A Melbourne academic is leading a very different battle in Iraq: an attempt to restore as much as possible of the country's ransacked cultural heritage.
By
Ron Sutton

Source:
25 Nov 2013 - 7:54 AM  UPDATED 25 Nov 2013 - 7:12 PM

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

It's been more than a decade now since a United States-led force that included Australia moved into Iraq and removed President Saddam Hussein from power in just three weeks.

The ensuing years have been nothing like the peace imagined, a historic land instead engulfed in an unending cycle of violence between its religious and ethnic factions.

But beneath the surface -- often, literally -- another battle has quietly hit Iraq.

And a Melbourne academic is trying to do something about it.

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"There it goes. It has fallen down to the ground. It has come apart. The crowd is ... is ... is going mad, rushing towards it. They've been pelting it with stones ..."

"It" was a 12-metre-high bronze statue of Saddam Hussein, rising above the streets of Baghdad as an unmistakable reminder to the Iraqi people who ruled those streets.

When it was toppled before the world's cameras in 2003, just hours after United States-led forces had toppled the man himself, it symbolised the end of his 34-year reign over Iraq.

But in many ways, it turns out, it signalled the beginning of another Iraqi tragedy: the widespread destruction and looting of one of the greatest national heritages on earth.

Over the next 10 years, the land that was home to ancient Babylon, home to ancient Mesopotamia and what much of the world knows as The Cradle of Civilisation, has been ransacked.

Now, a project led by Melbourne academic Ben Isakhan aims to create the world's first database of those damaged heritage sites and create a path to restore what can be restored.

Dr Isakhan, working with a grant from the Australian Research Council, has enlisted a team of Iraqi and U-S specialists to conduct the sweeping, three-year project.

"The estimation is that there's about half-a-million archaeological sites across Iraq. Those early city-states that arose between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Iraq were, really, the first cities anywhere in the world and, therefore, were the first places to host a whole handful of great human accomplishments, such as sophisticated agriculture and irrigation networks, such as the world's first written language, and such as, you know, a sophisticated economy, and temple structures, and so on and so on. So, it's an incredibly significant part of the world, archaeologically."

And by no means does the historical significance end there.

Alexander The Great conquered ancient Mesopotamia and set up his capital at Babylon.

Various civilisations followed, eventually Islamic civilisations, including the Abassid Caliphate based at Baghdad that ruled the Muslim Empire in the eighth century.

But Dr Isakhan is also pursuing another goal with his project, revealed in its title: Measuring the Destruction of Heritage and Spikes of Violence in Iraq.

He and his team want to find if there is empirical evidence that can establish a clear link between the destruction of heritage sites and increases in the human toll in a conflict.

If they can, Dr Isakhan believes they can make a difference with nations all around the world.

"I think we have high hopes and a lot of potential to influence the standing militaries of nation-states. You can affect policy. So you can argue forcefully and demonstrate via hard empirical data that failure to protect cultural heritage sites will lead to an escalation in violence. If it's commonsense and we're able to demonstrate it, then a military of a contemporary nation-state should, therefore, adopt policies and protocols that make sure that heritage sites are protected during times of conflict, because it's in everybody's best interests. We're not just saving the past, we're saving the present and the future."

The decade of looting across Iraq began the very day after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and his statue in April of 2003.

For the ensuing six days, the looting of the National Museum of Iraq dominated world headlines.

"Museum guards stood by, helpless, as hundreds of looters, many of them armed, broke in. They took sledgehammers to locked glass display cases. They broke into vaults where some of the most valuable items were contained."

From there, the ransacking of the country took off.

There was the Iraq National Library and Archive, where hundreds of thousands of books, documents, manuscripts, photos and maps dated back hundreds, even thousands, of years.

There were art galleries and universities.

And then there were the archaeological sites scattered across the desert, where teams of looters would dig right down to ancient catacombs and take what they could find.

Within the walls of Babylon, the U-S forces even set up camp and did their own damage, without particular intent.

The former inspector of antiquities in the Dhi Qar province that includes key sites in Mesopotamia, Abdulamir Hamdani, says the losses have been devastating.

He tells the story of a day in 2003 when he found the local U-S military commander was a fellow archaeologist and they went to the site of another ancient Mesopotamian city.

They arrived to find hundreds of looters at work, cutting through old walls, damaging old tablets and documents, destroying ceramics and jars they did not want.

"I was about to die. I was crying when I saw these things. For me, it's a big loss, indeed. The looters, they were not only stealing the artefacts, they destroyed the context, they destroyed the walls, they destroyed the buildings. Everything, even the soil, for me, is very valuable. For me, you know, it's something that I lost my soul, I lost my heart. It's easy for you to buy a TV, or a car, or a fancy car, but it's difficult to restore your ... your culture."

Abdulamir Hamdani, hoping to return to his position after he finishes doctoral work at Stony Brook University in the US state of New York, largely blames outsiders for the damage.

But he says they became involved only after the sanctions following the first Gulf War in 1991 left Iraqis desperate enough to start the practice of digging up ancient relics.

"During the economic embargo on people, they didn't have any chance for any financial income. So they had to dig in these sites and take antiquities and sell them for financial aid. And it was at its very worst after 1999, when thousands of looters came to Iraq and they started illegal digging. And that's why the State Board of Antiquities seemed to know things to make salvage excavation at these sites in the south."

In Melbourne, Ben Isakhan suggests, once antiquities are taken from the ground, they instantly lose 90 per cent of their scientific value.

And he says, to fully understand the loss, the short history of archaeological excavation in Iraq and the slow, painstaking pace of archaeological excavation must be understood.

Dr Isakhan says everything archaeologists know about ancient Mesopotamia is based on probably less than half a million objects excavated over a century.

And he suggests what takes archaeologists years to excavate scientifically, in pursuit of context, can take looters days to dig up in pursuit of items for the black market.

"In the time since 2003 that the looting has gone on across Iraq, there would be many times more than those relics that we have that have been unsystematically taken out of the ground. Now that means that, if everything we know is based on less than half a million objects, and let's say two million objects have been taken out of the ground, then four times as much as we know about ancient Mesopotamia we know we don't know."

Dr Isakhan hopes identifying those sites damaged between 2003 and 2011, the years of the U-S-led occupation, can convince the world to help restore them.

That would include the renowned Islamic mosques and shrines hit by bombings over those years as people sought to turn Shiite Muslim against Sunni Muslim and vice versa.

In 2006, the bombing of the Shiites' revered Al-Askari mosque, a stunning, golden-domed mosque from the Abassid era, appeared to trigger an abrupt rise in killings.

Deadly reprisal attacks on other religious, cultural and historic sites followed, and the trusted, independent Iraq Body Count lists soaring death tolls over the next two years.

Research so far in Dr Isakhan's project shows, within the first 24 hours after the Al-Askari bombing, 35 mosques were targeted -- and so were Sunni citizens.

The project will use the Iraq Body Count database in trying to prove the relationship between the targeting of the ethno-religious sites and ensuing spikes in violence.

But even if the long-assumed connection can be proved, Dr Isakhan admits it will be hard to influence militias, sectarian groups and what he calls other bad guys.

"In some cases, their reason for being is to exacerbate precisely the tensions we're talking about and to try and create more conflict. So, it's very difficult to try and influence, for example, al-Qaeda. How would we influence al-Qaeda to think more about protecting heritage sites? Well, that remains a question that's going to be very difficult to address, given that it's a nefarious terrorist organisation. There's not much we can do about that. But what we can do is influence modern military practice of most nation-states and advise them that, particularly in complex ethno-religious states where there's increasing tension between different groups, protecting people is, of course, very important but protecting heritage can actually serve both purposes."

In the shorter term, Abdulamir Hamdani, the former inspector of antiquities in Dhi Qar, hopes the results of the project will convince the world to go to work.

Specifically, he wants them to come to Iraq and start digging -- before the spoils of an ancient land are spoiled forever.