During the first world war, a British ship carrying antiquities sank near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, after being hit by enemy fire. And, having recently stumbled upon a new avenue of enquiry, Qahtan al-Obeid, the head of Basra’s recently opened Museum of Antiquities intends to find it.
He says he is inspired because of the discovery of a canon from a British warship that dates back to the turn of the 20th century.
“The workers of the company who were excavating for a new suspension bridge here found the cannon. But they tried to hide it,” al-Obeid recalls. “Because they did not want their work to be held up. But just by coincidence, there was a security guard who had worked for us there and he had some awareness about antiques. He contacted us and we took responsibility for getting the cannon – which weighed almost three tonnes – out of a hole that was about five meters deep.”
The Basra police have an antiquities protection unit but they can only really patrol four sites. They have one used car between them.
Now al-Obeid is turning his attention to the ship he believes lost that cannon. British sources suggest that the ship was carrying at least 1,000 ancient Iraqi items, including some of the famous winged bull statues. Some have cast doubt on his treasure hunt but al-Obeid explains that there were two similar incidents that occurred around the same time.
The incident is confirmed by both the British and older Basra locals, he says. “Ships have to slow down at the Tigris because there is a sharp turn,” al-Obeid explains. “There were two English ships coming from the north. The Ottoman army fired at both of them. One was carrying mail and the other was carrying guns and antiquities. If one ship was carrying statues of winged bulls [which are made of stone and very heavy], that means it was the military ship and capable of carrying big loads,” he notes. “Because at the time the ship would also have been carrying eight canons and the cannons didn’t weigh less than three tonnes each.”
In the 1970s, a team of Japanese archaeologists came to the area and deduced that the ship that had gone down in the Qarna district was the one carrying the winged bulls and other antiquities. But al-Obeid now believes it was the mail ship. Since then several other teams have tried to find the mail ship but, even using modern equipment in 2013, nobody has sighted anything more. And al-Obeid now thinks they are looking for the wrong ship in the wrong place. “The military ship that was hit continued on its journey, trying to get to a British area in Muhammara,” he suggests. “So we are going to search further along the river, together with researchers from Basra University and using radar.”
Al-Obeid is a dedicated man and it was painful for him to see how the extremist group known as the Islamic State destroyed ancient Iraqi statues in the northern province of Ninawa.
Qahtan al-Obeid (left) at the museum opening.
He decided to get more seriously involved in the search for the antiquities that were sunk because, as he puts it, he wants to compensate Iraq for its loss of antiquities in some way. He is collaborating with the British Museum, which also helped open the Basra museum he heads, and the library at the University of Newcastle which holds documents about the ships and their cargo.
“If the ship is found our next job will be to determine their age and to figure out where they were going and with whom,” says Abdul Hakim al-Kabi, a professor of history at the University of Basra. “We know the British had a lot of interest in antiquities and we know that one of the English consuls in Basra used to roam the markets, looking to buy antiques at the market at Marbad-Zubair, where locals were selling such things for very little. The British took a lot of important and precious things,” he adds.
In fact, that is something of an understatement. During the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, “the documentation and preservation of the Orient’s past was considered far too important to be entrusted to the locals,” as one writer put it, not to mention that collectors in Europe were willing to pay good money for artefacts of ancient civilisations.
It is hard to know whether the antiquities that were being carried away on the now-sunken ship are in good condition, al-Kabi continues. There is a lot of mud in the Shatt al-Arab and it moves around, he says. “We can only hope that the antiquities have not been greatly damaged because most of them were made of granite or stone and this could have survived in that environment.”
Both al-Obaid and al-Kabi have high hopes for the sunken ship. But in general, al-Obaid says, their work is hindered by a lack of funding. “We are not supported by the provincial or federal governments and we depend on coordination with foreign expeditions and international museums,” he says, noting that his own institution was established with that kind of aid.
There are 165 sites of archaeological importance in Basra but only seven of them are even protected, he continues. “How can we protect the rest from violations, criminals and randomly built housing? The Basra police have established an antiquities protection unit but there are less than 100 members and they can only really patrol four sites. They have one used car between them. We rely on volunteers and civil society groups.”
Al-Obaid has other ambitious projects in mind, as well as his mission to find that sunken ship. He has been working with the University of Manchester exploring Charax Spasinou, a city founded in 324BC by Alexander the Great, which was an important trading port. Al-Obaid says the area was discovered in 2007 after it became more accessible; previously it had been planted with mines during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1990s and some of it was also submerged by marshes.