In southern Iraq, antiquities float on the surface overflowing like oil, inciting the lust of thieves, international smuggling gangs and dealers.
The story began in the era of the former regime, when a number of powerful people starting stealing antiquities either for the decoration of their own homes or to sell on. However, things became more serious following the occupation when archaeological sites of great historical significance were raided by thieves and others were neglected in violation of the sanctity of history.
“The first step of sabotage of the southern Ur and Sumerian antiquities was taken by the former regime through the creation of military sites in the vicinity of these antiquities,” said a professor of archeology at Basra University who preferred to remain anonymous. “Saddam built one of the largest air bases in Iraq [Imam Ali base] in the vicinity of the Ur sites [15 km northwest of Nasiriyah]. There are more than 16 royal cemeteries belonging to the first Sumerian civilization made of mud pottery found in that region, as well as the shrine of the prophet Abraham,” he said.
Before the last War, archeological sites suffered damage following the construction of military facilities. When war began, direct damage occurred as a result of air strikes by coalition troops on Iraqi military sites. Then, following the fall of Saddam’s regime, coalition forces created new military bases on the ruins of the old ones, and bulldozers went everywhere opening new roads. In recent years, archaeological sites have also suffered their share of rockets and mortar shelling by “resistance” groups targeting coalition forces. Ziggurat Ur site, home to the oldest temple in history, is only one such example.
Another “serious fact,” according to a history professor, “is the theft of numerous antiquities of Ziggurat Ur archaeological site, while it was under the protection of Italian and other foreign troops. Looted antiquities are today found in Italian Museums and at Asheville University [in the U.S.A],” he said.
What about other non-military archaeological sites?
According to the professor these sites include areas in southern cities with remnants of the Sumerian civilization that reach out into the Iraqi wetlands. He described these areas as “very important,” but added that “they are open areas away from the eyes of the authorities and neglected in terms of security especially those located between al-Fajr and al-Rifai.”
Thirty-eight year old smuggler, Hashim from Shatrah (45 km north of Nasiriyah), volunteered to take me on a tour across these wetland areas. Hashim who was accompanied by two armed brothers, does not deny that he deals in antiquities but says “it is a way of earning a living.”
The area is evidently rich in ancient sites, but also in myths. Following a one hour drive, a mud fence appeared extending for three kilometers north of al-Fajr. People living in this area say that it is inhabited by evil spirits. The legend tells the story of Yishan, a young girl living in ancient times, who was killed with her lover because she challenged traditions. Sometimes Yishan appears to people and they hear her wails. The mud fence, so the myth goes, is a braid of her hair.I asked Hashim how the antiquities are being smuggled and sold. “People approach us through local dealers we trust in search of antiquities. Some claim they are from the government - state employees tasked with returning antiquities to the Iraqi Museum. We do not, of course, believe them, but we sell them the antiquities and they leave. Other dealers come from Jordan and Iran and they buy the antiquities we collect.”
Regarding prices, Hashim says that “there are lightweight hand-tied black and white statues fifteen centimeters in size which sell for $4000 each and there are pottery utensils and decorated plates each with their own price.”
Hashim clearly lives a comfortable life. He considers his work a decent way of earning money as he is not causing anyone any harm.
The history professor describes the situation as “catastrophic”.
“The history of the ancient world is buried in southern Iraq and it is being looted. It is being vandalized by big and small saboteurs while government officials and UN organizations watch,” he said.
State negligence is not limited to this, the professor added. “Some very important archaeological sites on the southern bank of the Euphrates, dating back to 2500 years B.C, have been affected by high water levels.”
In search of answers to the violations against Iraqi antiquities and the role of the government in addressing the problem, I met one well-informed official from Basra’s antiquities inspectorate. “Our role is very limited as we have not received any financial allocations from the government this year. We are pressured and harassment by political parties participating in the government to facilitate smuggling operations,” said the official, preferring to remain anonymous.
“In 2005, for example, a group of smugglers were arrested on the Iraqi-Iranian border check point in Basra… they were carrying a quantity of antiquities painted to look like locally produced tourist items,” he said. “We received orders from security authorities to send an expert to examine the items, but minutes later we received another order from the same security authority telling us that they were fake items sold in the market as gift items. No one dared say a word,” he added.
Most of the smuggled antiquities come from Nasiriyah, according to the source. They cross the east and west borders to reach other countries. As for the fate of antiquities seized at border-points, the source said: “Sometimes intelligence security forces and customs police arrest smugglers but we know nothing about the fate of the confiscated antiquities. Security authorities do not return them to us.”
Feelings of frustration were apparent when the official told me that the government has appointed only two guards to protect archaeological sites in the whole of Basra governorate.