told me over the phone this summer that the State and Defense Departments have worked with the State Board of Antiquities since the looting of the Iraq Museum in April 2003, mostly to retrieve stolen artifacts and protect archaeological sites. During the days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, John Russell worked through the State Department as Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Culture. In 2004, he helped donate 20 pickup trucks to guards of Iraq's archaeological sites. These days, at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, archaeologist Ismail Hijaraut works as a liaison to the Ministry of Culture.

But Dr. Curtis, who has done extensive work on Middle Eastern history and has worked on preserving Iraq's cultural heritage with the U.S. government and various organizations since 2003, said there is no coordinated program to preserve Iraq's many ancient and Islamic landmarks.

Over the past several years, organizations like the British Museum, the Oriental Institute in Chicago, the British School of Archeology in Iraq, UNESCO, Safe Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE), and Interpol have filled the void with extensive databases documenting looted artifacts, research and consulting on Iraq's heritage and ancient sites, investigations to retrieve artifacts, and more. But since the invasion of 2003, the lack of U.S. support and coordination and Iraq's terrible security concerns have dogged their work.

“We have a very fragmented sort of situation," Curtis said. "What we have to rely on is very, very occasional visits, what we get told by the Iraqi side, or what we can see by satellite photographs."

This summer, Dr. Curtis visited another ancient site-cum-military installation, the Tallil Air Force Base, which surrounds the ancient city of Ur. The air base has a visitors' center built on top of an ancient suburb of the city, called Diqdiqa. On his visit, Curtis did not see much damage to the area, which had never been excavated. But he said the military had dug into the grounds - filled with ancient fragments of pottery and brick - in order to build a foundation and plumbing. Apparently, nobody consulted experts on the construction. “They would certainly have told him, 'Don’t build this,'" Curtis said. "Even the Iraqi guard could’ve told him that.”

His second trip to Iraq since the invasion, this one was short and limited. The day before Dr. Curtis' plane dove from the air safely onto the tarmac, insurgents had blasted 11 mortars onto the base. His security detail refused to take him to the entrance of the base, where the director of the State Board of Antiquities, Abbas al-Hussaini, had been arguing with military personnel for an hour. Hussaini refused to submit to a search, so the military refused his convoy entrance to the base. Without meeting Curtis, Hussaini and his colleagues headed back to Baghdad.

In June, the military sent 40,000 decks of cards to service members in Iraq. They bore images of Iraq's many cultural sites, including Babylon and Ur. "The suits have different themes: diamonds for artefacts, spades for digs, hearts for 'winning hearts and minds' and clubs for heritage preservation," reads a description of the cards by the Assyrian International News Agency. "The seven of clubs carries a picture of the Ctesiphon Arch in Iraq and a caption which asks: 'This site has survived 17 centuries. Will it and others survive you?'"

The cards seem geared as a gesture to raise awareness among troops about Iraqi heritage, in light of the U.S. military's past mistakes - which include the construction of a helicopter pad on the ancient ruins of Babylon and, in 2005, the periodic use of the spiral minaret at the Great Mosque of Caliph Al-Mutawakkil in Samarra as a firing position.

“That’s a gesture, I suppose, to raise the level of awareness of the troops," Curtis said. "But you’d have to ask the troops themselves” about what they think and what they’re doing to preserve Iraqi cultural heritage, he added.

One thing is certain about the state of Iraq's archaeological sites: the Coalition Forces and the Iraq Security Forces will continue to occupy many of them, unimpeded by international law. Northedge, the Paris-based Professor of Islamic art, noted on IraqCrisis that Jeff Emanuel's photos indicate that the U.S. military's Patrol Base Olson sits on the ruins of the Abbasid city in Samarra. Northedge wrote that the military is in the clear: "That point is outside the UNESCO fully protected area."

Photo: Hard at work on the Iraqi police barracks while, in the background, stands the 52-meter tall spiral minaret of the Great Mosque of Caliph Al-Mutawakkil. By Jeff Emanuel.

Special note: a Q & A with Alastair Northedge is forthcoming.

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