Looting of cultural property in Iraq and Afghanistan

In the last installment of this column, I discussed what happens to stolen art, mentioning in passing that the trafficking in antiquities also plays a large part in the illegal art industry. However, the severity and depth of this illicit trade deserves special attention, particularly given current circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan. The trafficking in artifacts and antiquities is a large contributor to what the United Nations, Education, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates to be a $6 billion dollar industry in stolen cultural property.

While Iraq and Afghanistan are better known on this side of the globe as places of violence, suffering, and destruction, they both have some of the highest concentration of archaeological sites in the world including ones from Mesopotamia, Babylon, Sumeria, Assyria, even early Buddhist sites which date back  1,800 years. The wars raging in both countries have all but decimated their cultural sectors and left archaeological sites wide open to plundering.

In his book Stealing History, Roger Atwood, historian, arts journalist and former bureau chief for Reuters in Chile, describes howantiquities pulled from the ground, have no such records, no catalogue numbers or schematic drawings, so its almost impossible to detect their movement through markets or prove that they were plundered.”  This raises the potential that antiquities will be bought unknowingly of their origin and limits their possible contributions to historical discourse.

According to the Iraq Museum database, during April 2003, days after American forces attacked Baghdad, a confirmed 15,000 works were looted from the museum, not to mention countless other libraries and universities in Baghdad. In the opening chapter of his book, the author describes his travels to the ruins of Isin in southern Iraq, shortly after the fall of Saddam: “hundreds of looters had rampaged in, digging up the site for artifacts, destroying the work done by archaeologists over decades, ripping out sackfuls of treasures. This was not at one or two sites, but at dozens of them. The looters were armed with assault rifles and prepared to kill intruders.” The author later mentions that under Saddam Hussein, the preservation and security of ancient sites was so heavily policed that many looters faced execution for their crimes.

The looting of cultural artifacts effectively saps a country of its heritage and prevents future generations from deciphering anything about their past. This kind of theft serves the double function of physically robbing a country of its cultural property while also obliterating the memory of its past.

This past Tuesday, the Museum of Afghanistan unveiled an exhibition showcasing 2,000 artifacts that were stolen from the museum and smuggled to other countries. The artifacts, many of them pre-7th century, were recovered by British customs officials as smugglers attempted to cross the border with them. The museum is ecstatic to have at least some of their collection returned, as they have lost about 70% of their 100,000-piece collection, according to UNESCO. Unfortunately, this is an exception to the prevailing trend where many works, particularly those taken directly from ancient ruins do not return to Afghanistan.

The protection of cultural heritage requires domestic efforts in identifying, preserving and securing antiquities but it also requires the assistance of the international community. The involvement of other countries is essential in stopping stolen artifacts from crossing their borders. “Stopping the illicit trafficking in cultural property can’t be done by one country,” noted Amareswar Galla, chairman of the International Council of Museums task force to Afghanistan in Agence France-Presse. “Two can’t do it. We all have to do it.”

UNESCO has been instrumental in working to address these problems at various levels. According to its progress reports in Afghanistan it has been pushing for better cataloguing, for the government to adopt an integrated cultural heritage policy, and for vulnerable sites such as the Heart, Helamnd, and Ghazni Monuments, all in Afghanistan, to be listed as World Heritage sites. However, given the volatile situation on the ground and the government’s limited resources, many of these efforts have not made a significant difference. The situation in Iraq remains equally stalled save for the reopening of the Kabul Museum last February, and according to Atwood, the protection of a few ancient ruins by combined US and Iraqi forces.

There is no quick and easy solution to the years of destruction that has been done on both these countries’ cultural fabrics. Yet, with the help of the international community, and the eventual cessation of war within both states, one can hope that steps toward restoration can be made.

// Claudia Pedrero

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